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The wild animal Other

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Dec. 26th, 2016 | 02:46 pm

The following is from Marcus Baynes-Rock's Among the Bone-Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar, pp. 27-29. The author describes how he observes (for the second time) a butcher feeding hyenas, and speaks to the man about this:

Waking up in the middle of the night, I left the hotel and went to the playing field where I'd seen the food being thrown to hyenas from the butcher shop. When I arrived, the butcher shop had not yet opened, but staring into the darkness I could discern the shapes of a couple of hyenas lying in the middle of the common. I sat on a stone slab and watched as dogs sniffed around looking for scraps. The dogs were taking care to not come too close to the hyenas. Not long after I arrived, I heard a chorus of barking behind me and turned to see some dogs running out of the way of a procession of six hyenas who had arrived via a side road. At the entrance ot the field the leading hyena stopped, turned to watch the other hyenas coming in, and then followed the last of the group, as if checking to see that everyone had followed. [...] At about 3:30 A.M., a truck arrived at the butcher shop and the door opened. The hyenas and dogs crowded around the shop while a butcher emerged from inside to take delivery of the beef, mutton and goat on the bone. After passing the goods to his apprentice inside, the butcher emerged with some fatty strips that he held out for the hyenas, who were waiting expectantly.

The butcher's name was Sisay Gadissa, an Oromo man originally from west of the Rift. He was tubby, with a broad, gleaming smile, and was remarkably jovial considering the hour. SIsay spoke enough English to be able to tell me about the hyenas, saying he'd been feeding them in front of his shop for four years. When I asked him why, he said, "I love animals. All animals." Still, he seemed to favor the hyenas over the dogs and cats. Or maybe it was simply that the dogs and cats didn't have the nerve to stand in front of the hyenas. I asked if Sisay had names for the hyenas. "Oh yes," he replied. "There's Bajaj and Gooncha. Bajaj has three legs." A broad smile briefly pushed aside his chubby cheeks. "He comes here, but today he's absent." As we talked, hyenas gathered around expectantly. Sisay went back inside and came out with a handful of scraps, which he let go of only as the hyenas took them.

This is a fascinating little story in a book that's (so far) full of fascinating stories, but what stood out to me was the part that followed, where the author asks the salient question: why?

Yes, a person can love animals, and yes, a person can want to feed them. But why not just leave a pile of food at the other side of the common for the hyenas to eat undisturbed? I didn't ask that question of Sisay, because the answer is at once too obvious and too elusive. It's not enough just knowing that they're out there. We want them to come to us and acknowledge our presence in the world as fellow creatures, but we don't know why. For some reason, we crave these creatures' validation and acceptance, grounded in their close presence. With regard to animals, the word love is often interchangable with the word need.

The ecologist and philosopher Paul Shepard grappled with this issue. He was interested in the importance of animals to normal human development and psychological health. According to Shepard, pets, domesticates, and zoo animals are psychological band-aids for urbanites who crave the mystical presence of wild Others in their brick and lawn landscapes. The principle of phylogenetic probity holds that the healthy development of an organ is best assured under the circumstances in which that organ evolved. Consequently, normal human development is retarded in urbanized humans who are far removed from the Paleolithic landscape that teemed with wild animal Others. According to Shepard, Homo industrialis is trapped in a perpetual adolescence, "subjected to the myths of the animal/machine, heroes of progress and domination and the dualisms of ideology." Hence we reach out to wild animals, wanting to draw them closer. We chase them about in boats, hike for hours in forested mountains, point cameras at them from tour vehicles for a price equal to the daily wages of an entire village, and hold out strips of food to draw them ever closer—to their peril. All in the name of filling an intangible psychological hole that emerges out of a lifeway that both facilitates and necessitates these kinds of practices. The playing field was a drab, dusty bowl amid tin and mud-brick suburbs, littered with the refuse of modernity and resounding with the chug of diesel engines. Is it any wonder that an eighty-kilogram predator amid all that should draw a man from his occupation?

I think both Baynes-Rock and Shepard have got an excellent point there: we, as modern humans, live in ways that are completely contrary to our nature, and in environments that are completely unnatural to us. This isn't necessarily as bad as it may sound, but consider that the human psyche has evolved to ensure survival in a rather different environment. And we are not only equipped to survive on the African savannah, we in fact need it, certain aspects of it anyway, to remain healthy. Throw us into unnatural situations, and we'll find ways to make them resemble what's more natural to us — more familiar.

I couldn't help but think of the furry fandom when I read this passage, either. Why animals, after all? Why not (say) robots? There's never (to my knowledge) been a real clunky fandom, and most people I know, even those who're fascinated by robots, don't seem to connect to them the way they do to animals. Animals simply touch us, by virtue of always having been an integral part (for better or worse) of human life and the environment we found ourselves in.

Furries sometimes like to point to things like the Egyptian pantheon, shamanism, fables etc. as proof that furries are older than late 20th century US-American comic book fandom. Others counter that none of those who came before would've considered themselves furries. I contend that both those viewpoints are both right and wrong: furry fandom, like that which came before, is simply another expression of the psychological need for the animal "other" that Shepard identifies. Ancient Egyptians, for all their lack of modern science and technology, did not live in accordance with their human nature anymore than we do. It's no surprise that they, too, felt the need to find again the animals that they had lost.

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moonhare

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from: mondhasen
date: Dec. 27th, 2016 11:52 am (UTC)
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Others counter that none of those who came before would've considered themselves furries.

