Tag Archives: animals

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Wolf of GubbioFioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.

“Brother Wolf, thou doest much harm in these parts and thou hast done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would make peace between you and the people.”

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

In agreement the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.

Meanwhile the townsfolk, having heard of the miracle, gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?”

Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.

Image: Saint Francis instructs the Wolf, Carl Weidemeyer-Worpswede, 1911


Ashes and Snow

“In exploring the shared language and poetic sensibilities of all animals, I am working towards rediscovering the common ground that once existed when people lived in harmony with animals. The images depict a world that is without beginning or end, here or there, past or present.”
—Gregory Colbert, Creator of Ashes and Snow

Ashes and Snow

Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow is an ongoing project that weaves together photographic works, 35mm films, art installations and a novel in letters. Included in the exhibit are over 50 large-scale photographic artworks, a 60-minute film, and two 9-minute film haikus. There is also a series of fine handbound books, printed on imported papers. With profound patience and an unswerving commitment to the expressive and artistic nature of animals, he has captured extraordinary interactions between humans and animals.

His 21st-century bestiary includes more than 40 totemic species from around the world. Since he began creating his singular work of Ashes and Snow, Colbert has mounted more than 30 expeditions to locations such as India, Egypt, Burma, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Kenya, Antarctica, the Azores, and Borneo.

Nomadic MuseumLocated in the world’s only “nomadic” museum – built temporarily and specially for Ashes and Snow out of 148 abandoned shipping containers – this installation features Colbert’s massive, sepia-toned portraits on handmade Japanese paper, some up to 10 feet in length, of humans interacting with animals like elephants, cheetahs, and manatees.

Colbert originally conceived of the idea for a sustainable travelling museum in 1999. He envisioned a sustainable structure that could easily be assembled in ports of call around the world, providing a transitory environment for Ashes and Snow on its global journey.

Nomadic MuseumThe show first opened at the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, in 2002 and is charted to travel the globe with no final destination. The Nomadic Museum, the travelling home of Ashes and Snow, debuted in New York (March to June 2005) and then travelled to Santa Monica (January to May 2006), and Tokyo (March to June 2007). The show is mounted in Mexico City in January 2008.

The title Ashes and Snow suggests beauty and renewal, while also referring to the literary component of the exhibition—a fictional account of a man who, over the course of a yearlong journey, composes 365 letters to his wife. The source of the title is revealed in the 365th letter. Colbert’s photographs and one-hour film loosely reference the traveller’s encounters and experiences described in the letters.

Ashes and Snow

These mixed media photographic works marry umber and sepia tones in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper. The artworks, each approximately five feet by eight feet, are mounted without explanatory text so as to encourage an open-ended interaction with the images.

Colbert wants to remove the artificial barriers between man and animals, returning to an Eden-like point in time when the world was supposedly “one”. By presenting each image as a “poetic filmstudy” he’s trying to communicate the idea that nature doesn’t have a “style” but a “voice”.

Ashes and Snow

Ashes and Snow has no final destination, and the nomadic museum will continue to travel to points around the globe, each exhibit being simply a “port of call”.

Ashes and Snow

View the books online.

The following excerpt is entitled Feather to Fire, and is narrated in three languages by Laurence Fishburne (English), Ken Watanabe (Japanese), and Enrique Rocha (Spanish).

Matthew Scully: A Compassionate Conservative


A horrible, wonderful, important book

Pigs prematurely taken from their mothers root incessantly for something to chew or suck on; and if they are pigs spending their abbreviated lives in a factory farm, where maybe 500 animals are crowded into a space no bigger than a living room, the thing they try to chew on is the tail of the hog in front of them. This is not a happy habit for the industrial farmer: chewed tails can result in infections, and pigs that die, in Matthew Scully’s pitch-perfect phrase, ”an unauthorized death.”

The factory farmer’s solution? When the piglets are weaned, a good 12 to 16 weeks before nature had planned, their tails are docked, the lower part amputated with a pliers-like instrument. That small operation leaves the pigs with hypersensitive tails, which means the animals will not get complaisant and will struggle ever after to keep their clipped, throbbing appendages out of the mouths of their penmates.

