Tag Archives: animals

What’s Causing the Rise in Obesity? Everything.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

On Horse Racing, “Break Downs,” and Our Humanity

Originally posted in 2012; re-posted because tomorrow is the 145th Belmont Stakes, the 3rd and final leg of the Triple Crown in thoroughbred horse racing. This is the dark side of the sport.

In humans you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing.

These words, spoken by the equine medical director for the California Racing Board, summarize the truly terrifying absurdity that is horse racing today.  A team of investigative reporters at the New York Times has found that over 1,200 horses die at race tracks every year in the U.S.  Many of them die immediately after a race, euthanized after their bodies literally crumble underneath them.  Their legs break, unable to withstand the forces that the horses exert upon their bodies.  People in the industry call it, euphemistically, a “break down.” It occurs 1 out of every 200 times a horse starts a race.

All of these horses are being ridden by a jockey who is pitched off when the horse falls.  Moving at upwards of 50 miles an hour, and in the midst of many other horses running at top speed, jockeys are often seriously injured and sometimes killed.  Currently there are over 50 permanently disabled jockeys receiving financial assistance from their professional trade association.  Jacky Johnson, for example, was paralyzed from the neck down after his horse, Phire Power, broke its leg during a race.  He will need a respirator for the rest of his life; Phire Power was euthanized on the track.

Why is this happening?

Because we are making it so.

First, race horses are bred in order to run as fast as possible.  Short legs and thick bones slow a horse down, while longer, more delicate legs give them longer strides.  Breeders, then, have an incentive to build horses who are both faster and more fragile.

Second, owners may be putting these horses on the track too young.  Horses typically start getting raced at 2 to 3 years old, very young for an animal with a lifespan of 30 years.  Some argue that the bodies of young horses are not ready to handle the physical demands of racing.  This 2-year-old horse, Teller All Gone, broke its leg during a race; it is about to be euthanized:

The owners dumped his body at a junkyard:

Third, there is the drug problem.  Many trainers illegally give their horses performance-enhancing drugs.  Many of them are experimental and are not yet or cannot be tested for.  These include “chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.”

Built for speed and not safety, on the track too young, and amped up on steroids and other performance-enhancers, these horses are pushed to their limits.  Just this week Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, the horse set to win this year’s Triple Crown, was fined after his horse tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Even more problematic than the doping is the legal practice of giving horses pain-relieving drugs, including cocaine.  These mask the pain signals that would otherwise tell a horse to slow down or be careful on the track and also increase that chances that the track veterinarian will miss an injury when clearing the horse to race. The NYT reports that “[a]s many as 90 percent of horses that break down had pre-existing injuries” and they argue pain-masking drugs “pose the greatest risk to horse and rider.” The Louisiana Racing Commission call it “a recipe for disaster.”

The drugs detailed below are what were given to Coronado Heights in the week before he collapsed and was euthanized on the track:

Horse racing is subject to regulation, but these vary by state and are typically very poorly enforced, bringing us to the fourth reason why we see so much tragedy on race tracks. The punishment for violations is insignificant, sometimes only a warning:

Trainers in New Mexico who overmedicate horses with Flunixin get a free pass on their first violation, a $200 fine on the second and a $400 fine on the third, records show… [the state also] wipes away Flunixin violations every 12 months… To varying degrees, the picture is similar nationwide. Trainers often face little punishment for drug violations, and on the rare occasions when they are suspended, they are allowed to turn their stables over to an assistant.

When it comes down to it, many owners and trainers are willing to risk a horse’s life for the chance at the prize money and the less likely a horse is to win, the less they’re worth to the owner, so the harder they’re willing to push it.

The economic incentive to run horses till they die may seem to apply to the highest stakes racing but, in fact, it’s at the lowest end that we see the most disregard for the safety of horses and their jockeys. In the backyards of those casinos where racetracks are now part of the attraction (often referred to as “racinos”), horses and jockeys are a dime a dozen, and the money gives people a reason to break the rules. Meanwhile, the casino tracks are low profile, so they receive even less regulatory attention.

The use of the phrase “break down” to describe a horse who has snapped its own bones in the process of entertaining and enriching human beings is an indication of how nonchalantly industry figures approach this problem.  It suggests that these animals, and perhaps their jockeys as well, have been thoroughly objectified: cars break down, air conditioners break down, we break down boxes.  The language entirely fails to capture what is happening to these horses.  It may very well, however, describe what has happened to the industry and to the basic humanity of its most culpable beneficiaries.