*snicker* I've read definitions of furry since I was brought to the "fandom." It's a debatable point, "what is furry?", and I just nod and try to keep silent about how I perceive It.

symphonic_rp used to bring up the point in her journal, and always had wonderful examples from comics and writings. Others here were never so vocal, which is good or bad, eh? Most of my furry friends seem to write about a home life, an existence, which doesn't touch upon that which touches my own furry depths. heh, as time goes on I wonder what the attraction was as well....

But, I won't even try to delve into my furry depths, now. I am as I am, and wonder at times why I thought there was something larger around me. Another good friend once called the fandom a kink d'jour, though he was actually pointing that comment at those who arrive, gush, and then fade away, and in particular, the plushophiles. It fits all fandoms I guess (thinking now of MLP).

I used to think of this as the Peter Pan loop- not wanting to grow up while all my friends got bored and moved on. But I keep on. And I try to maintain something 'furry' in each post.

I wonder how Mr. Shepard himself would approach "furry"?

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Schneelocke

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from: schnee
date: Dec. 27th, 2016 12:05 pm (UTC)
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It's a good question, yes. But without wanting to get too hung-up on details, I personally use the term to refer to the modern furry fandom.

Not every show of interest in any animal by any human being at any time in history ever constitutes "furry" — that's what I'm trying to say here. The Egyptians, for all their interest in animals, weren't furries. The people in Harare interacting with hyenas aren't furries. (Well, not purely by virtue of that anyway.)

Self-identification also plays a role, though it's not perfect. Some people may not consider themselves furries even though they plainly are by the Duck Test: if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it IS a duck.

People can also conceivably describe themselves as furries without being considered to be by others. I remember a group of obscure artists trying to appropriate the word in the early naughties; they seemed genuine, but remained insular, didn't interact with the mainstream furry fandom, took no interest in anthropomorphic characters, art etc., and instead seemed to think that "furry" meant "romping around cutely in open-faced animal costumes". They never "got it", as it were, and disappeared again as quickly as they'd popped up.

Personally I think that both an interest in anthropomorphic animals and a connection, however tenuous, with the mainstream furry fandom must exist. Bronies aren't furries (at least not by virtue of being bronies), for instance. Ancient Egyptians weren't. And "fandom fans" who enjoy the atmosphere of conventions, even specifically furry conventions, but take little interest in the material as such aren't automatically furries either.

But yes, it's a question that lends itself rather well to being debated at length. :) Maybe I'll pop over some day with a few bottles of Merlot, and we can spend an evening exploring the subject. ^^

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moonhare

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from: mondhasen
date: Dec. 28th, 2016 12:47 pm (UTC)
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*snicker* I recall many a late night conversation, the existence of them at least, but not all the points discussed, concerning Furry, back when I first found Yiffnet through one SnowyDog whom I had met in the IRC chatrooms. Aside from so many of the furs there wanting to, well, *yiffity yiff*, there were many who, like myself, were drawn there because there seemed to be a beckoning call among awakening souls that something existed...

The short of it was that I knew what Furry was then, and what it meant to be Furry and what was encompassed by Furry. It's a blur, now, as each sub-group that was then forming, evolving, if I may say, has taken a lead in defining the overall image.

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Schneelocke

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from: schnee
date: Dec. 28th, 2016 01:19 pm (UTC)
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I know what you mean, yeah. When I first got into furry I actually found it easier to define it, too — which is funny, because back then it was sort of a running theme (at the early EFs, say) that "furry" defied description, or that at the very least you couldn't say what made or didn't make a person "a furry".

Back then I always maintained that it was the interest in animals, specifically anthropomorphic animals, and I probably would've counted the ancient Egyptians and other such folks. Today I know that I was wrong. :)

But jokes aside there was also a strong distinction back then between "furry fans" and "furry lifestylers", with the latter regarding the latter with a mixture of disdain and envy, both for their rather more light-hearted approach to the subject. Quite a few people also seemed to consider being a "lifestyler" as a badge of honor of sorts — being more serious about furry provided a sense of value or identity that they otherwise lacked, perhaps.

In fact I'd say the quest for identity was central for a lot of people — the "lifestylers", that is, not the "fans" who were content to merely enjoy the art, the comic books and 'zines (remember when furry fandom used to be centered on those?), and so on.

There was also some overlap between the furry lifestylers and the therians, quite a few of which looked down on the furry fandom as a whole (even those who were themselves part of it). I sometimes thought that therians were "level 2 furry lifestylers", if you will — taking things even more serious, looking down on those who didn't things as serious even more, and envying them their light-heartedness even more.

I certainly don't want to include all "lifestylers" or therians there, BTW, just those who carried these identities as shining beacons wherever they went. Evangelicals, you might call them — restless souls, not the quieter ones who merely had their views and did not begrudge others their own.

Perhaps this is another aspect of the whole "wild animal Other" business, too. We're seeking that which we're evolutionarily equipped to deal with and which we can't live without in much the same way a fish can't live without water, of course. We're also seeking meaning. But we're also seeking identity, and we find that in interactions with those who're different: not so different we cannot relate, or meaningfully interact, but more different than other human beings. Animals, at least highly-developed and intelligent animals like hyenas, fit the bill perfectly.

BTW, I'm further into the book now, and it's really quite fascinating; if you can get your local library to acquire a copy, or if you can get it on ILL, I highly recommend it.

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