EAT, 2023

EAT, 2018-23
2-channel HD video
duration 5:44

This is a link to a series of related still images – Cape Dogs, 2018.

EAT, 2018-23

The footage in this video was shot in MalaMala Preserve in South Africa in 2018. I returned to this footage prompted by a recently published essay in The New York Review of Books by Martha Nussbaum, in the December 8, 2022 issue titled, A Peopled Wilderness. Nussbaum begins by asking: “Should we try to leave non-domesticated animals alone in “the wild,” imagined as their evolutionary habitat, but also known to be a place full of cruelty, scarcity, and casual death? Or do we have a responsibility to protect “wild” animals from scarcity and disease and to preserve their habitats? And what about predation of vulnerable animals by other animals? Could it possibly be our responsibility to limit that?”

What jumped out at me in this essay was that last line and what came much further down in reference to the Cape dog. On a safari of her own to Botswana, Nussbaum speaks with relative contempt about tourists who watch as dogs tear an antelope limb from limb, commenting that predation is “a sure tourist draw” and that this violent scene did not seem to elicit any reactions of “aversion or horror” in the people watching it take place. But what really bothered me was the comment: “…so today my highly respectable Botswana tourist establishment was making money from vicarious sadism. Moreover, the animal reservation is geared as a whole to this exercise: the wild dogs are highly endangered, and much effort is being made to preserve them.” Then comes the kicker: “I am agnostic about the desirability of preserving that species, but I think here the central concern prompting preservation is a bad one: money for sado-tourism.” So basically, philosophers in polite society now feel that they can be agnostic about preserving a species because the animal doesn’t behave in accordance with human ethics or its eating habits are somehow impolitic? Because the Cape dog attacks other animals and tears them apart while those other animals are still alive?

This is how MalaMala describes Cape hunting dogs on their website: “Cape hunting dogs hunt in packs. Their main prey varies among populations, but always focuses on medium-sized ungulates such as impala. Like most members of the dog family, they are cursorial hunters, meaning that they pursue their prey in a long, open chase, rather than relying on stealth as most members of the cat family do. During pursuit, they may reach speeds of up to 45mph. Typically, about 85% of their hunts result in a kill.

Members of a pack vocalise to help coordinate their movements. Their voice is characterised by an unusual chirping or squeaking sound, similar to a bird. After a successful hunt, dogs regurgitate meat for those that remained at the den during the hunt, such as the dominant female and the pups. Occasionally, they will also feed other pack members, such as very old dogs that cannot keep up.

Wild dogs are endangered, primarily because they occupy huge ranges and consequently can exist only in large wildlife-protected areas. Their hunting method means that, unlike leopards, they are incapable of living unobtrusively and unnoticed in farming areas. They are strongly affected by competition with larger carnivores that rely on the same prey base, particularly lions and hyenas, and lions are the greatest cause of mortality in wild dogs.”

Nussbaum does of course try to address our understanding of “the wild” and its complex of meanings, but to me she doesn’t really accept the foreignness of wildness or what that wildness means in relation to us, without falling into the familiar category of the detached all knowing observer. This position has not been helpful for the last hundred odd years. Nussbaum seems to be suggesting the domestication of everything. I may misunderstand her, but if that is the final outcome of her philosophical musings, it is a pretty sad place to end up. It does not seem to me that we have preserved these animals in any meaningful way, if the only way to do so is to tame them all and perhaps dispense with those we cannot. Bad enough that they already live in a fish bowl, even in “the wild”.