Author Archives: BethShepherd

About BethShepherd

I am a visual artist, art history student, volunteer and business owner. Through my art I advocate for farm animal rights, protection of the environment, and social justice. Always active in the community, I try to "leave the campsite cleaner," a motto I learned in my childhood.

2020 Rat of the Year: Who are you calling Vermin?

According to the Worldometer, the human population is over 7.83 billion at the time of writing. We are by far the most numerous of mammalian species and the second largest by total biomass, surpassed only by the 1.4 billion cattle that share the earth with us. In fact, all wild terrestrial mammals account for only 3% of the total biomass, with humans accounting for 27% and livestock at 70% (1).

Being one who does not support the elitism of the human species, I often wondered why we refer to certain other animals as vermin, since we and our domesticated animals are spreading like wildfire – and are just as destructive to the environment. One such wild animal often labelled vermin is the rat. Although I was unable to find any firm estimates of the Earth’s rat population, David Suzuki claims it to be much lower than the human population (2).

People love to hate rats, usually identifying the long naked tail as particularly disturbing. I will confess a bias — I had pet rats when I was young and found them to be friendly, playful, very clever and clean.

As mammals, rats share many physiological characteristics with humans. Since they occupy the same environments and often eat the same food as humans, they often suffer from the same diseases. Rats are intelligent, resourceful, adaptive, and have a high reproductive rate. These traits have made them a prime research model for science and medicine since the first albino lab rats were bred around 1900 (3).

According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat, starting on Jan. 25 and lasting to the 2021 Lunar New Year’s Eve on Feb. 11. According to a Chinese legend, the Rat became number one in the twelve-year cycle because of its cleverness and alacrity. The story goes that the Chinese supreme Jade Emperor held a birthday party to decide the order of the zodiac animals according to their arrival times. Wanting to win, the hardworking Ox departed early; however, the Rat hid in the Ox’s ear and jumped down on arrival ahead of the Ox, thereby taking the first place. (4)

Before the pandemic shutdowns I decided to make a large 12 X 12 inch linocut paying tribute to the Year of the Rat. Since we all like to get awards, celebrate success and be centre stage once in a while, I imagined a big beautiful male rat on a pedestal receiving accolades from his family and community, or a statue of a hero rat admired in a gallery.

Since it is almost year end, I decided to publish the first version of my 2020 Rat of the Year print, although the planned companion piece showing the admiring female and her young is not yet complete. I am also thinking of doing some smaller linocuts of baby rats to complete the family portrait—they are so cute! I have included my sketches below. By the way, did you know that baby rats are called kittens?

Sketch of Mom and Baby Rats for a second 12X12 inch linocut print
Sketches of Baby Rats for small suare prints

(1) Roy E. Plotnick, Karen A. Koy, “The Anthropocene fossil record of terrestrial mammals,” Anthropocene, Volume 29, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2019.100233.
(2) David Suzuki Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, BrainyMedia Inc, 2020. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/david_suzuki_604618, accessed December 8, 2020.
(3) The Wistar Institute, https://wistar.org/about-wistar/our-story.
(4) Travel China Guide, https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/zodiac/Rat.htm.

Mishka Henner’s Feedlots

Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas is one Mishka Henner’s Feedlots series (2012-13), an amazing set of images captured from Google Earth that reveal just a few of the thousands of feedlots that exist in North America and elsewhere in the world. The prominent feature that appears like a bleeding wound is a manure lagoon. This is where the liquefied waste of 70,000 cattle is collected and treated with chemicals. Contaminated with chemicals and pathogens, the manure cannot be used for fertilizer and just becomes another source of hazardous waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Although industrial animal agriculture is one of the main causal factors in many of the current environmental crises, including climate change, it has provoked little interest in either the art world or ecocritical scholarship. Henner’s Feedlots is one exceptions. His seven images were made by stitching together hundreds of high-resolution screenshots from Google Earth into never before seen images that have drawn considerable attention from audiences in various contexts. Using the “Google gaze,” Henner reveals some stark realities of life on the feedlot as well as the scale of the environmental devastation brought about by the global agribusiness.

To learn more about the representation of industrialized animal agriculture in eco art, please read my paper — “Mishka Henner’s Feedlots: A New Perspective on the Ecocritical ‘Landscape’.”

The Pig and the Overseer

The Pig and the Overseer is about the loss of food security and self-direction for the 370 million people that identify as members of indigenous communities and nations in the world today (1).

