Catherine Owen's "Dodo" as Animal Rights Theory

By Trowbridge, Terry | ARIEL, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Catherine Owen's "Dodo" as Animal Rights Theory


Trowbridge, Terry, ARIEL


Western imperial culture burdens Canadian society with an unjust hierarchy of animals. Thinkers implicitly use hierarchy to arrange animals along a "chain of being," from creatures worthy to exist, to unworthy expendable victims. The justifications of hierarchy sometimes include subtle reasons that an animal is doomed. At other times, the need for justifying the existence of one creature instead of another is blatant. Whether subtle or obvious, the chain of being projects a purpose onto everything within its purview. Colonial explorers must imagine the world in terms that allow an empire to conquer the animals that live in new territory. Therefore, the injustices of imperialism result in a logical disconnection between the realities of indigenous life forms and western societies. In the twenty-first century, the blinders that allowed Europeans to expand their political domains over the earth are being vigorously called into question. The logical disconnection between western culture and the conquered world is being subverted by apparent imminent ecological catastrophes around the world.

Canadians live in an ecologically diverse nation that is the political result of cultural and ecological imperialism by several European powers. Comfort and survival depend on how well Canadians can overcome the legacies of colonization by challenging the logic of environmentally unsound thinking. People need to explore the reasons that they are facing so many impending global catastrophes. Catherine Owen, a Canadian poet, has written a poem, "The Dodo" (13), that reveals multiple layers of prejudice in the legacy of the dodo's extinction. "The Dodo" lays bare the rationalizations used to justify forced extinction in ways that allow readers to radicalize their own critical thinking about animal rights and the environment.

Dodos are important to Owen because they are famous. She compares them to Mae West's "dubious glamour" and also to a poster child "of the vanished." As for Owen herself, she claims that when she was a child the dodo was the only creature of which she was aware that had been erased from the earth. For the dodo to be the only extinct creature that Owen knew about in her youth is a startling claim since every Canadian child knows about dinosaurs. However, extinction is not enough for describing the dodo. The book in which "The Dodo" appears, The Wrecks of Eden, is about the tension between naturalists and their culture (22), as well as the pressures of citizenship and modern human-driven extinction (48-49, 60). There must be a profound effect on her environmental politics and Canadian identity if awareness of these tensions began to develop in her early youth. That the dodo stands apart even from dinosaurs suggests that Canadian children already develop a critical consciousness that distinguishes natural selection from irresponsible killing by humans.

Owen noticeably foregrounds two ways that the dodo acts as a symbol of hierarchy. One is a sort of explanation based on competition or willpower. Competitiveness is a loose rationalization about evolution that is used as a justification for violence. The second symbol is a subtler expression of how that irrational sense of competition now affects a claim to entitlement based on intelligence.

At issue is the legitimacy of extinction. Human selection, as opposed to natural selection, is based on conscious efforts to manipulate a species or habitat. Human society is replete with examples of conscious selection in action (Darwin 71-100). There are also many examples of extinction as an unintended consequence of human expansion (Crosby 273) and development (Carson 111). Twenty-first century thinkers like Australian Susan Hawthorne (93-100) and Indian Vandana Shiva (Biopiracy 4-5; Stolen Harvest 12-1 A) have already made the point that the extinction of a species through imperialist activities is the result of illogical claims about how ecologies are constructed. …

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