Monday, September 12, 2011

Animal Treatment

At the moment, Happy Feet is in a cage with ice. There is a GPS tracker glued to his feathers. When he is in the sea, a satellite will follow where he is. You can follow this too on two websites: or (Via)

The body of eighty-eight year old Michael Clarke was found two weeks ago in his apartment, in the so-called ‘Zoo Block’ of Wellington’s Newtown Park Flats. It had laid there for up to fourteen months. Council workers who had tried to inform Mr Clarke of the pending demolition of the building raised the alarm when it became apparent that none of the calling cards that they had left over the course of several weeks had been collected. That’s how they found him.

I know the flats well and walk past them often, on the way either to Newtown park or the adjacent zoo. The estate has been for some time in a squalid state of repair, and I wasn’t surprised when it transpired earlier this year that, rather than opting for a cosmetic refurbishment, the council had decided to gut them and start afresh. The first block to be stripped back to its bare structure was the one closest to town. The one at the opposite end, next to the town belt and the zoo, was – is – to be demolished altogether.

Systems. There are systems in place, a 20-year housing upgrade programme with money set aside and a timetable, to make the council housing complexes more liveable. But there are no systems to check that the tenants are actually alive. Stephanie Cook, leader of Wellington council’s social portfolio, was candid about this: ‘We're not running an institution. We're providing homes for people and they have a right to privacy.’ And besides, she added: ‘He lived quietly, he paid his rent and we had no reason to think that anything was wrong.’

For over a year, Michael Clarke lived as quietly as only a dead person can. The money for rent and utilities was paid automatically out of his account with the funds from the superannuation that was paid into it. And this apparently was enough to make him invisible. But whatever latitude you may be inclined to give to Councillor Cook – was there really no reason to think anything might be wrong with an eighty-eight year old man who lived alone? – the Mayor’s own press release was grotesquely misguided:
[This incident] serves as a reminder that we should all think about our neighbours’ welfare. Getting to know your neighbours - even if it just means knowing their name and saying hello - is an important way of keeping our community connected and strong.

Does it even need to be said? The forgetting of Michael Clarke was not a failure on the part of the people who lived in close proximity to him. Without decent living conditions you may not even think of your dwelling as a dwelling, or of your neighbours as neighbours. ‘We're boxed away in here and the only way you get out is in a box’ is how one of the residents put it to The Dominion Post. But although the local paper filed some sensitive reports following the incident, as well as reminding us that it’s been over ten years since the Wellington coroner urged the council to institute checks to prevent this very thing from happening again and again, it has stopped short of demanding the resignation of the officials in charge, or expressing any palpable outrage. Life, or lack thereof, goes on.

They call them lonely deaths, and of course they are hardly confined to our council estates, or this city. In England, they are an especially notable problem in the context of the Irish diaspora. In Italy, the stories often involve poorly maintained gas stoves whose aged owners become literal time bombs. In Japan, where the expression was coined in the 1980s – in the native idiom the word is kodokushi, literally ‘isolated deaths’ – it has proved to be a boon for the cleaning industry. It is also in Japan that the connection with economic as opposed to purely social determinants has been made most explicit.
The collapse of the bubble economy after 1990 shrunk the size of Japanese firms and led to a restructuring that is still playing out today. The percentage of the workforce employed in part-time, temporary and contract work has tripled since 1990, forcing workaholic Japanese businessmen, many of whom never married, into a lonely early retirement. "Their world has evaporated under their feet," says Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist who studies Japanese work life. "The firm has been everything for these men. Their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure."
If the proposition is true, if one of the root causes of this phenomenon is the casualisation of labour – plus or minus the degree of identification with one’s corporate employer described by Professor North – we’re going to see, as well as not see, a lot more Michael Clarkes in the years to come.

Three days after council staff forced their way into Mr Clarke’s bedsit, the stray emperor penguin known as Happy Feet farewelled its temporary quarters at Wellington Zoo to begin its journey back to Antarctica. While the release back into the wild of a rescued animal might have called for a celebration, the announcement focussed largely on the money spent on the bird (in the area of $30,000) and was careful to note that the costs incurred by the zoo above its normal operating budget had been covered by private donations. This, in response to a polemic that boiled down more or less to the following question: ‘how can we spend this kind of money on a flightless bird that got lost when human children go hungry?’

My conflation of the two events in this post notwithstanding, I admit to not finding the notion of welfare for penguins especially troubling. One of the zoo’s functions is to care for stray or wounded birds, and this one was a rather extraordinary case. While an editorial in The Manawatu Standard actually employed the phrase ‘where do we draw the line?’, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see a massive influx of emperor penguin bludgers – or if we do, then we’ll have to deal with it, much as we do with beached whales and the like. We need to find ways to look after people and animals, it seems to me, and fund sports and the arts and education besides. The debate on how to actually prioritise spending in each area, not to mention how and from whom to collect the money, is best not conducted on such spurious grounds.

However in other respects the temporal and spatial collision of the two stories is more instructive, more exemplary. That there is a section of the council flats known as ‘Zoo Block’ is appalling to begin with, but it’s difficult to look past the associations that it conjures: between the place that nobody will visit – even when it is their job – and the place next door where people will queue and pay good money to get in and gaze at the residents; between the designed dwellings for the animals, and the drab modular bedsits for the humans; and most of all between the two protagonists, the penguin and the pensioner: one a celebrity, the other a recluse; one cared for, the other literally left to rot; one constantly stared at via closed circuit cameras or tracked via GPS transmitters, the other invisible.

