Manchester University
Oak Leaves

May 5, 2017

DeVries Discusses Animal Ethics in Books, Movies

Kelleen Cullison

On April 20, Manchester associate professor of Spanish Scott DeVries shared the story of how he moved from sleeping in his veterinarian father’s dog crates to studying the ethics behind how people view animals. In his talk, “Animals, Ethics, Books and Movies,” DeVries challenged his audience to contemplate the history of animals and their important role in film and literature, and consequently, how those mediums affected the way they ethically viewed them. 

DeVries’ book, “Creature Discomfort,” focuses on animal ethics and the representation of animals in Spanish American fiction and poetry. The sheer prevalence of animals in film, however, intrigued him. 

“Think of a movie with an animal in the title and turn to your neighbor,” DeVries said. “Now make a bet with them, however much you’re willing, maybe two bucks, that the name of your movie won’t be on my list.” The list included a “brief” collection of all the movies he himself contrived.  

The fairly new Disney movie “Zootopia” was among those listed, and DeVries took advantage of its popularity to put one of the concepts of his book into action. “Fauna-criticism is asking yourself, ‘How does this film or book help me discern between animal ethics?’” Devries said.  
After viewing two clips from “Zootopia,” DeVries brought to attention two animal ethic concepts he found in the film—the overanthropocentricism of animals and the idea that films change how people view animals in the real world. 

Anthropocentricity is a kind of utilitarianism in which one finds the suffering of others deplorable, but “others” only referring to other human beings. This speciesist attitude is alluded to in “Zootopia,” where the beloved animal characters must have human qualities, like the aspiration to become a police officer, or animals conversing and wearing human clothing. What DeVries described as the “overanthropocentrism of animals,” was giving the animal characters human qualities in the film in order for people to care for them in the same way. 

This idea that the film changes the way viewers consider animals also appears in the film’s own awareness of the anthropocentrism of it’s characters. When the main character follows a lead to a “naturalist” colony, the character working the front desk says, “Yeah, some mammals say the naturalist life is weird, but you know what I say is weird? Clothes on animals!” 

“This makes some people sit back and think, ‘yeah, clothes on animals doesn’t look natural,’” DeVries said. 

Why do so many animals show up in our literature? Why do we care so much about animals? DeVries theorizes it is the mystery of the animals, and our fascination between similarities between them and ourselves. “Only male whales sing,” DeVries said. “so scientists thought their song  may be tied to mating.” But they don’t sing merely during the mating season or when females are around. “Whales can do something we can’t: sing underwater, and we can’t understand why. They remain a mystery to us.” 

He also notes the mourning rituals of elephants: how their eyes will water when one of their herd dies, and that they will sometimes bury the bones. “At least someone in an audience this size has unfortunately been affected by loss.” DeVries said, and noted the similarity between us and elephants in this ritual of grief. 

The idea of animal philosophy and study isn’t a new concept. Philosophers as early as classical Greece have considered the ethics of consuming animals and their subsequent suffering (or the remote possibility of reincarnation, and that you may be eating a relative of yours when you consume a cow). This historical debate of animal ethics continues in modern times with the work of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, who warns us of the moral dangers in anthropocentrism and speciesism, to the work of Tom Regan, who contemplates the “subject of a life”- the idea that animals have lives of their own, and therefore hold worth and purpose.
“Animals may provide companionship that other people cannot,” DeVries said. “Such as that of an elderly person, whose family doesn’t live nearby.” This may depict animals’ importance to humans, but DeVries invited the audience to also consider the idea of animals’ intrinsic value of their own.
“The goal of this talk is that I hope you’ll watch a movie and consider animal ethics, and think, ‘Does this movie uphold ethics from animal studies,” DeVries said. “Giving ethical perspectives to how we treat animals is what animal studies is all about.”