What is holding us… (back)

By John Carbonaro
[The opinions expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect the position of ARAUNY.]

In the 1950’s Dr. Harry Harlow conducted psychological experiments on baby rhesus monkeys to research the effects of maternal deprivation on attachment and growth. He created wire “mothers” capable of dispensing milk, and mothers made of cloth which provided no food. The babies preferred the cloth mother over the wire one as it formed the basis for comfort, safety, and exploratory confidence. The details of the work are heart-breaking to say the least, noting the prolonged suffering the animals were put through. I think that it is a useful metaphor to understanding our relationships and treatment of most animals.

The full metal mother represents factory farming. Cold, non-comforting, no security or a place to meet any basic need.The babies are separated early on from their mothers.They live their shortened lives in isolation.  Mechanical needs are met with mechanical provisions.

The second represents a welfare measure or humane farming. It provides a menial amount of tactile comfort, and only because there is nothing else in the environment and because of the state of the animal– scared, bored, and lonely. It is not enough to help the animal thrive, who needs socializing, stress-free environments, surroundings that match their needs, and actual space. But the goal isn’t really to help them thrive, but to get them to grow or produce whatever “product” they are intended for.

The third scenario isn’t in this picture. That’s because the animal is with its parent, out in the wild as it should be. And no, that isn’t an excuse to raise commodified animals on small homestead farms only to be used or killed to profit us humans.

It is the second setup that I think sums up our own attachment dynamic. The mother represents the belief that animals are ours to use, and we find just enough comfort through welfare measures to cling to this pattern. However it does not provide enough for us to actually thrive and become separate, actualized beings. In this dependency state, we cannot see animals as the separate beings that they are as well.
Of course, we are driven to cling to these comforting beliefs due to a series of events. Beginning with the surrounding environment (meaning society and our parents), positive experiences foster these attachments. On the surface, cheerful farm book depictions (images that still adorn most animal product packaging), adorable stuffed animals, and nurturing experiences around the dinner table build our social identity. Below this surface animal agriculture enslaves and exploits the labor and lives of animals whose needs and experiences are not unlike our own in the most essential ways.

As people become aware of the lives and deaths of animals, the potential for distress, grief, and questioning threaten the very surface and scaffolding that has been constructed from both within and without the individual. Interestingly, we thought we were living our lives akin to the “third scenario”: free roaming, full life cycles of animals reinforced by the cornerstones of “Normal”, “Natural” and “Necessary”. When the occasional video of farmed animal abuse, as well as health and environmental concerns, threaten to destabilize the presumed balance of this simulation (and that’s what it is), we are momentarily vulnerable to seeing the calculated and constructed scaffolding of “scenario one” that is holding up the veneer. To be clear, while we are not suffering daily or in the hour of death like the animals, we are the unknowing participants of a constructed and ethically absent system, enclosed and unable to access the light and the space of truth and choice. The main point is, when we find out that use is not necessary, all the rest is revealed as a manufactured construct.When we sense an impending disruption from that simulated life-space we are bonded to, the potential for anxiety looms. Much like the baby monkey initially separated from its mother, the human ape immediately seeks solace and proximity.

In order to prevent the grievous exposure of this internal and external nihilism, the very catalyst needed to break free, we are provided the next closest means via the “second scenario”. A soft conceptual fabric cover of animal welfare gives us just enough to cling to for comfort, not because we want to, but because we need to. And this very need for basic security in the form of holding and feeding that keeps the human race at a developmental stage of narcissism, drawing on the world and its inhabitants as resources for its own ends. Together with the hidden industry, the animal welfare surrogate allows people just enough reassurance to compartmentalize any doubts and reduce stress so as to move on with their particular lives with a contrived sense of mastery.
The natural strength and empathy that comes from bonding experiences holds a key to committing to and working through the grief and loss of the simulated world (containing everything and everyone we are bonded to). Moving past the contrived comforts and textures of welfare, the change in relational attachments within us and with others transcends speciesist self-love and reunites us with a higher calling: breaking down the constructs that hold both humans and animals isolated and captive, giving all beings their opportunity to embrace the living world.