I created this piece in for a group show at the RIA Artist Project Room January 2019. The theme of the show is DADA-Dinges!!! drawing inspiration from the Dadaist art movement. Emerging during the destruction of World War I, Dada sought to undermine the fundamental structures of a rational, ordered society, which they blamed for the unimaginable horrors of war. The absurd and bizarre certainly come to mind in today’s world too, as we move closer than ever to annihilation.

About the work:

The work comprises two prints surrounded by collaged poetic text, resembling a Dadaist poem. At first I tried to follow Tristan Tzara’s instructions for making a Dadaist poem, which in short requires one to cut a newspaper article into its words, which are thrown in a paper bag, shook up and pulled out one at a time to be reassembled in that order. Certainly the results can be amuzingly absurd. But as I did my research into indigenous agriculture, I decided to create my own poem that hopefully makes sense! Click below to download the poem.

The overseer, modelled after Alfred Jarry’s noxious Ubu Roi, a character from his scatological play of the same name, represents the presence of the transnational corporations and world powers imposing Western technologized agricultural models of monoculture of water-intensive commodity crops requiring specialized seeds and constant application of fertilizers and toxic pesticides. I made this print a number of years ago when I was saddened to learn of the murders of indigenous protesters defending their traditional lands from a transnational corporation, sold from under them by their government.

The pig is my “poster child” for industrialized and highly technologized agriculture and is there as a reminder that the production of animal food products (meat, dairy, eggs and aquaculture) takes 83% of the world’s agricultural land while providing only 37% of protein and 18% of calories (2). The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and the demands of globalization are now widely recognized as environmental and social failures and major contributors to climate change, acidification, eutrophication, other pollution, disease, diminishing fresh water supply, and loss of habitat, biodiversity and a wealth of indigenous cultural knowledge.

References:

(1) UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 14 January 2010, ST/ESA/328, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4b6700ed2.html [accessed 30 December 2018]
(2) J. Poore and T. Nemeek, “Reducing Food’s Environmental impacts through Producers and Consumers,” in Science 360, 987-992 (June 2018).

Road Trip!

I dread seeing animals being transported to slaughter. Fortunately, living in Ottawa we rarely see animals being transported through the city. Several years ago I remember being struck breathless and feeling disoriented seeing a big flat-bed truck filled with wire cages packed with what were probably spent laying hens travelling along the 401 on their way to slaughter. It was a nice day with a clear blue sky. I thought this would be the only time those poor creatures would ever experience the fresh air or feel sunshine and a warm breeze.

I finally got around to painting my rendition of the road trip.

Road Trip
Road Trip!

The Intertwining of Sexism and Meat-Eating in Visual Culture

The feature image, my painting Girls on the Grass presents females of different species free from the pressures of a patriarchal society enjoying lunch on the lawn. To convey the idea of sanctuary where humans and non-human animals alike can find a safe haven, I have drawn on Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) as a source of inspiration. While painting I realized there must be a strong link between the animal advocacy and feminism movements. First most of the grass-roots animal activists seemed to be women. More importantly, animal food comes from females – either directly as their flesh or the flesh of their children, their secretions (dairy) or their eggs. This inspired me to take a feminism course.

One of the assignments for the “Activism, Feminism and Social Justice” I am taking at Carleton University, was to make a video. Never having taken a feminism course before I used the assignment as an opportunity to read Carol J. Adams’ landmark book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1990, 2000). I used Adams’ critical theory as the framework for much of the video, linking feminism, farm animal advocacy and veganism. Because I am an artist, I concentrated on Adams’ discussions of the visual tropes of sex, animals and meat that are widespread in visual culture, which she suggests are both evidence and reinforcements of sexism, speciesism and meat-eating as cultural norms within our Western society.

In her book, Adams builds a straight-forward case for vegan-feminism based on both women and other-than-human animals being positioned as objects rather than subjects within the Western patriarchal society, which still privileges men over women and humans over animals. Despite human rights advances, remnants of sexism and speciesism (as well as racism, homophobia, ableism, colonialism, etc.) are imbedded in our culture, largely unseen and unchallenged. Dominant ideologies are invisible because they are “the norm.” These norms are reinforced by institutions, cultural expectations and the common tropes found in visual culture.

Adams describes patriarchy is a gender-based system of privilege, power and oppression that is implicit in human/animal relationships. Adams says “A feminist-vegetarian critical theory begins…with the perception that women and animals are similarly positioned in a patriarchal world, as objects rather than subjects” (Adams, 2000, 180). In defining a critical theory she identifies four key components, which are explained below.

