Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Life of Pi / Yann Martel

4 out of 5 stars
Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

How many times have you heard the saying Stranger than fiction?  I’ve been known to look back at an event and declare that it would be unbelievable as fiction—that no one would deem it credible.  Life of Pi presents an extremely unlikely series of events, but they are strung together in a way that allows the reader to suspend their disbelief and continue on to see what happens.

I found the combination of zoology and theology to be very interesting.  If you are a militant atheist or an easily offended agnostic, this is not your book.  Although the book claims that it will make you believe in God, I found that to be a large exaggeration—instead it made me think about the status of the “Animal lover” in our society.

If you ask anyone, who will tell you that they don’t love animals?  Even serial killers, who often begin their trade with animals, know enough to feign warm & fuzzy feelings for cats or dogs—they know that they will stand out from normal people like a sore thumb if they admit that they really don’t care about animals (or people).  But not all animal lovers are the same.  It’s like Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, etc. 

There are Pet Owners, who are daft about cats or dogs or rabbits.  Pet ownership is often a gate way to becoming a member of an SPCA and becoming a member of a civilian “police” force, checking up on pet shops, volunteering at animal shelters, and leaving notes on car windshields where dogs have been left inside. 

Then there are Breeders—people who raise animals for a living.  They raise cattle, horses, dogs, cats, or rabbits.  Any species where money can be made and they often inbreed their animals to try to create offspring that conform to an ideal notion of what the breed should look like.  Think Thoroughbred horses, bred to run, or Pug dogs, which now have eye issues and breathing problems because they have been chosen for particular facial conformation.  Which is not to say that these people don’t love their animals—they clearly do care about them, value them, and take very good care of them.

Farmers are a subset of Breeders—they raise animals for various purposes.  Cattle become beef, pigs become pork, chickens produce eggs and meat, and farmers provide the food that the vast majority of us cannot raise ourselves.  Although the animals may be a business, the farmer is not an uncaring person.  Animal well-being is necessary down on the farm as well—unhealthy animals cannot be sold, certainly, but no one likes to see suffering in beings that they are responsible for.  Having grown up on a farm, I can tell you that we did make an effort to not get too attached to those animals which had been selected for future consumption.  It was much safer to become “friends” with animals which would either have long lives or would be sold and slaughtered somewhere else.  Having said that, our food animals often had names and my mother would sometimes tell us, “This is Pumpkin, isn’t he delicious?”  Although we cared about our animals, we weren’t sentimental about them.  Their purpose was to be food and we stayed very aware of that.

Many of those of us with farm upbringing also feel strongly about wild animals.  I remember seeing deer, coyotes, foxes, and even, once, a lynx from my bedroom window.  Most farm people are aware of the birds on their property, hearing frogs peeping from the ponds, and the progression of the seasons. 

Some of us even join the ranks of the Wildlife Warriors, those who advocate for wild animals and wild spaces.  These folks range from the mild (signing petitions, writing to politicians) to the extreme (Green Peace volunteers on ships harassing Japanese whalers).  I started in the mild category and I remember having discussions with my father, who believed that animals were secondary to humans.  As long as there were humans in need, he couldn’t understand worrying about endangered animals.  I didn’t believe it was an either/or situation—why couldn’t we help people AND try to save species?  I told him we needed both kinds of people, concerned about both issues.  I still see it that way, incidentally. 

Then there are the Animal Rights Advocates, those who believe that animals should be granted all the rights that we as humans claim.  According to them, we should all be vegan, we shouldn’t keep animals as slaves (i.e. pets), and we shouldn’t confine animals in any way.  Some of them also seem to feel that hurting people is okay, but hurting animals is evil.  I’ve attempted to be vegetarian several times (it is still an ideal that I aspire to for environmental reasons).  My experience of pet ownership is that of the owner as slave, filling bowls, cleaning up the furry dust bunnies, and scooping poop. 

I should also come clean at this point and tell you that I was a docent (education volunteer) at our city’s zoo for 17 years.  It felt like the job that I had been preparing for all of my life—my experience with livestock as a child, my fascination with wild animals, my concern for endangered species, all these factors made me an enthusiastic educator.  I appreciated our zoo’s programs for funding research and conservation work in Canada and elsewhere and for breeding endangered animals for potential return to the wild.  In fact, some of the Whooping Cranes that I helped to raise and some of the Vancouver Island Marmots born at our zoo have been returned to the wild to augment diminishing wild populations.  I know there are a lot of zoo haters out there, but I don’t know any of them who are actually doing things to truly help wild animals.  They seem solely focussed on shutting down zoos, not on solving the problems that zoos recognize. 

It seems to me that many of these positions are “religious” in nature—we have chosen our position and we stick to it and denounce the other religions.  You would think that all “animal lovers” would be able to work together for the benefit of all.  Instead, we are engaged in interdenominational warfare.  For example, our city’s zoo was affected by a major flooding event in 2013.  During the height of the waters, an animal rights advocate decided it was the perfect time to go to the zoo and to release the animals.  He was shocked to discover an army of zoo employees, busily saving animals under harrowing circumstances, who saw him off the premises.  Apparently, zoo keepers in his mind were uncaring, callous people who would simply leave their charges to sink or swim. 

We all care about animals, but we are as separate as Protestants and Catholics, as Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as Israelis and Arabs.  This week in Spain, people got very worked up—not over the fact that a Spanish nurse had contracted Ebola, but because her dog was euthanized as a precaution.  Thousands of people have died in Africa, but the death of one dog finally got people to care about Ebola.  I’m still not sure that they care about the people in Africa.

Perhaps this is why I love the writings of Kurt Vonnegut so much—babies, we just have to be kind!  To each other, to other beings, and to the planet.  Let’s put aside our dogma and work together.

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