Saturday, 27 June 2015

REVIEW: Animal Rescue, by Patrick George

Animal Rescue is a mostly wordless novelty picture book by illustrator Patrick George. Printed double-sided acetate pages sandwiched between regular paper pages allow for a game to be played as the reader opens each new spread. The acetate naturally falls on the right hand page, each time showing animals (or, in some cases, their body parts) in distressing or abusive situations. The reader is invited to turn the plastic page and the act of doing so places the animals in much more pleasant environments on the left hand page. You can try it out for yourself on Patrick George's website here.

The book is fairly comprehensive for a picture book aimed at children aged 3+, with topics including: circuses, zoos, exotic skins, factory farming and abandoned companion animals. The act of turning the page is both fun and engaging; it is exciting to see how the image changes depending on where the acetate is placed. The artwork is bright and friendly, although the humans are perhaps a little too cartoonish for my tastes.

There are several issues I would like to bring up from an abolitionist vegan viewpoint, however. To begin with, just three of the eleven spreads focus on "food" animals: fishes, chickens and sharks (with regards to shark fin soup). The fact that there are so few is problematic in itself, considering that the vast majority of animals used by humans are used for food. Including just three examples reduces the scale of farmed animals' plight and puts unfair emphasis on saving wild animals instead. Although this is hardly surprising given that the book was made in conjunction with a conservation charity, it is disappointing nonetheless. Additionally within these three examples there are some rather glaring problems which I will discuss in more detail.

The fishing spread shows a trawler and net full of fish and a turtle on the right hand page. When we turn the acetate, however, only the turtle is rescued; the faceless, featureless fish are left in the net to suffer and die in order to become food. Removing the fishes' faces and features strips them of their individuality and suggests they are unable to feel in the same way as other animals. This may have been a conscious design decision in order to keep the book's minimal aesthetic consistent, but it is still an issue. Saving only the turtle may also be a fault of the design, as it is the similarity between the pattern on the turtle's shell and that of the net that makes the game effective. However the notion that we should save turtles, but not fishes (we are not even given the option to rescue the fishes) is highly speciesist.

The next spread confronts the reader with a similar dilemma, but this time there isn't even a distinction between species. We are presented with the choice to liberate some chickens from an overcrowded, grey, prison-like shed into an open field which is inhabited by a solitary rabbit. I believe the inclusion of the rabbit helps distinguish this field from a free-range farm, but I could be mistaken. When we turn the plastic page we rescue a handful of hens, but the majority remain in the factory farm and we have no option to save them. To me, this certainly doesn't imply abolition, but instead it suggests that not all animals can, or should, be free. It also implies that factory farming and the way we treat farmed animals is the problem, rather than the fact that we use them at all.  Again, this could be attributed to a design flaw - I believe it could have been possible to design a spread which allows the reader to liberate all of the chickens. It also would have been braver to show not just a factory farm, but a family farm, a humane farm in order to explain that all animal use is oppressive and exploitative.

Next we have the spread on shark fin soup. Although visually this is one of my favourite designs in the book (it is beautifully composed), shark fin soup is eaten by a small proportion of humans and again the emphasis is taken away from farmed animals and placed onto wild animals. There is often some degree of xenophobia in animal rights' criticism of shark fin soup - although that is not explicit here, it may enter into the discussion between parent and child.

One final criticism is of the last double page spread in the book which poses the question: "Which animals would you rescue?". Now of course one would hope that any child (or adult) would answer "all of them!" with glee and without hesitation. But the use of the word "which" implies that potential answers could include "some of them" or "none of them". Again this seems potentially speciesist and relies on parents' understanding of animal use to further explain the issues. In the non-vegan world we live in, this could result in speciesist conclusions to be drawn, particularly in the examples analysed above.

One key positive is the way each spread is concerned with animals as individuals (aside from the fishes in the net) and the focus is on their experiences, from their point of view. This helps us to empathise and realise that animals exist for their own reasons, not for human gain. The people the Seaworld-style aquarium look perfectly happy even after the whale is liberated; the glamorous  woman still looks fashionable, comfortable and warm, even without her fox fur stole; life without animal exploitation is neither limiting nor deprived.

Conceptually the book is highly inventive, there are some very clever uses of the format and the bold artwork makes it visually very successful. Turning the pages is a fun and engaging way to approach difficult subjects which are seldom confronted in picture books. Although the omission of more examples of farmed animals is a missed opportunity, and there are some disappointing displays of speciesism, I do think that this book succeeds in allowing the reader to question why we use animals in certain ways. Being almost wordless helps children to draw their own conclusions, rather than being told what is right or wrong. I'm sure the book will provoke many thoughtful conversations between parents and children, perhaps even allowing parents to question their own animal use in more depth. I would be keen to see another in the series that focuses purely on farmed animals as it is clear that the Born Free Foundation's focus on conservation has taken centre stage here. Despite its flaws, I would recommend this book to other vegans and to those looking to explain animal issues to young children.

See the trailer for the book below:

‘Animal Rescue’ by Patrick George from PatrickGeorge on Vimeo.

Monday, 22 June 2015

"Another victory for the animals"

When animal "rights" groups and organisations claim that there has been a "victory for the animals" I can't help but shudder at the blatant speciesism on display. The phrase is used any time a single-issue campaign appears to have had some effect - from pressuring a fancy restaurant to remove foie gras from it's menu, to international bans on cosmetic animal testing. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm always glad to hear when fewer animals are being used for human gain. However to suggest that any of these things is a "victory for animals" is insulting. How is removing foie gras a victory for the cows, pigs, chickens and fishes whose body parts will most likely replace a duck's liver on the dinner plate? Equally, a ban on cosmetic testing suggests that testing on animals for other reasons is morally acceptable.

But there's another reason I find this type of victorious declaration unpalatable: money. It feels like these organisations are exploiting the generosity of people with good intentions by pandering for donations at any given opportunity. Francione has touched upon the subject many times and sums it up rather nicely "... single-issue campaigns (and welfare reform campaigns generally) are nothing but business opportunities for the large groups. They have nothing to do with helping animals." These charities choose to focus on single issues, with short-term, accessible targets in order to declare victory as often as possible and use each "victory" as a marketing strategy. The campaigns are catered specifically to non-vegan, "animal-loving", speciesist supporters in order to maximise donations, rather than aiming for real change or, God forbid, asking their supporters to go vegan. But when becoming vegan is the very least we can do to help end animal exploitation, surely we should be promoting nothing less than veganism, and celebrating the creation of each new (abolitionist) vegan as real victories.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Our Children and Other Animals

In 2013 I was thrilled to be asked to illustrate an academic book about children, animals and media. Written by Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart, the book explores the subtle ways that seemingly innocuous books, games and other types of media can affect the way children view animals. Having a huge interest in both children's literature and animal rights, this was right up my street and it was a joy working with Matthew and Kate due to their enthusiasm for the project too.

The book was published in November (find out more here) and I am excited to show you the front cover plus some of my favourite illustrations from the book!