The term “inspiration porn” was coined by disability activist Stella Young. Aimed at able-bodied viewers, inspiration porn features people with disabilities who appear happy or are doing things, alongside an encouraging message. She explains:
Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary — like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball — carrying a caption like “your excuse is invalid” or “before you quit, try.”
Or, the famous one: “The only disability is a bad attitude.”
She called it porn quite deliberately, arguing that inspiration porn is like sexual porn in that the images “objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.”
And, as with sexual porn, it sometimes involves animals.
At Disability Intersections, Anna Hamilton suggests that inspiration porn involving animals is another step removed from recognizing the full humanity of people with disabilities. These “inspiring” stories, she argues, “provide a way for nondisabled people to talk about and engage with disability in a facile way.”
Disability isn’t just othered; it’s cute, adorable, fuzzy.
If one is constantly gawking and aww-ing over pictures and stories about animals with disabilities, then they don’t have to spend time thinking about actual disabled people, or the ableism against disabled humans that still exists.
When featuring animals, accommodation is no longer the least a society can do: a basic acknowledgement that human beings in all forms deserve access to their societies. Instead, it’s over-the-top, idiosyncratic and rare, even excessive in its generosity. To find inspiration in a turtle who has been fitted with a tiny skateboard, for example, is to frame accommodation as something one does out of the goodness of one’s heart, not a human and civil right.
Inspiration porn others and objectifies people with disabilities. When featuring animals, it dehumanizes them, too.
Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.
Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:
So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):
It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.
Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.
Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.
The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.
So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?
For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.
One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.
So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?
One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:
The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.
In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.
This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.
This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.
Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded forContexts.
Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College.
Last month my neighbor and I mustered our emotional strength, gathered up our neighborhood cat, and drove to the SPCA to help her leave this earth in peace. He had named her Minou — French for kitty, a common term of endearment for cats in Cajun country — though I’m sure she’d had many names, which is why I’m posting about her here.
Minou is one of the tens of thousands of animals that were victims of Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 15,500 were rescued, many more died, and some, like Minou, started a new life all on their own. Another of my neighbors, one who rode out the storm, remembers Minou showing up after the waters receded. The cat — tame, spayed, and quite clearly someone’s pet before Katrina — made my and my neighbors’ yards her home, supporting herself for 11 years on lizards and rainwater and the kindness of strangers.
When I showed up two years ago, she was the first to welcome me. I woke up one morning to find her snuggled up in bed. She had found one of the holes in my dilapidated house and climbed in. She left me dead things. She made me feel at home.
She was our little Minou. One of my neighbors fed her. We all gave her pets and treats. When she got sick, I was the one who could afford to take her to the vet, so I did. I bought her the medicine; a neighbor administered it.
She had always been a tough little survivor but, in the end, it was her time. She died in the arms of people she loved, who loved her.
As we drove to the SPCA to say goodbye, I was struck by how much she had done for us. She had brought us together by giving us a common friend and responsibility. She was the node in our network, more so even than our proximity. Often, she was why we talked to each other. Or we talked to each other over her. When one of us paused to give her some attention, it kept us outside long enough to run into each other. And since everyone stopped to give her a pet, we’d all be there together.
I knew, too, that the two of us who rode in that car together — we who had made and then carried out that impossible decision — would never be able to call each other strangers. Even in her last minutes, Minou forged a bond.
Sociologists are interested in community: the difference between those neighborhoods in which people feel a sense of togetherness and those in which they do not. I don’t know much about that literature, nor much about social networks, but I do know that, with noted exceptions, pets are on the fringe of sociological analysis. It’s an interesting oversight given that more than half of American households include at least one pet. And that’s not counting the strays.
But I do know that Minou is part of why my neighbors and I are a community and her final gift to us was to cement that bond. And when I memorialized her passing on social media, many people commiserated with similar stories of “neighborhood cats.” I bet there are stray cats all over America, bringing people together. I’m so grateful that she did that for us.
