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Owl Ambassadors

July 1, 2011

In a recent course I assisted, several of my students chose to write on this article in the New York Times:  “Getting Wise to the Owl, a Charismatic Sentry in Climate Change” by Jim Robbins (May 23, 2011). Below is a student paper that I was given permission to publish that deals thoughtfully with the aims of the course (to think critically about the nature of humanism when confronted with “the animal”) as well as considering climate, humans and nonhuman animals in the Arctic.

 “Owl Ambassadors”

The argument of “Getting Wise to the Owl, a Charismatic Sentry in Climate Change”, by Jim Robbins, is that there is a relation between the snowy owl’s general well-being and the owl’s ecosystem and that relation can be exploited by humans. By studying the snowy owl and its well being, researchers are able to discern also the well being of lemmings, who encompass 90% of the owl’s diet. Because of the role they can play in helping detect changes in ecosystems, owls have been called “ecological ambassadors” in this article and represent hope in the adversity represented by extreme changes in climate. While this is the main point of the article, it continues by stressing the (non-scientific) importance that owls play in human society. The author mentions their prominence in literature and folklore, and the similarity between the human face and an owl’s. The communication skills of owls are also mentioned and, although crudely referenced, their sounds are described through onomatopoeia as “hooting” and “tooting” along with other the variability in their sounds and clicks.

The article devolves into a description of owl characteristics, like their “natural night-vision-goggles”, body structure, and aerial ability. Interestingly enough, there is a mention of short-eared and long-eared owls; however, their names do not describe actual anatomical parts, rather they describe their appearance in its similarity to human and other animal ears.

Finally, the author notes the importance of studying owls for the detection of changes in the ecosystems they inhabit, although the time it takes for these studies to develop a context (the system part of ecosystem that the owl inhabits) and a viable established pattern (that can be correlated through time) is long and the work tedious.

The title of the article immediately reminds me of the problem with anthropomorphizing animals and valuing their beings only in relation to human life or as a symbol of an aspect of human character. According to the animal ethicist James Serpell in his essay “Anthropomorphism and Anthropomorphic Selection—Beyond the ‘Cute response’” (Society & Animals 11: 83-100, 2003), anthropomorphism is defined as “the attributions of human mental states (thoughts, feelings, motivations and beliefs) to nonhuman animals,” and although his article is specifically rendered to the domestic animal realm, his assertion that anthropomorphism functions to benefit humans and human ideals is applicable to this article and its usage of owls as practical markers of ecology (Serpell 85). In Robbin’s article, using animals as practical devices or instruments is clear when describing owls as a “key” through the study of their dietary well being, and rendering the observed owl life as simply data that would help “flag changes in the global arctic system region—even without other indicators”. In this last instance, owls have been entirely replaced by the word “indicator”, this move implies the rendering of the animal as a tool for reading the environment, but not necessarily as a living animal. The practicality of the owl for human understanding (as “tool”) is further noted by their study being considered financially cheap as well as the quick nature of gathering data or information of the ecosystem through owls. The following is used to describe the unscientific reasons behind studying owls that underpin the scientific necessity of studying owls: “People pay attention to owls more than other birds because they look like us,” said researcher Denver Holt. “They have a symmetrical face, eyes facing forward, a round, flat face and a round head with feathers that look like hair.”

This potentially explains why some kinds of owls are named by their similarity to human traits, such as the before mentioned short and long-eared owls. It also assimilates the owl into a hierarchy of proximity to human likeliness or relationship, much like dogs and cats, or even apes. In a reversal of roles Mr. Holt, the director of the nonprofit Owl Research Group, is referred to as “Mr. Owl”. It seems that he has been given owl attributes based on his knowledge and perceived understanding of owl behavior.

That owls are associated with wisdom, a positive and highly valued human attribute, and charisma places the owl in a category not unlike werewolves, who are able to almost seamlessly breach human and non-human animal levels of being and simultaneously inhabit both and neither. The owl is then not only an animal who is similar to humans, it is an animal that approaches a human ideal of knowledge superior to that of most humans. In the New York Times article, the owl not only represents human wisdom, but also knowledge not easily attainable through human inference in its ability as a natural marker and indicator of ecology. Its proximity to nature, that humans are perceived to lack or have lost along the evolutionary path, combined with its wisdom make the owl into an idealized creature; as a caption under a photograph suggests, it makes the owl an “ecological ambassador”, something that Mr. Holt can only approximate.

Finally, that in investigating owls, scientists hope to detect, prevent, and explain climate phenomena or global warming, not only speaks to looking toward non-human nature for knowledge, but that the knowledge sought is to counteract a climate concern believed to have been created by humans themselves. In other words, humans created an ecological disaster through their furthering away from nature-being but our neighboring owls can provide the solution we as humans are unable to approach due to our separation and lack of sensitivity.

One Comment
  1. Lesley Thomas permalink

    Just read your eye-opening series When the Great Day Dawns, now am getting to all the archives. Your blog is rapidly becoming one of my top three favorites.

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