Death at the Track:

Visit the New York Times to watch “The Rise of the Racinos” and “A Jockey’s Story.”

Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp are professors of sociology. You can follow Gwen on Twitter and Lisa on Twitter and Facebook.  They have also written about the abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses.

Sunday Fun: Vintage Cockroach Racing Game

This vintage ad for a cockroach racing game is a great reminder that what seems normal isn’t necessarily natural or inevitable.  Most Americans today would grimace at the idea of playing with cockroaches, as the insect is held up as an icon of filth and disease.  But sometime in the ’40s, someone at the International Mutoscope Reel Company thought this was a good idea!  Or, then again, maybe times haven’t changed so much; the company went bankrupt in 1949.

1From Weird Universe.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Animal Abuse, Oil Leaks, and the Freedom of the Press

Cross-posted at PolicyMic and The Huffington Post.

2We all-too-often take for granted that photographs like this one, revealing the impact of an oil pipeline leak on Mayflower, Arkansas, will be able to inform us about the state of the world. In fact, such images are taken by actual human photojournalists whose rights of access are protected by the First Amendment establishing the freedom of the press.

This is a real thorn in the side of both corporations and governments that might prefer to control media’s access to embarrassing or illegal activities.  So, often they try to strong arm journalists, co-opt local officials, or pass (likely illegal) legislation designed to protect them from the free press’ gaze.  Here are two current examples.

First, Mother Jones reports that Exxon officials are making efforts to limit reporter access to the oil pipeline leak in Mayflower, Arkansas.  This is happening in at least two ways.  First, Exxon representatives and local law enforcement are blocking journalists from accessing the spill site, threatening  ”arrest for criminal trespass.”  Second, BoingBoing reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted a temporary “no-fly zone” in the area of the spill.  Here’s a screenshot from the FAA’s website:

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Second, in the last two years Americans have shuddered in response to the release of undercover video revealing the abuse of animals on industrial farms and the torture of Tennessee Walking horses.  These have resulted in convictions, but they’ve also raised the hackles of the agricultural industry.  The New York Times reports that, in an effort to limit their risk, they’ve sponsored bills (proposed or enacted in about a dozen state legislatures) making it illegal to videotape animals on their property without their permission and requiring all prospective employees to reveal associations with animal rights groups.

These examples remind us how important it is that journalists have the freedom to do their job.  They also remind us that we must vigilantly protect that freedom.  Corporations, and governments too, have an incentive to limit the freedom of the press.  These are powerful entities, often in cahoots, that can and will ignore the First Amendment when they can get away with it.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

1950s Beauty Pageant Judging Guidelines

Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

Larry Harnisch, of the Los Angeles Times blog The Daily Mirror, sent in this image, published in The Mirror in 1959, that illustrated how women’s bodies were judged in the Miss Universe contest:

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Text:

ALL FIGURED OUT–This chart is used by judges as [a] guide in picking Miss Universe. First six show figure flaws, seventh is perfectly proportioned. (1) Shoulders too square. (2) Shoulders too sloping. (3) Hips too wide. (4) Shoulder bones too pronounced. (5) Shoulders and back hunched. (6) Legs irregular, with spaces at calves, knees, thighs. (7) The form divine, needs only a beautiful face.

(I had no idea that I have irregular legs until I saw figure 6. My self esteem is taking quite the hit. I can’t tell if there’s anything wrong with my shoulders, though–I’ll have to ask someone else for an opinion.)

Two points:

First, some people like to suggest that men are programmed by evolution to find a particular body shape attractive.  Clearly, if judging women’s bodies requires this much instruction, either (1) nature has left us incompetent or (2) cultural norms defining beauty overwhelm any biological predisposition to be attracted to specific body types.

Second, the chart reveals the level of scrutiny women faced in 1959 (and I’d argue it’s not so different today).   It made me think of my years in 4-H. I was a farm kid and I showed steers for several years and also took part in livestock and meat judging competitions. I was good at it, just so you know. Anyway, what the beauty pageant image brought to mind was the handouts we’d look at to learn how to judge livestock. Here are some examples, from Kansas State University’s 4-H judging guide (pdf here):

Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

This poor pig has a low-set tail–how dreadful:

Picture 4

It’s almost as if, like superior livestock, beautiful women are a desired cultural product in which we should all invest and be invested. You might compare these to some of the images in our post about sexualizing food that come from Carol Adams’s website.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Gender Ideology by Geico

In her classic article, Teddy Bear Patriarchy, Donna Haraway examined the arrangement of the taxidermied animals in the American Museum of Natural History mammal hall in the first half of the 1900s.  She observed that the dioramas consistently featured nuclear families with strong fathers alert for dangers and nurturing mothers attending to their children.