Should you be inclined to pity the beasts for that or any other detail of their treatment in today’s giant meat-making plants, however, the executives in charge of booming factory farms like Smithfield Foods in Virginia, which kills 82,300 pigs a day — a quarter of the nation’s total — are eager to set your conscience at ease. When Scully asked Sonny Faison, head of Smithfield’s Carroll’s Foods division, in North Carolina, whether there isn’t something ”just a little sad” about confining millions of animals to cramped concrete enclosures, where there is no sun, wind, rain or even so much as a scattering of straw to sleep on, Faison declared au contraire. ”They love it,” he insisted. ”They’re in state-of-the art confinement facilities. The conditions that we keep these animals in are much more humane than when they were out in the field.” Another Smithfield supervisor seconded the notion, painting a bleak picture of the life of free-ranging swine: ”I mean, you put ’em out, they kind of scrounge around in the mud, and in the summer, around here, animals that are outside risk getting mosquito bites and things.”

Matthew ScullyDominion is a horrible, wonderful, important book. It is horrible in its subject, a half-reportorial, half-philosophical examination of some of the most repugnant things that human beings do to animals, notably keeping them in the factory farms that have taken over the business of supplying America’s insatiable meat tooth; and hunting them down on a new style of ”safaris,” which are nothing more than canned, risk-free opportunities to bag exotic species as easily as one might drown a suckling kitten. The book is wonderful in its eloquent, mordant clarity, and its hilarious fillets of sanctimonious cant and hypocrisy. For example, Scully quotes from a book called In Defense of Hunting, by James A. Swan — an authority favored by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other proud, manly-men hunters — citing a passage that addresses the critics who weep over the animals and asks, aren’t they special, even sacred, too?

”A thing can become truly sacred only if a person knows in his or her heart that the object or creature can somehow serve as a conduit to a realm of existence that transcends the temporal,” Swan argues. ”If hunting can be a path to spirit, unhindered by guilt, then nature has a way of making sure that hunters feel compassion.”

Dominion is important in large measure because the author, an avowed conservative Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is an unexpected defender of animals against the depredations of profit-driven corporations, swaggering, gun-loving hunters, proponents of renewed ”harvesting” of whales and elephants and others who insist that all of nature is humanity’s romper room, to play with, rearrange and plunder at will.

As his friend and fellow political commentator, Joseph Sobran, said on hearing of Scully’s dietary preferences: ”A conservative, with a Catholic upbringing, and a vegetarian? Boy, talk about aggrieved minorities!” At the very least, Dominion will encourage patronage of the small, independent organic farms, where the cattle are grass-fed and treated humanely, an option that Scully calls ”a decent compromise.”

Scully’s argument is, fundamentally, wholly a moral one. It is wrong to be cruel to animals, he says, and when our cruelty expands and mutates to the point where we no longer recognize the animals in a factory farm as living creatures capable of feeling pain and fear, or when we insist on an inalienable right to stalk and slaughter intelligent, magnificent creatures like elephants or polar bears for the sheer, bracing thrill of it, then we debase ourselves. As the earth’s most powerful species and the only one capable of meditating on our actions, we have a moral responsibility to treat the animals in our care with kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness, Scully says. When we forfeit that responsibility, we forfeit the right to any of the little self-congratulatory designations we have claimed: as God’s ”chosen” ones.

As Scully sees it, we may be ”of” nature but we are not in it. For better or worse, we have dominion over the earth, and how we manage that position, whether as bloodthirsty tyrants or as benign patrons, is a core measure of our worth. ”Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship,” he writes.

The author takes a particular dislike toward those who argue that animals, being incapable of dwelling on their mortality, therefore don’t really suffer the way neuronally well-endowed humans can suffer. He also finds fault with those he considers moral relativists, like the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that reason, rather than knee-jerk compassion or squeamishness, should dictate what we deem the comparative worth of the lives of animals or severely handicapped infants. Scully can wax self-righteous and absolutist, and he considers the ”squeamishness factor” to be a handy indicator of something, like a factory farm, that is morally wrong. ”It is usually a sign of crimes against nature that we cannot bear to see them at all, that we recoil and hide our eyes,” he writes, ”and no one has ever cringed at the sight of a soybean factory.”

Overall, a beautiful and thoughtful book that forces some of us to look more closely into the mirror.