I heard stories this week about dung beetles and cuttlefish. Both made me think about the typical stories we hear in the media about evolved human mating strategies. First, the stories:
Story #1 :The Dung Beetle
A story on Quirks and Quarks discussed the mating strategies of the dung beetle. The picture above is of a male beetle; only the males have those giant horns. He uses it to defend the entrance to a tiny burrow in which he keeps a female. He’ll violently fight off other dung beetles who try to get access to the burrow.
So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?
There’s a twist: while only male dung beetles have horns, not all males have horns. Some are completely hornless. But if horns help you win the fight, how is hornlessness being passed down genetically?
Well, it turns out that when a big ol’ horned male is fighting with some other big ol’ horned male, little hornless males sneak into burrows and mate with the females. They get discovered and booted out, of course, and the horned male will re-mate with the female with the hopes of displacing his sperm.
Those little hornless males have giant testicles, way gianter than the horned males. While the horned males are putting all of their energy into growing horns, the hornless males are making sperm. So, even though they have limited access to females, they get as much mileage out of their access as they can.
The result: two distinct types of male dung beetles with two distinct mating strategies.
Story #2: The Giant Australian Cuttlefish
The Naked Scientists podcast featured a story about Giant Australian Cuttlefish. During mating season the male cuttlefish, much larger than the females, collect “harems” and spend their time mating and defending access. Other males try to “muscle in,” but the bigger cuttlefish “throws his weight around” to scare him off. The biggest cuttlefish wins.
So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?
Well, according The Naked Scientists story, researchers have discovered an alternative mating strategy. Small males, who are far too small to compete with large males, will pretend to be female, sneak into the defended territory, mate, and leave.
How do they do this? They change their color pattern and rearrange their tentacles in a more typical female arrangement (they didn’t specify what this was) and, well, pass. The large male thinks he’s another female. In the video below, the cuttlefish uses his ability to change the pattern on his body. He simultaneously displays a male pattern to the female and a female pattern to the large male on the other side.
So, can the crossdressing cuttlefish and dodge-y dung beetle tell us anything about evolved human mating strategies?
But I do think it tells us something about how we should think about evolution and the reproduction of genes. If you listen to the media cover evolutionary psychological explanations of human mating, you only hear one story about the strategies that males use to try to get sex. That story sounds a lot like the one told about the horned beetle and the large male cuttlefish.
But these species have demonstrated that there need not be only one mating strategy. In these cases, there are at least two. So, why in Darwin’s name would we assume that human beings, in all of their beautiful and incredible complexity, would only have one? Perhaps we see a diversity in types of human males (different body shapes and sizes, different intellectual gifts, etc) because there are many different ways to attract females. Maybe females see something valuable in many different kinds of males! Maybe not all females are the same!
Let’s set aside the stereotypes about men and women that media reporting on evolutionary psychology tends to reproduce and, instead, consider the possibility that human mating is at least as complex as that of dung beetles and cuttlefish.
Prior to the 1850s, writes cultural studies scholar Matthew Brower, men in America didn’t hunt. More specifically, they didn’t hunt for leisure. There was a hunting industry that employed professionals who hunted as a full time occupation, and there was a large market for wild animal products, but hunting for fun wasn’t a common pastime.
This changed in the second half of the 1800s. Americans were increasingly living in cities and being “citified.” Commenters worried that urban life was making men effeminate, effete, overly civilized, domesticated if you will. Cities were a threat to manliness and nature the salve.
Hunting trophies, taxidermied remains of wild animals, served as symbolic proof of one’s “hardiness.” Unlike the animal parts bought at market — whether for food or furs, as feathers on hats, or the then-popular elk tooth watch chain — animals a man killed himself reflected on his skill and character.
Nothing adds more to a hall or a room than fine antlers when their owner has been shot by the hunter-displayer, but always there is an element of the absurd in a room furnished with trophies of the chase that the displayer has acquired by purchase.
New, elite recreational hunters castigated both lesser men, who purchased animal parts for display, and women who bought them purely for fashion.
