Monday, September 12, 2011

Animal Treatment

At the moment, Happy Feet is in a cage with ice. There is a GPS tracker glued to his feathers. When he is in the sea, a satellite will follow where he is. You can follow this too on two websites: or (Via)

The body of eighty-eight year old Michael Clarke was found two weeks ago in his apartment, in the so-called ‘Zoo Block’ of Wellington’s Newtown Park Flats. It had laid there for up to fourteen months. Council workers who had tried to inform Mr Clarke of the pending demolition of the building raised the alarm when it became apparent that none of the calling cards that they had left over the course of several weeks had been collected. That’s how they found him.

I know the flats well and walk past them often, on the way either to Newtown park or the adjacent zoo. The estate has been for some time in a squalid state of repair, and I wasn’t surprised when it transpired earlier this year that, rather than opting for a cosmetic refurbishment, the council had decided to gut them and start afresh. The first block to be stripped back to its bare structure was the one closest to town. The one at the opposite end, next to the town belt and the zoo, was – is – to be demolished altogether.

Systems. There are systems in place, a 20-year housing upgrade programme with money set aside and a timetable, to make the council housing complexes more liveable. But there are no systems to check that the tenants are actually alive. Stephanie Cook, leader of Wellington council’s social portfolio, was candid about this: ‘We're not running an institution. We're providing homes for people and they have a right to privacy.’ And besides, she added: ‘He lived quietly, he paid his rent and we had no reason to think that anything was wrong.’

For over a year, Michael Clarke lived as quietly as only a dead person can. The money for rent and utilities was paid automatically out of his account with the funds from the superannuation that was paid into it. And this apparently was enough to make him invisible. But whatever latitude you may be inclined to give to Councillor Cook – was there really no reason to think anything might be wrong with an eighty-eight year old man who lived alone? – the Mayor’s own press release was grotesquely misguided:
[This incident] serves as a reminder that we should all think about our neighbours’ welfare. Getting to know your neighbours - even if it just means knowing their name and saying hello - is an important way of keeping our community connected and strong.

Does it even need to be said? The forgetting of Michael Clarke was not a failure on the part of the people who lived in close proximity to him. Without decent living conditions you may not even think of your dwelling as a dwelling, or of your neighbours as neighbours. ‘We're boxed away in here and the only way you get out is in a box’ is how one of the residents put it to The Dominion Post. But although the local paper filed some sensitive reports following the incident, as well as reminding us that it’s been over ten years since the Wellington coroner urged the council to institute checks to prevent this very thing from happening again and again, it has stopped short of demanding the resignation of the officials in charge, or expressing any palpable outrage. Life, or lack thereof, goes on.

They call them lonely deaths, and of course they are hardly confined to our council estates, or this city. In England, they are an especially notable problem in the context of the Irish diaspora. In Italy, the stories often involve poorly maintained gas stoves whose aged owners become literal time bombs. In Japan, where the expression was coined in the 1980s – in the native idiom the word is kodokushi, literally ‘isolated deaths’ – it has proved to be a boon for the cleaning industry. It is also in Japan that the connection with economic as opposed to purely social determinants has been made most explicit.
The collapse of the bubble economy after 1990 shrunk the size of Japanese firms and led to a restructuring that is still playing out today. The percentage of the workforce employed in part-time, temporary and contract work has tripled since 1990, forcing workaholic Japanese businessmen, many of whom never married, into a lonely early retirement. "Their world has evaporated under their feet," says Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist who studies Japanese work life. "The firm has been everything for these men. Their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure."
If the proposition is true, if one of the root causes of this phenomenon is the casualisation of labour – plus or minus the degree of identification with one’s corporate employer described by Professor North – we’re going to see, as well as not see, a lot more Michael Clarkes in the years to come.

Three days after council staff forced their way into Mr Clarke’s bedsit, the stray emperor penguin known as Happy Feet farewelled its temporary quarters at Wellington Zoo to begin its journey back to Antarctica. While the release back into the wild of a rescued animal might have called for a celebration, the announcement focussed largely on the money spent on the bird (in the area of $30,000) and was careful to note that the costs incurred by the zoo above its normal operating budget had been covered by private donations. This, in response to a polemic that boiled down more or less to the following question: ‘how can we spend this kind of money on a flightless bird that got lost when human children go hungry?’

My conflation of the two events in this post notwithstanding, I admit to not finding the notion of welfare for penguins especially troubling. One of the zoo’s functions is to care for stray or wounded birds, and this one was a rather extraordinary case. While an editorial in The Manawatu Standard actually employed the phrase ‘where do we draw the line?’, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see a massive influx of emperor penguin bludgers – or if we do, then we’ll have to deal with it, much as we do with beached whales and the like. We need to find ways to look after people and animals, it seems to me, and fund sports and the arts and education besides. The debate on how to actually prioritise spending in each area, not to mention how and from whom to collect the money, is best not conducted on such spurious grounds.

However in other respects the temporal and spatial collision of the two stories is more instructive, more exemplary. That there is a section of the council flats known as ‘Zoo Block’ is appalling to begin with, but it’s difficult to look past the associations that it conjures: between the place that nobody will visit – even when it is their job – and the place next door where people will queue and pay good money to get in and gaze at the residents; between the designed dwellings for the animals, and the drab modular bedsits for the humans; and most of all between the two protagonists, the penguin and the pensioner: one a celebrity, the other a recluse; one cared for, the other literally left to rot; one constantly stared at via closed circuit cameras or tracked via GPS transmitters, the other invisible.

None of this is to suggest a crude equivalence, or that we should advocate for identical treatments – and do what, place older council tenants under 24-hour webcam surveillance? – but rather to reflect on those systems of care and neglect operating side by side, on the politics that produce them and on the public narratives that they engender: not just about welfare and the proper treatment of animals and people, but also about who has the right and the duty to look and to see.

The case of Michael Clarke is a refutation that society works as a Panopticon, keeping a constant and watchful eye on its subjects: all that it took for this lonely retiree to move into the shadows was a sufficient flow of funds and effective banking arrangements. Based on the evidence that he continued to be an economic subject, the system simply assumed that he was also a living one (I leave the biopolitical implications to those who care to pursue them). With Happy Feet, the reverse has happened: since his GPS transmitter stopped sending signals, it was quickly speculated that the penguin must have died a gruesome death, however unlikely that eventuality might in fact be. So of Michael Clarke we said we can’t see him, therefore he must be alive; whereas of Happy Feet we say we can’t see it, therefore it’s probably dead. And of course it very much matters that we wish to look at one and not the other. Surveillance is also a spectacle onto which desire and pleasure are projected.

The mechanisms of enjoyment play a part in this. And so the international hide-the-homeless tournament also known as the Rugby World Cup seems a not inappropriate time to consider the life and death of Michael Clarke, and of the others like him who are put in boxes and then forgotten – or put there so that they can be forgotten.

If you read German or Italian, this poem at Francesca’s place is also pertinent.