The Absence of Animals

By Matthew Cheney

While watching an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica, a television show I've recently become addicted to, my mind wandered to an idle thought: Where, I wondered, are the animals?

This thought may have occurred to me not so much because Battlestar Galactica posits a universe devoid of all animals except humans and robots—I've only watched the first season so far—but more because my companion of the last nine years, a cat named Vanya, had disappeared. He went outside one evening, just as he had many evenings before, but this time he never returned.

I do not own a TV, and so I watch DVDs on my computer, a large laptop. A week after Vanya disappeared, I lay in bed with the computer on my stomach, engrossed in the story of the ragtag fleet of starships fleeing the Cylon robots, when I heard a sound and for a moment thought it was Vanya coming up the stairs, which he would often do when he heard a movie, because he liked to nestle himself into the crook of my arm and stare at the screen as I watched. But he was not there. I went back to watching the show.

Certain aspects of Battlestar Galactica had caused me some annoyance (the completely heterosexual universe; the endings that are always cliffhangers), but the absence of animals wasn't annoying as much as it was perplexing. Or perhaps not even perplexing—from a purely practical standpoint, it's much easier to work just with humans than with animals and their wranglers, and so animals only tend to be included in movies and TV shows if they are a vital element of the story. On the other hand, for a show that pays such close attention to the details of its world and the depths of its characters, it is intriguing that animals have had no presence at all in the episodes I have watched.

What I have noticed in Vanya's absence is how deeply he had become a part of my routines and my consciousness. Even now, there are times when I expect to see him, times when I am surprised he doesn't come running, times when my first explanation for an inexplicable noise is him. It was over a month before I could bear to get rid of his food bowl, partly because I hated to give up hope of his returning, but mostly because I knew that seeing the empty spot on the floor of the kitchen would sadden me more than the sight of his bowl there, where it had sat for the five years we'd spent in this apartment.

Perhaps I should have been annoyed rather than perplexed by the animal-empty world of Battlestar Galactica, because it is a vision of a world where we can have animal products, but not the animals. It is not at all a utopian vision, because humans are just as selfish and brutal in the world of the TV show as they are in our own reality, which suggests, then, that animals are tangential, disposable, irrelevant.

Could it be that this irrelevance, or desire for irrelevance, speaks to a dark, unconscious urge in the creators of the show, an urge that lurks within many of us, an urge reflected in the human tendency to objectify animals, to turn them into things? In her essay "Animal People," Joy Williams wrote: "Nothing that is animal, that is not us, cannot be slaughtered as a pest or sucked dry as a memento or reduced to a trophy or rendered into a product or eaten, eaten, eaten." Ours is a world of constant, inescapable, all-pervasive destruction of animals, a world where animals are present so that they may be chopped up or exterminated, skinned or blinded, used or thrown away—their absence is immanent in their presence.

Once I noticed the absence of animals in Battlestar Galactica, I should have been annoyed—angry, infuriated!—not perplexed. The absence presented by the world of the show is one in which presence is no longer necessary; the apocalypse for animals seems to have come before the human apocalypse that fuels the plot engines. This is not our reality, because our reality is one where statistics and laws suggest that people don't really like animals except as ornaments, products, and meals. Our reality is one where hundreds and thousands of cows and pigs, and tens of millions of chickens, get killed every day for food. It is a reality where rats and mice and dogs and cats and birds and monkeys are tortured for the sake of scientific research. For our fast food and our grant applications. For our pleasure and progress and lives. At the expense of theirs.

The world of Battlestar Galactica is one of unavoidable suffering, heartbreaking dilemmas, and nearly constant death. It is a world where every character struggles to maintain some dignity and goodness. Though the sorts of choices the characters face are not the sort most of us have to, nonetheless the show reflects what we all work toward: a fight to preserve a belief in our own nobility. We want to think of ourselves as the kind of people who do good things more often than bad things, and if we do bad things, they are by mistake, or we had no choice. We do not want to think that we benefit from suffering.

Yet we do benefit from suffering, all of us who have, relative to the whole world, a high standard of living. We benefit from human suffering as well as animal suffering. We benefit from child labor, from poverty, from inequalities of resources, from war.

Should we feel guilty for this? Should we feel sad? What good does that do? Should we send a bit more money to Oxfam or the Humane Society? Should we shrug and say, "Well, I enjoy my life, so I'm sorry if it sucks for you, but that's the way it goes. Pass the broiled cow carcass, and start another war to protect my access to cheap stuff!" Should posh hotels help cut down on the surplus population by serving gourmet meals made from the meat of poor children?

It may be that I am not recognizing the subtleties of situations, that I am overanalyzing, that I am uninformed or even irrational, and that I should not let the disappearance and presumed death of a cat (a pet—a thing) lead me to ridiculous thoughts, particularly if those ridiculous thoughts produce what is, as any sane person can see, a tenuous and tendentious interpretation of a TV show.

I have now watched some more episodes of Battlestar Galactica than I had when I started writing this essay. In one of those episodes, a character stranded on a planet, wounded, dying, listens to the sound of birds and remarks on it, on how much he has missed that sound, that beauty. He has noted the absence, and noticed what a loss it was to him, and in the seconds before he dies, we seem to see that he is at peace.

Anything taken for granted is invisible, and invisibility leads easily to neglect, destruction, eradication, extinction. Perhaps, like so much else, those things are unavoidable in the long run and in the big picture, but my desire is a simple one, even a sentimental one—my desire is that we should all be so lucky in our final moments to hear the sounds of birds and to know the presence of animals.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.