Cave Trout

Koi fish paddle among elm seeds, in a private Albuquerque pond.

Koi fish paddle among elm seeds, in a private Albuquerque pond.

During a stop on a cross-country drive this year, I watched a crowd of long, pale fish erupt from the surface of the Lost Sea, the hemisphere’s largest underground lake. They were rainbowless rainbow trout, and a young boatman was lobbing fistfuls of food at them, deep below a hill at the edge of Sweetwater, Tennessee.

They were not, he explained, native to the lake. As he spoke, a trout sailed past the ear of a teenager next to me, provoking screams and a lurch in our glass-bottomed tourist raft. Predecessors of these fish had been carried down through Craighead Caverns and released into the lake by people curious to see if they would escape and reveal a conduit to another body of water.

But they stayed put. And in the deep, lightless cave their eyesight and color faded and their sex drive vanished. Since the lake itself sustains no plant or animal life, the trout learned to swarm around visiting rafts and launch themselves into airborne food deliveries. “Now we restock them and keep them on as a tourist attraction,” concluded the boatman. A memorable end-of-tour splash.

It was unsettling to imagine their lives. Where rainbow trout occur naturally, they have a lot to do: they control dragonfly populations, forage, mate, host colonies of parasitic slime mold, feed bears and provide memorable stories to fishermen. They are bursting with nutritional and ecological value to others. But the trout of the Lost Sea were separated from every external life form, every meteorological pattern and almost every activity around which their species has evolved. They didn’t spawn, and after hours they had nothing to hunt, gather or see. A writer for Chattanooga Parent described them as “ghostly monsters.” Were they good for nothing more than spooking tourists into a gift-shoppy delirium? Seeing those wan cave dwellers sealed off from so much of their value to others, I wondered what made their lives worthwhile to them. Could any of a trout’s satisfactions remain unassailed by the indignities of a bugless, bearless, lightless, idle life?

Some of us feel that our own lives are inherently valuable, regardless of how much anyone else may cherish, need, hate or snub us. Whether we are social reformers, corporate peons or volatile drunks, most of us find the quality and continuation of our lives to be very important. But it’s hard to pinpoint what makes up one’s “inherent value,” and people sometimes use the term more emphatically than precisely.

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What is zooethnography?

Foam-rubber animals filled Ortekay Square in Istanbul, Turkey last year, in a public art project inspired by the feral dogs & cats, gulls, & dolphins who share the city.

Last night I felt I had begun to understand the nascent, boundary-straining field of zooethnography.   Having traveled to Sweden’s old university town of Uppsala for a conference on it four days earlier, I met separately with organizer Jacob Bull and presenting scholar Eva Hayward, to help answer some lingering questions.

Both of them are members of the “HumAnimal” group at Uppsala University’s Center for Gender Research–a group which over the past year has embraced the term and field of zooethnography, and begun to define its challenges.

Zooethnography, Hayward explained, is the study of how animals shape human-animal encounters.  Like traditional ethnographers, who study human cultures, zooethnographers study these encounters in light of the cultural environments in which they occur–like a particular research lab, city park, or farm.

On Monday Hayward presented one such study, Migrations of Light: Whale songs and Photographs, in which she proposed an understanding of how humpback whales affected a group of human researchers in Maine, through photographs of the whale’s flukes.

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Scholars clarify activists’ paths

Readers, my apologies: technical problems prevented me from posting the following jottings last night.  I’ve decided to remain here in Uppsala, Sweden for a few days after the current conference ends, to catch you up on my findings.  Thanks for sticking around!  From yesterday:

Horses driven through Prague with a tourist carriage

I am rolling out of Dresden on a quiet train, halfway between Prague’s ICAS conference on “Reconfiguring the ‘Human’/’Animal’ Binary” and Berlin, where I’ll spend a night before flying to Sweden for tomorrow’s “Zooethnographies” papers.  It has been a gorgeous weekend, filled with sun and busty wood pigeons.

In the old, wood-and-light-filled Faculty of Arts at Prague’s Charles University, most of the 50+ presenters directly addressed the meeting’s theme: finding more nuanced and constructive new ways to look at human-animal relationships.

Existing “binary” notions like master-pet, hunter-quarry, consumer-resource, and intellectual-instinctual, were dismantled or dismissed for many of the same reasons that Gender Studies scholars have fought against the limitations wrought by using crude dichotomies like “virgin/whore” to define a person.

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Chile is for Animal Lovers

Those bound for South America this winter may enjoy dropping ın on two family-run sanctuaries in Chile: a desert hummingbird haven near Arica, and a small-town monkey refuge outside Santiago.

Centro de Prımates Peñaflor

Humans are the only primates native to Chile but–as in the U.S.–some keep illegally-imported exotic cousins as pets.  When a boy knocked on the Almazán-Lopez family’s door in 1994, offering to sell a monkey he carried in a box, the family’s four children thought the animal looked miserable, and convinced their parents to buy him.

Three capuchin monkeys peer out of their enclosure.

They named the monkey Cristobal and learned to care for him, relying in part on the experience of Carlos Almazán, 63, a pediatrician. As word got around their community, the family began to receive other monkeys in need.
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