6: Animals

There is a short essay below the gallery images which highlight some of the reasons I like painting and drawing animals

If you would like to comment on any of the thoughts expressed in the essay below or on any of the images, please use the contact form at the bottom of this page, thanks.

Animals and why I paint them.


Poppy Tait

I have enjoyed the company of animals all my life, (contrary to the views of my immediate family I do also enjoy the company of my fellow man), but the closeness I can feel to an unspoken sense of being (especially cats) seems to amplify my sense of human agency.

Of these experiences one can express the physical sensations through language, an increased sense of pleasure through released endorphins, relaxed muscles generating a sense of calm but there is that “added extra” which I cannot articulate that I know is there, that amplifies my sense of being.

It is impossible to know any single point of view of the mind of another person let alone a non human animal.  John Berger in his book of selected essays describes this process eruditely:

And so when he is being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are being seen by him. His recognition of this is what makes the look of the animal familiar. And yet the animal is distinct, and can never be confused with man. Thus a power is ascribed to the animal, comparable with human power but never coinciding with it. The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountain, seas are specifically addressed to man. * (1)

Now I have had a variety of careers during my life, as one friend put it “Jack of all trades, master of none”,  but my brief career as a lobster fisherman out of the Emsworth channel of Chichester harbour provided a powerful experience of this unspoken connection.

Having spent the day hauling lobster pots on my boat the “Golden Sovereign” I was returning to harbour across the eastern Solent with a good catch, (which was an infrequent occurrence), on the port beam the setting sun silhouetted the old Solent Forts built around 1860-70 to repel  a possible French invasion, but  never used, with a calm sea and the tide with me all was right with the world as I made my way back home.

About two miles out from the harbour entrance I was standing close to the starboard gunnels musing on a profitable trip when an immense torpedo like shape erupted from the sea about five metres from me, my immediate reaction was to recoil with fright but on regaining some for of self control I was looking at one of the seas most remarkable creatures, a porpoise.  It kept pace with the boat rising out of the water about every thirty seconds, after a few minutes he was joined by a smaller porpoise which I assume was a mate, or perhaps they were  mother and juvenile, I have no way of knowing.  Whatever they were they kept pace with where I stood on the boat and each time he rose out of the water they regarded me through large black eyes.

At the time anthropomorphism did not exist in my vocabulary let alone my thought processes but I am certain and cannot explain how I know but behind that eye was a highly intelligent thinking being, with no common language it would seem nothing could pass between us but it did, one day perhaps I may be able to articulate this but I am not optimistic but it is this sense of connection with which I continually endeavour to infuse artwork. The porpoise kept pace with where I stood on the boat for a full fifteen minutes he chose to be there and he was watching me.  I have no idea what was in his mind but during that time I was aware of something in myself I had been aware of only fleetingly in the past.

This experience may have coloured my imagination but this feeling is most intense when I am alone with an animal, two sentient beings content to be together, curious about each other.

Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century said “I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.”  

My seminal experience with the porpoise’s occurred in my late thirties, Leonardo Da Vinci ‘abjured’ meat early in life, myself, sadly I have only come to this standpoint at the age of 63, and despite its profundity it took me another twenty five years to become a vegetarian. it has taken me sixty years to get here but family, the pursuit of the perceived necessities of life, the mundane,  pleasure, the catastrophes, all had to be lived, experienced or overcome first and they are what made me what I am. It has taken a long time. I have eaten meat all my life with nary a thought for animals or animal welfare, dispatched numerous chickens and the odd rabbit for the pot and as a young man taken out more than one or two pigeons with an air rifle, it was never done maliciously or cruelly but certainly without thought, it is only with the approach of the end of ones life that one reflects on it, well that is the case for me. So if tonight you are tucking into a Chicken Madras, Beef Wellington or lamb casserole Bon Appetite!  this short essay is not an attempt to solicit immediate conversion to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle but merely an explanation of what makes me feel complete and the reflections of someone who has been lucky enough to have enjoyed a full life and has the temerity to put forward along with others why a future with less suffering for non human animals would be a forward step for the good of man.

In 2012 the worlds leading scientists made up of neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at Cambridge University and released the following declaration on the subject of human and non-human animal consciousness:

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” *(2)

Part of the declaration indicates the following: Birds appear to offer, in their behaviour, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated I the n zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition. *(3)

Vet Pete Wedderburn explains the detail more fully in his Telegraph Column:  ‘The key differences between human and animal brains, mainly found in the frontal cortex, allow humans to think plan and reflect, but other than these aspects, animal consciousness is now thought to be surprisingly similar to our own. So, yes, animals can care for each other in a way that resembles ‘love’, they may become distressed if a companion is in trouble and they often display signs of grief after a death’.  *(4)

All this recent research point to animals experiencing many of what we previously thought were exclusively human emotions, and so perhaps if we can empathise with fellow humans who suffer despair, loneliness and loss perhaps we should also extend this to animals and provide for them similar and appropriate safeguards. We should respect all forms of experience.

Animals in law are treated as objects, they have no rights, but in 2014 the Nonhuman Rights Project *(5) brought a case to court in New York about ‘Tommy’ a chimpanzee, kept in a cage in a Manhattan warehouse to try to establish rights for ‘Tommy’ they lost the case but will appeal, as the lawyer put it, the chimp has no more rights than a table or a chair. This would seem intuitively wrong but how one protects and defends animals through the legal system is uncertain and if they were extended rights who would bring a case as an animal. )

More recently this year The Nonhuman Rights Project brought another case to court on behalf of two chimpanzees Leo and Hercules used for medical experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island. For the first time in US history, a judge has granted two chimpanzees a petition – through human attorneys – to defend their rights against unlawful imprisonment, allowing a hearing on the status of “legal persons” for the primates.*(6). In all journeys many steps are required but this for me is one of those memorable steps. The next hearing on Leo and Hercules’s appeal is to be held on May 27th 2015.

Now this is not to say human agency and non-human agency are the same, this is why I included at the top of this piece a photograph of my cat ‘Poppy’, she is a rescue cat who came to us about the age of eight.  As a cat lover I have had numerous cats during my life but Poppy is the best ‘mouser’ I have known, her record is eight in one day, Mrs Tait and I stopped counting at seventy five in her first four weeks outdoors after she arrived. She has slowed down now but a conservative estimate for her first year with us is three hundred and I exaggerate not. Ninety none point five percent of them are dead when she brings them in but when the odd one is still alive she would seem very cruel as she plays with them, [I do take them of her], but she walked of and left one alive with what looked like a broken back last week and I had to finish the poor might of, something I am not good at but did, so it is patently obvious that what non human animals see as life experience is very different from our own.

So as well as differing forms of agency between humans and non-human animals one aspect of life that marks us out as different is the development of civilisation, we have become more civilised. This must surely be an ongoing process and whilst we would seem to have a long way to go even in the treatment of our fellow human beings I would like to make a plea for this process to include our non human animal neighbours on our shared planet.

As Alfred North Whitehead said ‘Almost all new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced’.

Hopefully an ongoing improvement of non-human animal rights will become part of mainstream human thinking and development.

* (1) John Berger, Selected Essays, Bloomsbury  Publishing ,2001, page 260,  Paragraph .4

*(2) http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

*(3) http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

*(4)  Pete Wedderburn, Daily Telegraph, UK, 10th January 2015, page 27.

*(5)  http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/

*(6)  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2014/12/04/new- york-court-rules-that-tommy-the-chimp-is-not-a-person/


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