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Shaun Tan: ‘There is evil in obliviousness. The more I learned about how we treat animals, the more depressing it got.’

Shaun Tan: We are amazed at ourselves too much. Some humans are uncomfortable with the idea that animals are cleverer than us, because we are supposed to be their intellectual superiors.

SIAN CAIN: Shaun Tan has been watching as the owls and possums in Melbourne’s suburbs have become more brazen, and feels troubled by it. For the last few years, he has been picking apart humanity’s complicated relationship with animals while writing and painting his book Tales from the Inner City… Tan is perhaps most renowned as an artist, for the detailed pencil masterpieces seen in his wordless book The Arrival and his odd, bulbous inventions in The Lost Thing, the film adaptation of which won him an Academy award…

Explaining how Tales came to exist, he says: “I told my publisher, ‘Look here. This is a book. It’s finished. Do you want it or not?’” Fortunately, they said yes… As Tan read more and more on food production and animal intelligence, he noticed Tales was becoming steadily darker. “The more I researched each animal, and the more I learned about how we treat them, the more depressing it got. Our relationship with nature is completely dysfunctional,” he says. The best description he can give is that it is “spiritually wrong”.

“It is hard to say if that is a consequence of contemporary life or if it has been [there] since we started picking up tools and cracking bones open, but the post-industrial relationship with animals is way more troubled than it’s ever been,” he says. “When I look at indigenous societies, the relationship [with animals] still feels complicated, but it is far more respectful. Even when slaughtering and eating them, they display a level of respect that we don’t show to animals in our society. We’re not being mean to animals – but there is evil in obliviousness”…

The problem, he feels, is that humans are chauvinists. Why else, he asks, do we privilege animals that can do things we can do, and ignore other forms of intelligence that we don’t have? He talks about a 2007 experiment where, after showing that chimps had better short-term memory than humans in a public demonstration, the lead researcher anticipated that some would dismiss the animals as “super-chimps”, adding: “Some humans are uncomfortable with the idea that beasts are cleverer than us, because we are supposed to be their intellectual superiors.”

“We are amazed at ourselves too much,” says Tan. “We bestow value on animals because we see ourselves in them. Dolphins, dogs, horses, pigs – we admire them in a narcissistic way. And our thought processes are deeply unfair and contradictory. We’ll eat a pig but pat a dog – that is very hard to rationalise”…

His story about bears encapsulates both the humour and horror in Tan’s voice. After a class action (Ursidae v Homo sapiens) is filed, humanity finds out that its legal system isn’t the only one: “There are as many systems as there are species … Human Law isn’t even very high on this hierarchy (apparently we are just below Walrus Law) and Bear Law actually takes precedence in most cases”… The bears asked us to relinquish our hold on all that never belonged to us in the first place.” Just look to human history for the outcome – it doesn’t end well for the bears.

Tan wrote the story after learning about animal law, an emerging field that recognises the rights of nonhuman animals and the environment. “There is a constant tension in human society between rationality and reality, that the same rules should apply to all people, and the fact that a lot of our systems become an instrument to carrying out someone’s will. The bear story is not that crazy. We have trouble tolerating our own kind; how on earth would we deal with other intelligent species?…

Writing Tales initially made Tan a vegetarian, but he winces when I ask if he’s stuck to it. “When I won the Kate Greenaway, I wondered if people would ask … Lockdown has made it a bit harder. This is a problem with the human condition: we find it harder to function at the level we would like to when there is so much going on. Even going to the supermarket and seeing empty shelves – I bet very few people decided to embark on their vegan adventure now. It is difficult to be the best person you can in these circumstances. But there are a bigger set of philosophical questions that I haven’t dealt with, and I think if I did, I’d come to the conclusion that veganism is the most logical thing to be doing at this point in history”.  SOURCE…


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