~~ Excerpted from The New York Times Book Review, by Natalie Angier

Matthew Scully, interviewed by National Review Online:

National Review Online: In a nutshell, how are we abusing dominion, our stewardship over animals?

Matthew Scully: In the same way that human beings are prone to abusing any other kind of power — by forgetting that we are not the final authority. The people who run our industrial livestock farms, for example, have lost all regard for animals as such, as beings with needs, natures, and a humble dignity of their own. They treat these creatures like machines and “production units” of man’s own making, instead of as living creatures made by God. And you will find a similar arrogance in every other kind of cruelty as well.

Washington Post Viewpoint: Animal Cruelty and the Need for Reform

Matthew Scully

The Henry Bergh Children’s Book Awards

New York City, April 1866: The driver of a cart laden with
coal is whipping his horse. Passersby on the New York City street stop to gawk not so much at the weak, emaciated equine, but at the tall man, elegant in top hat and spats, who is explaining to the driver that it is now against the law to beat one’s animal. Thus, America first encounters The Great Meddler.

Henry BerghHenry Bergh was born in 1813, the son of a prominent shipbuilder. His adult years found him to be a man of leisure, dabbling in the arts and touring Europe. As was befitting the life of an aristocrat, in 1863 he was appointed to a diplomatic post at the Russian court of Czar Alexander II. It was there he first took action against man’s inhumanity toward animals. Soon after, en route to America, he stopped in London to crib notes from the Earl of Harrowby, president of England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1840.

Back in New York, Bergh pleaded on behalf of “these mute servants of mankind” at a February 8, 1866, meeting at Clinton Hall. According to the next day’s edition of The Sun Bergh impressed attendees with his indignant recollection of a family watching a bullfight in Spain who “…seemed to receive their most ecstatic throb from the maddening stab of the horned animal.” Bergh then detailed practices in America, including cockfighting and the horrors of slaughterhouses.

Fortified by the success of his speech and the number of dignitaries to sign his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals,” Bergh brought a charter for a proposed society to protect animals to the New York State Legislature. With his flair for drama he convinced politicians and committees of his purpose, and the charter incorporating the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was passed on April 10, 1866. Nine days later, an anti-cruelty law was passed, and the ASPCA granted the right to enforce it.

The ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award was established to honor books that promote the humane ethic of compassion and respect for all living things.

Publishers are able to submit nominations, and each year ASPCA staff and a panel of outside judges select the best books published that year for children and young adults. The awards are presented each year at the annual conference of the American Library Association.

Is My Dog A WolfThe cover photo says it all—a distinctly canine face, half smiling golden retriever and half intense gray wolf. Once inside, young animal lovers will learn about the similarities and differences between the family pooch and one of the wild kingdom’s most fascinating creatures. Questions answered include “Why does my dog’s hair stand up?,” “Why does my dog chew my stuff?” and “Why does my dog love to lick my face?”; be forewarned, the answer to the latter may surprise you! (Ages 9 – 12)

Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award Winners

Animals in Translation

Animals in TranslationEarlier, we blogged about Dr. Temple Grandin, an astonishing woman with autism.

For many years, toddlers who, like Grandin, couldn’t speak and raged for no clear reason were usually institutionalized. Grandin, who is now in her late 50’s, was almost certainly the first such child to grow up to become a specialist in animal behavior.

When Thinking in Pictures, Grandin’s second book, appeared in 1995, experts had learned that autism was a spectrum disorder; in other words, its triad of difficulties — social problems, behavioral problems, obsessiveness — hobbled some people more than others. Grandin calls it neurodiversity.

Temple Grandin put the lie to many assumptions about autism. Of course, she wrote, autistic people have to learn social rules — in a methodical, structured way — but their obsessions may not be handicaps; they may even provide certain advantages. After all, Grandin herself had channeled her fixations and sensory differences into a successful career designing livestock equipment.

Her amazing new work, Animals in Translation, is crammed with facts and anecdotes about her favourite subject: the senses, brains, emotions and amazing talents of animals. Written with Catherine Johnson, who may have provided its colloquial, informal tone, Animals in Translation expands on an idea Grandin first sketched in Thinking in Pictures: that her autistic sensory perceptions (in particular, her intense focus on visual details) enable her to take in the world as animals do. In fact, she argues that autistic people and animals see, feel and think in remarkably similar ways.

