Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Animals and the London 2012 Olympics

London will host its third Summer Olympic games starting in a couple of days time, and the role animals will play in the opening ceremony is still generating controversy. 

When it was first announced that nonhuman animals would be used in the opening ceremony there was considerable contention, especially among animal protection organisations. 

Twelve horses, three cows, two goats, ten chickens, ten ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep and three sheepdogs will be used in the opening ceremony. Director Bill Morris has admitted that he had not put adequate thought into how to safeguard the animals against noise and stress, until the problem was pointed out to him by animal activists. 

Now, in a further twist, it seems that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had understood that the animals to be used in the Olympic opening ceremony would be retired to a sanctuary after the event. It turns out that this is not the case. While the animals will not be eaten, they will continue to be used as exhibited animals for the remainder of their lives. 

Having just come from London, a couple of things come to mind when I read about this issue. The first is that I assume that the inclusion of animals in the opening ceremony is intended to remind the audience of the London of yesteryear. This must be the case as I certainly saw no evidence of cows, goats, sheep or chickens as I walked around the modern-day city of London. Cities in the developed world are now human-only or human-predominantly spaces. They rarely incorporate nonhuman animals. Yet this was not always the case. Animals were once part of the cityscape, even in London. However, the inclusion of animals in the London Olympic games will hark back to a time that was in actual fact far from idyllic.  

The reason animals once occupied cities was that they were brought to city centres for slaughter and sale. However, far from making cities cute, animal friendly environments, they made them chaotic and often filthy. 

This is how Charles Dickens described London's Smithfield Market in his classic book Oliver Twist (1838):

It was market-morning [at Smithfield Market]. The ground was covered, nearly ankle–deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemd to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Historian Dorothee Brantz argues that the common perception that European cities were polluted environments during the modernising period is closely associated with the way animals were transformed into food close to the point of sale. She writes:

Since meat production involved the killing of living creatures and the dismantling of their bodies, it inevitably generated strong smells, loud noise, and lots of blood and waste. When slaughterhouses were dispersed throughout the city, livestock were herded through the streets, blood flowed in the gutters, and animal parts often polluted rivers and alley ways. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts of city life often referred to the stench and dirt of slaughterhouses when trying to describe the filth.

So while having animals on-hand makes them visible, if you wish to kill and eat the animals it will be a messy business indeed.

Of course the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics will have very little mess to worry about. No more than 150 animals will be part of the opening ceremony. While the inclusion of only a small number of animals is probably a blessing from the animals' perspective (and probably all the organisers can cope with logistically) it also acts as a reminder that their inclusion is only symbolic and not at all a reflection on the true number of animals that will be part of the 2012 Olympics. 

According Olympic organisers, the following quantities of animal protein will be consumed by residents of the Olympic Village:

More than 82 tonnes of seafood
31 tonnes of poultry items
More than 100 tonnes of meat
75,000 litres of milk
19 tonnes of eggs
21 tonnes of cheese

With hundreds of thousands more people watching the Olympics from the stands, many of whom will eat meat, we are reminded that the number of animals on display at the opening ceremony is only a tinny fraction of the actual number of animals that will be used as part of the 2012 Olympics. 

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