When:Entries for the Empire Global Art Award due 31 July
It was always going to be a challenging day, and by challenging I mean gut–wrenching – after seventeen years of good living, Millie was to draw her final breath.
Being a black Labrador, she had been a most loyal and intelligent companion. At dawn every morning, I would hear the clip-cop of her paws on the floorboards as she came to say hello to me in bed. We walked together every day. She loved going in the car, which was something I appreciated because living in regional New South Wales means I travel a lot; she would stand on the backseat and rest her head on my shoulder as I drove, as if she was pretending to be a pirate’s parrot. At the end of every day, she would sit beside me on the couch as I watched the news on TV or listened to music.
In her last two years, however, Millie had been suffering from arthritis, especially in her back legs. Despite excellent veterinary treatment, her daily walks had gone from ten-kilometre adventures up and down hills to a ten-minute stroll to the nearest street corner and back. A heat-wave had also knocked her around, to the point that she was panting all day. One morning, on one of her strolls, she developed a bad limp; as I carried her home in my arms I knew the time had come. Forty-eight hours later, the vet came to the house. Millie passed away on the couch as I held her paw.
In the days and weeks that followed, my house was quiet and still; it was as though the core of the place had dropped away. It was common for family and friends to say, ‘How great it is that we give animals such love and care. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if human beings had the same opportunity to have a dignified death?’ They were referring to euthanasia. Yes, it would be wonderful if human beings had the opportunity for a dignified death. It is not right to let animals suffer; indeed it is justifiably a crime. But, as the dominant thinking goes, human beings are not animals; we are special: we have souls, apparently, and animals do not. Human life is different, more important. Which means we must suffer stoicly through our final days. Not so our faithful animal companions, who we offer relatively painless, potentially even beautiful last moments.
In some ways our treatment of animals is a mark of our goodness and progress: how civilised we are that we love them so much. But our civility is not without boundaries; we are very particular – maybe even peculiar – about how we apply our compassion to the animal world. The majority of Australians abhor the slaughter of whales, and I count myself in that majority. Whales embody the deep mystery that is the ocean and we do not want to see them killed by explosive harpoons. When a stranding happens, that most perplexing of occurrences, it is often the case that a community will come together in an effort to get the whales back out to sea.
We are unimpressed that an iconic species such as the koala has become endangered. Having hunted the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, to extinction, we are not keen to see the Tasmanian Devil go the same way. Closer to home, most Canberrans have strong views about the annual kangaroo cull: we do not like the idea of mobs being herded into makeshift pens and then shot by snipers; but many of us also recognise that population control is necessary, otherwise the animals will starve or are forced into suburban areas where they are injured or killed on our roads.
But how do we feel about losing animals that are difficult to film, photograph, or glimpse on a Sunday walk in the bush?
Extinction is a complicated business, especially when we consider the fact that 99% of the species that have graced our dear planet are no longer with us. But what does it mean when we are living in an era when extinction is happening more than ever? According to the United Nations, we are losing species at a rate between 100 and 1000 times the natural extinction rate. There is no doubt that in most corners of our world extinctions have resulted in ecological collapse, and there is every indication that the collapse will become more widespread. In no way can that be good news.
In the ACT, which was originally conceived by designers Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin to be an ‘ideal city’, there are numerous species on the official endangered list. The Northern Corroboree Frog, a striking little guy of black and gold, has gone from thousands of breeding pairs to only a matter of hundreds, and that reduction has happened in just a few years. Another black and gold wonder, the Regent Honeyeater, is being threatened by tree dieback and removal, as well as by uncontrolled grazing. The Spotted Quoll, which is Australia’s largest marsupial carnivore, is also not faring well: its close relative, the Eastern Quoll, was declared extinct in the ACT in 1971; it is true that there have been sightings of the Spotted Quoll, including in suburbia, but the animal’s situation is considered precarious at best.
It is difficult, possibly unhelpful, or even plain wrong, to draw black-and-white conclusions about what our treatment of animals says about nations. Perhaps it is true that if an animal gives us companionship and comfort and does not deliberately try to harm us, we will care. If we can dress them up in reindeer ears for a day every year, if we can give them a special meal to celebrate their birthday, if we can take their picture and post it on Facebook – we care. Because ultimately that is about us; because we are, in our blood and bones, selfish. But for those hundreds of species that we do not see on a daily basis, who are essentially invisible, whose struggle is becoming dire, we are happy to forget. Perhaps that is ‘human nature’: we care about what we can see and touch and smell and engage in play, but the rest is beyond us. Our love is limited.
Thankfully we have art – in all its forms – to expose us to deeper ways of being in the world. Art also pushes us towards finding new, better, perhaps even bold solutions.
Back at my place, everything remains quiet and still – Millie is becoming both a presence and a memory. But the other evening I heard a rustle in the backyard and looked out the French doors to see a Brush-tail Possum climbing down the Manchurian Pear tree. In the seven years I have lived in this house, I have not before seen a possum; it appears that now the yard is unoccupied there is safe territory to be found. What a treat. As the cold weather has come on I have fallen into the habit of putting out apple slices and pieces of bread. I can’t see or hear the possum during the day, of course, but I am glad she is there, because I don’t want to be alone.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer based in the Southern Tablelands of NSW. This piece was commissioned by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in relation to the 2017 Empire Global Art Award, the theme of which is inspired by a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’ For more information about the award, visit https://www.tuggeranongarts.com/events/empire-global-art-award/