Meat and Virility
The first component of Adams’ feminist-vegan critical theory is that in Western culture, men should eat meat and women should serve it. Meat is the focal point of most meals, especially festive events, highlighting the normality of eating carcasses of animals. Meat-eating is a one way men can continue to assert their manliness in an aggressive and domineering performance. Adams notes that she has witnessed women being abused by husbands when they failed to serve meat for dinner (Adams, 2000, 48). These behaviours are imbedded in cultural expectations for manliness and the good wife and mother and reinforced by magazines, books, cookbooks, family and social experiences, advertising and media.

The Absent Referent
The second component of Carol Adams’ critical theory is “the absent referent.” An absent referent refers to something that is non-existent, undefined or paradoxical.

"Break the Dull Steak Habit" Poster
Figure1: “Break the Dull Steak Habit” Poster

Adams argues that both women and animals are linked in that they both function as absent referents in the process of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption (Adams, 2000, 14 & 2010, 304). Women are compared with animals through metaphors and visual images that liken them to animals or meat. The “Break the Dull Steak Habit” poster (Figure 1) was used by feminists to protest against the 1968 Miss America Pageant, liking it to a cattle auction. The woman’s body is marked with meat cuts ready for fragmentation. Similarly, an abused women saying “I felt like a piece of meat” or Lady Gaga’s meat dress are metaphors for the female body as meat and an object of male consumption. The animal is the absent referent.

Other–than-human animals are also made absent by language when we talk about meat instead of corpses of dead animals; processing instead of slaughter and butchering. The absent referent cloaks the violence inherent in industrial agriculture and makes it easier for otherwise compassionate people to keep eating animals. Slaughter separates the meat-eater from the animal and the animal from the end product.

Feminized Protein
The third component of Adams’ theory is Feminized Protein, referring to eggs and milk, which are animal foods produced by manipulating the reproductive capacities of living females. The animals are oppressed by their femaleness into a “sexual slavery” on factory farms. “Even though the animals are alive, dairy products and eggs are not victimless foods” (Adams, 2010, 305). Feminized protein serves two functions in that it makes a link with feminism through the exploitation of the female reproductive system and motherhood, and also makes the case for veganism vs. ovo-lacto vegetarianism.

Sex Sells
The fourth and final component of Adams’ critical theory is that sex sells just about everything. Common visual tropes of sex, animals and meat are used widely in advertising. “Make it sexy” or “add some sizzle” are ways of saying make something more appealing. Although commercial advertisements are clearly rich in suggestive tropes so are the visuals for promoting both feminist and animal rights causes.

I hope you enjoy the video!

References:

Adams, Carol J. 1990 & 2000. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.

Adams, Carol J. 2010. “Why feminist-vegan now?” In Feminism and Psychology 20(3): 302-317.

Bad Cat! Cats are the #1 Killer of Birds in Canada and the US

Bad Cat is a reductive relief print, 5 X 7 inches, in two colours. The image of a dead bird with lettering spelling “Bad Cat” was inspired by finding a dead sparrow on my back patio. My cat, Dora, is a beautiful animal who I love dearly but I hate that she kills birds. I know hunting is instinctive since she would never eat her prey and is not even amenable to eating wet cat food. Dora is not alone in her ways, at least in terms of killing birds.

Conservationists estimate that each year domestic and feral cats kill over 200 million birds in Canada and over a billion in the United States. Predation would be expected by feral cats who are seeking their next meal but the largest and growing threat is from the house cat population, instinctually hunting rather than seeking entertainment or food. According to the respective veterinary associations, approximately 37% of households in both the US and Canada have at least one cat.

The American Bird Conservancy says that predation by domestic cats is the number one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada and has already contributed to the extinction of 33 species with another 87 bird species are on the endangered species list. As more households are experiencing the joys of cat custodianship, the threat to the bird population increases, especially when other factors like climate change, pollution and poisoning of food sources by pesticides are considered.

We love having birds in our backyard and don’t want to contribute to this mass destruction of the local bird population. Experts urge cat owners to keep cats indoors but keeping Dora in the house would be cruel to her at 12 years of age. So I keep close watch and scold bad behaviour.

Cat lovers can really be nature lovers? I hope this image will remind other cat custodians of their wider responsibilities to other animals in the natural world.