This was the origin of the idea that hunting is a contest, as opposed to an occupation or necessity. To paraphrase Brower, a trophy can’t be bought, it must be earned. Thus, the notion of “sportsmanship” as applied to the hunt. If a kill is going to indicate skill, then the hunted must have a “sporting chance.” Thus, recreational hunters developed an etiquette for sportsmanlike hunting, spread through new hunting magazines and periodicals.
Not only did this allow men to claim manly cred, it allowed wealthy men to claim class cred. Brower writes:
Both subsistence and market hunters, the majority of hunters, were placed outside the purview of the sportsman’s code. Those who hunted out of necessity or for profit never could obtain the aesthetic detachment necessary to be considered sportsmen.
In fact, wealthy recreational hunters claimed that only they were “real hunters” and even organized against people who hunted for food and money. For example,
[Roosevelt himself] blamed the decline of game on market hunters, who he argued, had “no excuse of any kind” for the wanton slaughter of animals.
Trophy hunters successfully enacted statutes limiting other types of hunting, so as to preserve game for themselves.
The rarer and larger the animal, the more exquisite the specimen, and the more a man has killed, the better the animals speak to a his manliness and his elite economic and social class. This is perhaps the attraction of international trophy hunting today: the seeking of more exotic and elusive game to bring home and display. And it is perhaps why some people pay $50,000 to travel across the world, kill a lion, cut off its head, then post it on Facebook.
Two of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Quirks and Quarks, have stories bout how inertia and reliance on technology can inhibit our ability to find easy, cheap solutions to problems.
The first story, at Radio Lab, was about a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany. As patients age, nursing homes risk that they will become disoriented and “escape” the nursing home. Often, they are trying to return to homes in which they lived previously, desperate that their children, partners, or even parents are worried and waiting for them.
When they catch the escapee in time, the patient is often extremely upset and an altercation ensues. If they don’t catch them in time, the patient often hops onto public transportation and is eventually discovered by police. The first outcome is unpleasant for everyone involved and the second outcome is very dangerous for the patient. Most nursing homes fix this problem by confining patients who’ve began to wander off to a locked ward.
An employee at the Benrath Senior Center came up with an alternative solution: a fake bus stop placed right outside of the front doors of the nursing home. The fake bus stop does two wonderful things:
(1) The first thing a potential escapee does when they decide to “go home” is find a bus stop. So, patients who take off usually get no further than the first bus stop that they see. “Where did Mrs. Schmidt go?” “Oh, she’s at the bus stop.” In practice, it worked tremendously. This meant that many disoriented patients no longer needed to be kept in locked wards.
(2) The bus stop diffuses the sense of panic. If a delusional patient decided that she needed to go home immediately because her children were all alone and waiting for her, the attendant didn’t need to restrain her or talk her out of it, she simply said, “Oh, well… there’s the bus stop.” The patient would go sit and wait. Knowing that she was on her way home, she would relax and, given her diminished cognition, she would eventually forget why she was there. A little while later the attendant could go out and ask her if she wanted to come in for tea. And she would say, “Ok.”
Listening to this, I thought it was just about the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard.
The second story, from Quirks and Quarks, was regarding whether it is true that dogs can smell cancer. It turns out that they can. It appears that dogs can smell lots of types of cancer, but people have been working specifically with training them to detect melanomas, or skin cancers. It turns out that a dog can be trained, in about three to six weeks, to detect melanomas (even some invisible to the naked eye) with an 80-90% accuracy rate. If we could build a machine that was able to detect the same chemical that dogs are reacting to (and we don’t know, at this time, what that is) it would have to be the size of a refrigerator to match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose. When it comes to detecting melanomas, dogs are better diagnosticians than our best humans and our most advanced machines.
Doggy doctors offer some really wonderful possibilities, such as delivering low cost cancer detection to communities who may not have access to clinical care. A mobile cancer detection puppy bus, anyone?
Both these stories — about these talented animals and the pretend bus stop — are fantastic examples of what we can do without advanced technology. I fear that we fetishize the latter, turning first to technology and forgetting to be creative about how to solve problems without them.
Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.
And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.
But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:
Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.
Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?
I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.
Originally posted in 2010.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
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