This was a lie, of course. As we well know, the nuclear family is the exception, not the rule among mammals.  Instead of science, it was our own beliefs about men, women, and gender roles that informed the curators of the exhibits… and left viewers with a sense that these arrangements were more natural and universal than they are.

I’m an animal lover and have a broad appreciation for science, so I particularly enjoy exposing this type of projection.  Bee Movie was a particularly egregious case and we’ve written posts on nature documentaries that do this (on hyenas and flatworms).  The latest case is a Geico commercial.  See if you can catch it:

So, if you know anything about lions, you know that it’s unlikely that “Karl” is doing the hunting.  Among lions, it is the females who specialize in hunting (and they usually do so in groups, for what it’s worth).

See, no manes:

The commercial certainly coincides nicely with what many of us believe to be true about the natural role of human men, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of lion life at all.

Perhaps the people at Geico thought that a female huntress would confuse or distract the reader from their joke.  Or perhaps everyone involved in the project didn’t know this fact about lions; their gender ideology would have masked their ignorance, such that it never occurred to them to look it up.  Either way, contemporary ideas about gender shaped this “diorama” and it potentially reinforces similar beliefs among viewers.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Politics of “Discovery”: The Case of the Lesula

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

We often hear that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, a word that erases the 50 million-plus inhabitants of the continent that were already here when his boat arrived. A person can’t discover something that another person already knows about.  In the American telling of the story, however, the indigenous population don’t count as people. They’re knowledge isn’t real.

This dismissal of knowledge-of-a-thing until the “right” people know about it is a common tendency, and another example was sent in by Jordan G. last week.  CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Los Angeles Times, among other news outlets, reported that a new species of monkey was “discovered.”  

So where did they find this monkey?  Tied to a post in a Congolese village; it was a pet.  

And it was cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute!

So someone knew about these monkeys.  It just wasn’t the right kind of person.  In this case, the right kind of person was a (bonafide) scientist (with credentials and institutional privileges not un-related to living in the West).

Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter that a trained scientist encountered the monkey and established it as a unique and previously undocumented species.  The team did a lot of work to establish this.  As the Times, which otherwise does a fine job on the story, explains:

Convinced the species was novel, team leader John Hart began an exhaustive three-year study to describe the monkey, and to differentiate it from its nearest neighbor, the owl face monkey. The study included geneticists and biological anthropologists, who helped confirm that the monkey was different from the owl face, though the two share a common genetic ancestor.

In other words, something significant happened because those scientists happened upon this monkey.  But to say that they “discovered” it is to mischaracterize what occurred. The scientists write that it was “previously undescribed,” which is far more accurate. Their language also doesn’t erase the consciousness of the people of the Congo, where this monkey is “endemic.”   In fact, they recommend the short-hand name “lesula,” “as it is the vernacular name used [by people who've known about it, probably for generations] over most of its known range.”  In doing so, they acknowledge the species’ relationship to a population of human beings, making them visible and significant.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Historical Trends in Gun Advertising

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images in 2010. Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Bob Z. and Dmitriy T.M. sent us a link to a vintage collection of gun advertising, organized by decade, that shows some interesting trends.

In the 1900s and 1910s, gun advertising frequently simply touted the benefits of the gun itself, ignoring completely any indication as to what the gun was for:

In the ’20s and ’30s, gun advertising more frequently involved a hunting or pest-reduction theme:

This theme continued through the 40s, but alongside a new theme, war (i.e., World War II):

Then, in the 1960s, the war theme disappeared and the hunting theme continued, this time with a new twist. Instead of just hunting for food (and sport) or to protect your property, ads included the hunting of exotic game solely for sport:

Since the 1990s, we’ve seen a new kind of gun advertising in which self-defense is the selling point.  Interestingly, this new marketing strategy is designed to bring in womengays and lesbians, people of color, and kids.

Notably, if you are unfortunate enough to be assaulted, carrying a gun makes it more likely that you’ll be shot in the encounter.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.