Birdy CollageAlthough startling, this observation serves mainly as a segue into Grandin’s larger point. Animals — not just chimps and dolphins, but dogs, crows, pigs and chickens — are, she contends, much smarter and more sensitive than we assume.

There seem to be no features of human thought that animals don’t share to some degree, except perhaps the ability to craft complex conceptual metaphors. Most of the hallmarks of so-called human uniqueness turn out not to be unique: mathematical skills, introspection, forming and executing plans, language and tool-making.

She writes of prairie dog communities that have developed highly complex communications with the characteristics of human language, including sophisticated use of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Prairie dogs are at the very bottom of the predator/prey pyramid; Grandin speculates that development of a complex language was essential to their survival.

She also cites the intelligence of birds, which remember complex migratory paths after the first one-way flight, and documents tool-creation by a crow who bent wire into various shapes to extract food.

When she describes the emerging relationship between early humans and wolves, she notices how much we learned from canid social relationships, to our benefit.

Grandin’s most startling assertion is that many animals are smarter than us in the ways that count for them. We’re simply not equipped to perceive their intelligence, any more than they are equipped to understand what we’re doing when we speak to one another. But Grandin sees it all the time. She literally sees things other humans don’t, and claims that animals do too.

Human beings have lived for aeons immersed in a vast congress of reasoning, perceptive, communicating beings. But overlaid, in parallel, on this planet are numerous strands of sentience that have to be judged not in comparison to us but according to their ultimate impact on the animals that use them.

Intelligence, language, consciousness and tool-making therefore have to be considered not as values in their own right, but as strategies; their value lies in how well they fit a particular species’ needs. They fit ours very well, as it turns out.

But Grandin’s new book implies that the landscape of neurodiversity and intelligence is considerably more complicated than we’ve thought. She demands greater respect for the beings we live with – especially those to whom we have adapted.

Image: Christine Marie Art

The Deliverance of Dancing Bears


After a lifetime of brutal treatment, including walking on burning embers, Bulgaria’s last three dancing bears will get to rest their paws at a mountain sanctuary, in an apparent end to the centuries-old performance tradition in the Balkans. Activists today purchased the freedom of Mima, 8, Misho, 19, and Svetla, 17.

Bulgaria is believed to have been the last country in the Balkans where dancing bears still performed, even though the practice was outlawed in 1993, when there were 20 to 30 such bears in the country.

The three bears will join another 20 brown bears on Mount Rila at a 12-hectare sanctuary for former dancing bears about 180 kilometres south of Sofia.

“Our aim is to make their life more bearable in their remaining years,” Ioana Tomescu of the Austria-based Four Paws Foundation, which created the sanctuary, told The Associated Press.

Throughout the Balkans, families, mostly among the Roma community, have long earned a living through performing bears. But the techniques to train them led the practice to be banned, and animal rights activists have moved to find the bears new homes.

Because dancing bears are illegal, authorities could simply have taken Mima, Misho and Svetla away from their owners in the eastern village of Getsovo.

Instead, the Four Paws Foundation decided to pay for their freedom by giving their owners small grants to set up new businesses. It did not reveal how much was paid. In return, the owners signed declarations pledging never to take up the bear dancing business again.

The Deliverance of Dancing Bears,
by Elizabeth Stanley

ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Awards and 1995 Australian Picture Book of the Year winner, this thought-provoking story presents the plight of the dancing bears of Turkey and Greece. The author tells the story of a captive bear whose dreams of freedom sustain her, even while being forced to perform in a Turkish marketplace by a cruel and angry keeper. During the quiet hours when she is confined to her cage, the bear imagines a different life in which she is free to wander through mountain streams and sleep lazily with her cubs. It is a kind-hearted peasant who liberates the bear and who reminds all of those watching of an important moral lesson about dignity and life.

Stanley saw her first “dancing bear” in 1979 in Athens and decided then to write a book to challenge the assumption that men could cruelly use wild animals to make money. In 1992 she took her written text to Turkey to take photos and to make sketches for the artwork. In the same year The World Society for the Protection of Animals effected the release and the return to the wild of all chained bears in Turkey. Today there are no dancing bears in Greece or Turkey. Today, it is the last Bulgarian dancing bears who have been freed.

But a recent WSPA report has revealed that the trade in dancing bears is still alive and well in India.