I’ve often wondered whether people who live their entire lives in places with really fantastic National-Geographic-esque animals still get excited when they see them. Are elephants still cool if you live in Kenya? And are squirrel monkeys equally entertaining for Amazonians as they are for me, or are they just like, well, squirrels?
For their part, the Huaoranis still seem pretty excited about the Amazon’s animal life, to the extent that their monkey-related-enthusiasm rivals my own. There were times during my trip that it seemed as if we talked about little except for animals: our entire day’s journey was filled with observations of animals, mimicry of their calls, discussion of their ways of living. When Bartolo’s father offered to tell me some “Huaorani stories,” every single one was a tale of the forest’s animal denizens. For the Huaorani—just as for me—the wildlife of the Amazon seemed to be inexhaustible sources of entertainment, wonder, and interest.
This appreciation for animals, though, is a bit hard to reconcile with some of the incidences of incredibly wanton animal cruelty I witnessed during my time in Huaorani territory. One evening one of the wives of the guides was fishing with chilapa eggs, and chucked her catches onto the beach. Not content to let the fish asphyxiate in peace, though, her kids came up and started playing with them; chucking them around, knocking them against each other, poking them with sticks. When Mom finally finished, she started flaying the fish, still wriggling. I wanted to say something—“Just cut it’s head off, please”—but instead I retired to my tent. We researchers can’t be culturally insensitive, right? (Even when we’re studying social justice—oh the irony!)
The next day, we were motoring along when Bartolo announced that he had seen a sting ray, and insisted that I take a photo with it. When I saw him grab a spear, I knew that this interaction was going to end poorly, but I once again failed to stop him. A few seconds later, he had skewered the ray and lifted it into the air, a huge smile on his face. I snapped the obligatory photo and sank back into the boat, feeling read to vomit. Bartolo threw the ray back in, but with a laugh, said that it would die because it couldn’t swim anymore. Coming from the culture that invented factory farms, I realize I am in little place to judge. Nonetheless, I’m almost glad that we westerners at least hide our cruelty behind slaughterhouse walls; otherwise, I’m not sure I could get out of bed in the morning.
For those of you who don’t believe that fish can feel pain, I should throw out there that the mammals of the forest don’t fare much better with the Huaorani. Somewhat to my surprise, the Huaorani villages we visited are teeming with dogs. Always looking to make friends, I approached a few, only to have them shy away. I quickly saw why: they are the constant objects of kicks, and targets for rocks and trash thrown by everyone, from children to adults. For the best, I suppose, that I couldn’t touch them; I would have only felt their ribs, and realized that they are not only abused, they are starving. Dogs are only one of a huge number of pets the Huaorani keep around. Among those that I saw around Bartolo’s house was a juvenile squirrel monkey, which was tethered to a pole by a string, wrapped around its stomach, no more than two or three inches long. For the entire time I watched it, it was spinning crazily around, struggling to free itself: the result was a bloody belly stripped of its hair.
And there is the contradiction: the Huaoranis—who spend all day talking about animals, smile the second they spot a bird flying above, and keep monkeys around just for the company—are also the authors of this unmitigated cruelty. For the Huaorani, there is a huge gulf between appreciating animals and actually respecting them, just as with the “animal lovers” of my own country who donate to the Humane Society and eat battery cage eggs. This leads me to think that the dominant strategy of the animal rights movement—that by rendering animal suffering visible, we will convince people to change their behaviors—is a bit silly. In the Third World, animals suffer in full view, and people are entirely indifferent. Creating an animal ethic is a project that is much, much more complex than simply generating sympathy and awareness.
Of course, there is no better place than the Amazon to be reminded that animals eat other animals, and that even bothering to write this post—my third about animal ethics while here in Ecuador—confirms me as one of those “crazy animal people.” There is nothing more natural, I suppose, than humans contributing to a grisly end of other sentient beings.
But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.