 

 

References:

CBC News, Cats, the No. 1 killer of birds in Canada, June 27, 2015

American Bird Conservancy Website

 

CARNISM-A Keyword for Change

Most North Americans believe that eating meat is part of a healthy diet. Until last year, I too consumed meat, albeit “humane” or “ethically” raised. My art practice has focused on farm animal advocacy for many years, particularly against factory farming. Most people, even the coldest of hearts, would be shaken by any video of what goes on in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, another name for factory farms), or in transport or at slaughter facilities where living animals are turned into meat. In June of last year I decided enough was enough. I could no longer call myself an animal lover and continue to be party to the death of any animal – no matter how ethical or humane it was purported to be. I went vegan and I felt at home in the world. The decision was prompted by Dr. Melanie Joy’s work on carnism in the form of her TEDx presentation and her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Carnism, as she explains it, is an oppressive ideology of violence that legitimizes the killing and eating of certain species of animals but not others. Its antonym is veganism.

That we choose to continue to kill and eat animals is a set of behaviours and customs driven by an ideology, not a biological need. The fact that we have made companion animals members of our families while ignoring the torture, mutilation and slaughter of other select species equally as intelligent and sentient highlights the absurdity.

My work, Carnism – a Keyword for Change — was created using a photograph of my own painting entitled Eye and Mind with a definition of carnism digitally superinscribed. Its purpose is to put a name on the slaughter of 60 billion land animals killed for food every year. Like the animals we consume, we can survive and thrive on a plant-based diet.

The inspiration for my painting came while reading another book — Amy Fitzgerald’s Animals as Food: (Re)connecting Production, Processing, Consumption, and Impacts — a quote from an interview with a slaughterhouse worker describing how the pressure to increase the speed of production in U.S. (and Canadian?) slaughterhouses was leading to animals not being properly stunned or killed before being “disassembled.” The worker, identified as Moreno, said he kept cutting even though animals were clearly still conscious. “They blink. They make noises. … The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around.”

According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the artist’s role is to project what is making itself visible within them. Although a canvas, unlike film, cannot capture movement per se, it can suggest a change of place, a transition, a glimpse of a living thing “unstably suspended between a before and an after” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 1961). I knew I had to paint the animal’s end of life experience so others would see.

I will end this post with a quote from Adrienne Rich, an American Feminist Poet:

Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images…whatever is buried in the memory or collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.

ANIMALS IN THE ROOM

THE TRUE COSTS OF EATING MEAT, DAIRY AND EGGS

For a couple of years I have been working on a series of prints where I did linocuts of farm animlas and printed them on photographs of the places where they spend their meagre lives in industrialized agricultural settings. I have chosen five animal species to represent all the animals humans exploit for food — cow, hen, sheep, goat and pig.

My intent is that  viewers see food animals as individual beings. I want them to look into the eye of the animal who is saying I am not meat but an individual being with feelings, who wants a life and to live the way nature intended.  To add a three dimensional effect I also created five sculptures.

I presented these works at a booth at the Nepean Fine Arts League Fall sale in 2017.

Animals in the Room Both
Me at my Animals in the Room Booth

Please click here to get the printable handout from the exhibition.

Animal Clay Art with Colette Beardall

Colette Beardall, clay artist and former instructor, with me at her show Endangered, 2016

While working on the Animal in the Room series (2016-2017), I decided that adding a sculptural component might better convey a sense of three-dimensional presence of the animals. So I signed up for a clay sculpture course at the Nepean Visual Arts Centre and Collette Beardall was the instructor. I then followed her to Loam Pottery Studio for a session where I completed my series.

Before I knew that Colette was into animals herself, I found her very responsive to my particular interests—to make sculptures of my five main farmed species, including a sheep, pig, hen, cow and a goat.

Colette is not only a great instructor, but over the months I found out what a marvellous artist she is as well. The photo shows Colette and I at her solo exhibition – Endangered – held October 2016 at the Dust Evans Gallery at the Shenkman Centre. Collette writes: “In my work as a clay artist my subject matter has changed from enjoying rendering domestic creatures to feeling I have a voice to bring attention to the present condition of climate change and the effect this has on myriad species. The loss of species due to human culling for the benefit of fashion, ridiculous medical fairy tales and habitat annihilation, my work now focuses on highlighting these animals’ plight” (from Colette’s “Statement”). Please take a look at Collette’s work on her website.

Colette Beardall, Endangered, Dust Evans Gallery, October 2016

Below are the five clay animal sculptures I featured in my Animal in the Room series, described in another post. I was pleased that my sculptures came out recognizable but unlike Colette’s beautiful work, mine do not express as much personality.