None of this is to suggest a crude equivalence, or that we should advocate for identical treatments – and do what, place older council tenants under 24-hour webcam surveillance? – but rather to reflect on those systems of care and neglect operating side by side, on the politics that produce them and on the public narratives that they engender: not just about welfare and the proper treatment of animals and people, but also about who has the right and the duty to look and to see.

The case of Michael Clarke is a refutation that society works as a Panopticon, keeping a constant and watchful eye on its subjects: all that it took for this lonely retiree to move into the shadows was a sufficient flow of funds and effective banking arrangements. Based on the evidence that he continued to be an economic subject, the system simply assumed that he was also a living one (I leave the biopolitical implications to those who care to pursue them). With Happy Feet, the reverse has happened: since his GPS transmitter stopped sending signals, it was quickly speculated that the penguin must have died a gruesome death, however unlikely that eventuality might in fact be. So of Michael Clarke we said we can’t see him, therefore he must be alive; whereas of Happy Feet we say we can’t see it, therefore it’s probably dead. And of course it very much matters that we wish to look at one and not the other. Surveillance is also a spectacle onto which desire and pleasure are projected.

The mechanisms of enjoyment play a part in this. And so the international hide-the-homeless tournament also known as the Rugby World Cup seems a not inappropriate time to consider the life and death of Michael Clarke, and of the others like him who are put in boxes and then forgotten – or put there so that they can be forgotten.

If you read German or Italian, this poem at Francesca’s place is also pertinent.


downnoutmk said...

Watch just one episode of "Heir Hunters" on the BBC and you realise how often people die alone in the UK. I think many people still die alone in NZ too, and regardless of how long it takes to discover them it's very sad. it's one of those things that makes you pause and think about the life you are leading, the legacy youare creating. Could this be you too?

stephen said...

"...a refutation that society works as a Panopticon, keeping a constant and watchful eye on its subjects: all that it took for this lonely retiree to move into the shadows was a sufficient flow of funds and effective banking arrangements."

I was going to ask how you account for proposals to monitor the spending of youths on the independent youth allowance, which we may suspect are a trial for monitoring beneficiary spending generally, but then I realised that if your spending is approved spending that's ok. Still, I think recipients of public funds are under greater scrutiny, or greater judgement, unless they're old and therefore beyond criticism.

Unknown said...

Mayor: Getting to know your neighbours...
The word "your" speaks volumes to me.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I was going to ask how you account for proposals to monitor the spending of youths on the independent youth allowance, which we may suspect are a trial for monitoring beneficiary spending generally, but then I realised that if your spending is approved spending that's ok."

An aspect that went unnoticed I thought in the debate of why we would put tabs on school leavers and not retirees is that we like to look at young people, with all that that implies. And conversely the right to be left alone of the aged poor invoked by Councillor Cook conveniently plays into the fact that we don't like to look at them - both because they are no longer sexual objects and because they are poor (compare and contrast the actors in the Cialis ads on New Zealand television - middle aged, alluring and wealthy).

"The word "your" speaks volumes to me."

It does. And look at Sean Plunket (the capitalisation is mine):

"In a civilised, cool little capital like OURS we should collectively and individually be able to do better. I don't know if that means drawing up a schedule to check on YOUR neighbours every second day or having an army of social workers monitoring the movements of OUR elderly who live alone."

Unknown said...

Some poet wrote,

the difference
you and me
is the difference
I and you.

wv, musersam - you're my main man?

George D said...

It's been hard for me to put down something (and I'm not there yet).

My own grandfather died a 'lonely death' in the early 2000s, discovered weeks after the event. He was living estranged from his family and the world, in council flats in Canberra.

Hannah Imogen Jones said...

Great Post. So sad - and outrageous that posts like this have a need to be written.
This is my story - of which you reminded me...
My first job was working in the Housing Maintenance department of my local Council in Bridgend, S. Wales. I began to get to know a pensioner living on his own - Mr N. Mr. N had learning difficulties, asthma, arthritis and many other health problems. The council house in which he lived, at the time I 'met' him - had seven boarded up windows. Damp and mould pervaded the place, heating was to no effect because of the constant draughts and rain coming in at the windows. He lived in a home most people wouldn't keep their dogs in. In fact, if a dog had been found in a place like this then the RSPCA would have been called and it probably would have made the news.
I repeatedly went to my boss to try to get Mr. N new windows. She repeatedly refused, saying there was nothing she could do as his house was due to be demolished in February and he would be moved. This was in November!! We were facung a harsh window. I eventually went to my boss and told her that if anything happened to Mr. N. over the winter - if he was found dead in his home, then I would personally go to every newspaper in the country and tell them that the Council knew about his living conditions and would do nothing about it. That they would have effectively caused his death. And..... Hey Presto!!! My boss had a change of heart!!! Mr. N. was given a whole new set of windows which kept him warm and dry until time to move.
~My point? I am afraid I have learned that institutions such as councils are not supposed to care. They do not even pretend to care. This is a fact - or stories like this and yours would not happen. So... regardless of the politics of right and wrong in these situations... of the responsibility of duty of care etc... We who care Must step in to do what we can. We Must take responsibility for our neighbours, and even for strangers who we know to be in need of our help. Yes - we're not getting paid for it and never will be. My payment was that Mr. N. didn't die over the winter, he lived in relative warmth and comfort. That was and is, payment enough. Millions of pounds could not have been a richer reward.
Thanks for sharing - very intelligent article. Thought provoking and awareness raising. Nice one.

Giovanni Tiso said...

George, Hannah - thank you both.