On public television and the educational cable channels, the current rage seems to be for documentaries showing animals eating other animals. And to judge by the number of ads I see inviting people to order videotapes, the regularly scheduled predation doesn’t offer enough carnage for the viewing audience.
But I have found that whenever I point out this rage for watching predators devour their prey, nearly everyone defends the shows, and their arguments almost always use the same terms: The old nature documentaries sanitized and prettified the animal world, disguising from us the harsh truth of “nature red in tooth and claw.” These newer documentaries merely present to us The Way Things Are—and thus are beyond reproach.
Now it is true that predation is part of The Way Things Are, but sleeping is even more a part of The Way Things Are: For every hour a lioness spends hunting she spends a dozen sleeping, yet our television documentaries picture few somnolent cats. And the hard, slow work that hunting chiefly amounts to is given insignificant representation in comparison to the moment at which the claws catch an antelope and the teeth tear its neck. Moreover, animals who eat also defecate, yet I cannot remember seeing our intrepid documentarians exploring that subject with telephoto lenses and extreme slow motion.
We cannot plausibly claim that any nature documentary merely presents to us an unedited version of The Way Things Are. Filmmakers give us pictures of predation because they, and we, are interested in predation. We would rather watch a female praying mantis eat the head of her mate in the midst of copulation (to cite a scene replayed endlessly in nature shows) than watch her eat a leaf. The Discovery Channel is just as market-driven as the local news with an “if it bleeds it leads” policy—the market is just a little more specialized-and its programming executives show animals tearing apart the bodies of other animals because Nielsen ratings and focus groups indicate the financial wisdom of doing so. What does it say about us that we like to watch such things?
Such shows are, I believe, the modern equivalent of bear-baiting, or the educated middle-class counterpart to cock-fighting, only with several insulating layers between modern viewers and the violence they endorse:
1. We’re just watching what others have filmed;
2. They’re just filming what the animals are doing;
3. The animals are just following their instincts.
This kind of argument is made possible by what Stanley Milgram called “the fragmentation of the total human act.” Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience revealed that people can justify participating in the most dreadful deeds if an authority commands their involvement and if they can understand themselves as caught in a chain of events over which they have no control. It seems to me that the modern display of nature’s pornography is analogous: since we are neither the ones who kill nor the ones who film the killing, we have no moral stake in the events we watch. But by watching such programs we endorse what happens in them and bear a certain responsibility for them. We have not simply failed to turn off the TV; our sin is not merely one of omission. By watching we will the continuation of such shows and hence, inevitably, the acts represented in them.
Dante understood this peculiarity of human character perfectly well. In the eighth circle of Hell, he and his guide Virgil meet the Falsifiers-among them a thirteenth-century counterfeiter named Master Adam and the infamous Greek Sinon, who tricked the Trojans into allowing the fatal wooden horse into their city. Dante watches as Master Adam and Sinon fall into a bitter exchange of insults and vituperation. For thirty lines of verse they snarl at one another. Then Virgil, the personification of human Reason, turns to Dante and says, “Now keep on looking a little longer and I quarrel with you.” Why is he troubled? Because, as he later explains, “the wish to hear such baseness is degrading.” There are certain events and actions, Virgil seems to say, toward which the only proper response is to avert one’s eyes. This need not be a denial of reality; in fact, it is an acceptance that reality is often terrible. Predation is of course unlike the bitter recriminations of Sinon and Master Adam in that there is no sin in it. But I cannot think of it as a good thing that some creatures live only by the dying of other creatures; and still less can I think a fascination with such killing good.
Here I must confess my sympathy for the old Christian view that predation is a consequence of the Fall. There is of course nothing that most people would call “evidence” for this view—though there could be an interesting conversation about what the evidence for it might be—but I am powerfully drawn to the notion nonetheless.
