Animal Obituaries

I wrote about Gigi in March last year. Gigi was the highest producing milk cow in the world before she was surpassed by Ever-Green-View My Gold-ET in 2017. As I wrote about Gigi, I wondered about exceptional animals and everyday animals; animals that are named and animals that are numbered. With Gigi, I thought about personalities, anthropomorphism, and the challenge of writing about animals in history.

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Feeling close to Gigi, at least as a subject who forced me to ask hard questions about my own work, it was a shock for me when I opened my local farm newspaper to find that she had been killed in a fire along with 30 other “Bur-Wall Holstein herdmates.”

Firefighters were able to rescue 35 other cows from the Bur-Wall barn that collapsed as it was engulfed in flames. But it was Gigi who made the headline of the short article. I wondered if it could be considered a kind of obituary, as it highlighted her accomplishments and assured its audience she would be “remembered by many.” Do other animals receive such treatment? If they would, and mass text used to make tributes to the animals who contribute to our food systems, would we be more shocked by the numbers? Feel more thankful for their labors? Be more conscientious of suffering – both human and non-human?

Academics like historians, sociologists, and anthropologists use animals to think about the human – and many believe that if we dedicate time to blurring the line between human and non-human, we will make political strides toward blurring difference in humanity. If we account for inequity across species, some suggest, we may find solutions to solving inequity between humans. To see an animal obituary for Gigi makes me wonder about obituaries in general: who gets one and who doesn’t, the cost (in space, time, text) in making one and who is able to afford this, who is memorialized and who isn’t, what kinds of death are tragic and which are not.

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Traverse Colantha Walker was one of many cows to get a gravestone for her efforts. Credit: Traverse Colantha Walker Facebook Page.

I’m certain that if Gigi had a “natural” death, she would have been memorialized with some sort of gravestone like other special cows before her. But I’m uncertain if an obituary would have been made for her. This speaks to the tragedy of that fire – certainly not the first to hit the farming community hard this year,.

Such micro-level tragedies also force us (or, at least me) to reflect on macro-level ones, like the hurricanes this month that hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. The media coverage of these areas has been uneven – and this has much to do with the economic and political climates of today. Media coverage reflects “who matters” at certain moments in time in certain spaces, and there is always someone unnamed, or an event unmentioned, because time and text have price tags. This is why the evidence we gather in history – old obituaries, news articles, books – is not wholly representative of what happened in the past. We only get to experience a sliver of what happened and who was there. In many cases, we only get to see who could “afford” to be remembered, in the literal sense of the word. And future scholars – decades or centuries from now – will look at the material we produce in our media and make claims about our present moment. This will also only reflect a fraction of what we experience. It will cover some events over others, and name some of us but not memorialize all.

Why push on this point about power, privilege, and memorialization? Because I think it is important for us to be just as critical about our current media as we can be about what kind of evidence has been produced (and found) in the historical record. While I find it interesting and exciting, I’m critical of Gigi’s coverage because it celebrates high producing cattle and implies they are the ones worth memorializing today. This is not necessarily the reality for all farmers and their cattle. It only tells one story of many. It is still a story that needs to be told – of course! But if I want to highlight other efforts, other farmers, other cattle, I need to get to this information in a different way. This is the same line of questioning we should bring to all kinds of coverage: obituaries, tragedies, and celebrations. Whether intentionally or not, if we are uncritical of the media we produce we submit to one narrative. Unfortunately, not all actors (human or non-human) get memorials or obituaries. Sometimes, it is worth reminding ourselves of this reality.

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