It is the last day of the “Rethinking Animals” Summit, and leaving behind the early Sunday sun for the cool dark of the SVA Theatre lobby, I already feel as if things have gotten serious.
I’m not long positioned at one of the few precious tables spotted around the lobby when a woman approaches me. There’s a certain quality to the hair of women who love and spend a lot of time in nature that I’ve always envied. It consistently looks as if it just spent five hours drying in the rays of the sun and breezes off the sea. This woman has such hair. She approaches me with a gentle confidence that one would no doubt need in approaching a wild boar and asks if she might set up camp with me until the conference begins. I do not know this at the time, but the kind woman with the amazing hair will later turn out to be Beth Allgood, the U.S. Country Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (aka IFAW).
Buoyed by my ignorance and assuming I’m simply in the company of a fellow interested attendee, I ask her what she thinks of the conference so far. I know I’m in the presence of an insider as soon as she mentions the inclusion of both “marine and terrestrial welfare,” saying with a slight sense of wonder “Rarely do we get these issues on the same docket…I don’t know any other conferences that do that.” Indeed, from the first day, the conference has hosted a wide variety of speakers and presentations. Today alone we are looking forward to, among others, a handful of entrepreneurs, a racecar-driving environmental activist, and an impressive pre-teen.
Beth and I exchange some pleasantries about the quality of the conference, which she passionately applauds, and the size of the room, but it doesn’t take long for the uncertainty and fear that’s constantly churning underneath the mundanities of our lives to boil up.
“I take comfort that our systems are falling apart,” Beth tells me with what might be the slight bitterness of someone who has been pointing out the obvious for too long. “We’ve been on this trajectory since the 1800s, and now we’re at a breaking point” she declares, “Now, change is going to be forced.” We are joined by a couple other veteran conference attendees, the word “corporatocracy” is bandied around a bit, and, by the time the gentle bell comes over the speakers to lure us into the theatre, I find myself mildly depressed.
This sensation not helped by the sight of empty chairs, the theatre is perhaps half-full. Nonetheless, we form an enthusiastic bunch, and the women who sit next to me shoot me conspiratorial smiles as the chatter dies down. Founder and President of Thinking Animals United Bonnie Wyper comes on first to address the audience and introduce the opening speakers. In a strategic move for a Sunday morning, we begin with a clip from the documentary “illUmiNations: Protecting Our Planet.” At this conference, we are easy marks for the gentle emotional pandering of the projection of endangered animals. It implements this through the subsequent dissolve of the images as the clip shows us what will happen to the Florida Panther and the Burmese Star Tortoise because of our careless ways.
At first, I think I must be hormonal with the way that the video seems to be affecting me. But then I hear the woman next to me whisper hoarsely to her friend, “I get a little teary when I see that,” and, peering around the dark room through my welling eyes, I realize that there is indeed a puppet-master at work with our heartstrings. Of course, half the attendees are furtively wiping at their eyes. This video is their affirmation, a collective catharsis which we can all walk away from saying, “Look at how important the work is we’re doing.” And though it undoubtedly is, I can’t help feeling manipulated. Empathy becomes the theme in the first presentations. But what use is empathy in this room which has been overflowing with empathy from the beginning?
The first speaker is Patrick Ramage, Director of Marine Conservation at IFAW. He gives a well-spoken and calculated presentation of his journey into the animal welfare world, complete with pictures of Elvis impersonators. He delivers some stirring and emphasized statements, such as “The future and welfare for animals and humans are not separate. They’re one.”
Beth Allgood’s only regret about the conference is that it is, in her opinion, far too unattended. Leaving the summit myself, I think she is right. And even moreso, I’m not convinced that the people who did attend are necessarily the ones who should be attending. I can’t help but think of our political situation. I know, I’m sorry. Let me hide it in a musical metaphor. We are all being forced onto a bandwagon; the more that come to town and the bigger they get, the less room there is to move around between them, listening to different tunes. Once you’re on a bandwagon, it’s a real rave. Everyone’s collectively swaying to the same beat, singing along the same lyrics to the same song. But once you’re on, the music of all the other bandwagons is drowned out. You never really know what’s going on with the variety of other songs besides the dim, vaguely annoying hum that they’re reduced to.
The people that need to hear the inspiring stories about changing your values and the potentially groundbreaking statistics about the impact of coral reef health are the people who were not sitting alongside me in that theatre. They’re the people who didn’t know this conference was happening, who weren’t aware that “marine and terrestrial welfare” was even a thing, let alone two completely different camps. The relatively small and enthusiastic crew of scientists, activists, and businesspeople undoubtedly do belong there, and they deserve all the commendation and pats on the back in the same way marathon runners deserve orange slices and the congratulatory praise of strangers. They need fuel for the fight, and the conference definitely offered this up.
And yet, if only those other seats had been filled with non-converts, with representatives of the “corporatocracy,” I can’t help but feel there may have been an even higher purpose, a greater possibility that was missed as the event swept quietly in and out of town. But stepping down from the bandwagon is hard, and forcing someone down in a “free country” is even harder. Let’s just hope the music doesn’t get so loud that we drown the others out completely.
Allison Hagg is a roving Minnesotan and sometimes writer currently living and studying in the Upper West Side of New York City.