The Puritans seem to have been distinctive in their time for stressing the link between predation and the Fall. The historian Macaulay famously sneered that the Puritans banned bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. The truth is that the Puritans cared about both bears and spectators, as is clearly shown in Keith Thomas’s great book Man and the Natural World. Thomas reports that the seventeenth-century English writer Philip Stubbes asked in his Anatomy of Abuses, “What Christian heart can take pleasure to see one poor beast rend, tear, and kill another?” Bear-baiting is “a filthy, stinking, and loathsome game” because it willfully seeks and takes pleasure in the destruction of animals who “are good creatures in their nature and kind”—even though bears in particular “be bloody beasts to mankind and seek his destruction”—and who are “made to set forth the glory and magnificence of the great God, and therefore for his sake [are] not to be abused.”
But if mere respect for Creation enjoins our charity to animals, the repercussions of the Fall of Adam and Eve for the natural order—the world that, as St. Paul says to the Roman church, “has been groaning in travail” because human sinfulness has placed not just us but also it in “bondage to decay”—redoubles our responsibility. This is one of the reasons the viewing of cruelty is nearly as bad as the perpetration of it. Thomas records the eloquently admonitory words of one of Stubbes’s contemporaries, a gentleman named John Spencer whose brother had a fascination for cock-fighting: “You make that a cause of your jollity and merriment which should be a cause of your grief and godly sorrow, for you take delight in the enmity and cruelty of the creatures, which was laid upon them for the sin of man.”
Certain forms of untrained animal behavior make me question the they’re-just-following-their-instincts argument and give renewed consideration to Spencer’s “archaic” view of a morally charged Nature. Researchers have recently discovered that some male gorillas murder infant gorillas so as to free their mothers from child-care and for sexual activity. A recent book by the British biologist Lyall Watson, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil, relates tale after tale of just this sort, most worse than the example I just gave. Reading Watson’s gruesome account—and considering his utter inability to think of anything to do about the scene of horrors he describes—I am reminded of the great question of Voltaire’s Candide. After hearing his tutor Pangloss recount in gory detail a series of disastrous and bloody experiences, Candide asks, “What a strange genealogy, Pangloss. Isn’t the Devil at the root of it?”
There may at times be reasons for us to force ourselves to look at the killing and eating of animals by other animals (just as there may be, and indeed are, good reasons for forcing ourselves to watch films of the Nazi concentration camps). But if we do not have to force ourselves, if we look upon such scenes with pleasure and fascination, something is terribly wrong. Those who can look without flinching upon animals having the flesh of their bellies eaten while they are still alive are morally numb; those who seek out such scenes for their viewing enjoyment are depraved.
It has occurred to me at several points in the writing of this essay that I should become a vegetarian before having it published. But I am not a vegetarian. I am like the Boy of the Far North, depicted in Galway Kinnell’s great poem “To Christ Our Lord,” who ventures out into the snow, shoots a goose, and brings it home to be cooked for Christmas dinner. As a long-winded thanksgiving is said by an adult at the head of the table, the boy looks at what he has killed and meditates that in a terrible sense it is a creature’s death for which thanks are being given. “Is it fitting to eat this creature killed on the wing?” But then it begins to dawn on the boy that the feast of Christmas itself commemorates the beginning of an earthly life whose violent ending is for all Christians the cause of measureless thanksgiving.
He wondered again, For whom had Love stirred? . . .
Then the Swan spread its wings, cross of the cold North,
The pattern and the mirror of the acts of earth.
Cygnus the Swan, or the Northern Cross. A bird, a cross; two deaths converge, represented by a single constellation.
Kinnell says of the boy, “He ate as he had killed, with wonder.” He was right to feel such wonder. But I think that wonder is not enough. As we contemplate not just the Death that redeems but also all those other deaths—the young zebra raked by the lioness’s claws, the field mouse locked in the owl’s talons, and, yes, the cow driven through the metal chute into the slaughterhouse—which, however necessary to the natural economy, redeem nothing, we need more than wonder. We need pity and fear: pity for the animals, and fear for ourselves, lest before the Judgment Seat we stand accused. If we must watch them die, let us do so in that pitying and fearful spirit, not in the spirit of the documentarian, with slow motion replays and telephoto lenses and the expectant leaning forward towards the glowing screen.
Alan Jacobs is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College.