Friday, August 10, 2007

Piebald Ethics

This morning, still recovering from jetlag, I went for a bike ride as the sun rose on the suburbs north of Washington, DC. As I cycled through one of the lovely state parks that grace my neighborhood, I spooked a small herd of deer enjoying some browse at the border of a woodland and field. At first I thought they were accompanied by a domestic dog, until I realized I had seen a piebald white-tailed deer. His upper half was normal gray-brown, but the rest was mostly pure white, as if he’d been sloshing about belly-deep in a pool of paint. Coincidentally, two hours later as I perused a magazine during my train commute into the city, I turned the page onto a painting of Mary Sabina, a piebald African slave girl born in 1736 on a plantation in Columbia. Painted at age four with just a sash around her waist, her body looks like a jigsaw puzzle assembled from pieces of ebony and white marble. While there is no surviving record of Mary Sabina’s life, she was something of a celebrity in her time.

Mary’s striking appearance results from a rare genetic disorder that disrupts the development of skin pigment cells (melanocytes) so that large patches of skin contain no color and appear absolutely white. In Mary’s case, this was not only a curiosity; it was also a source of consternation, for it raised questions about the exclusivity of whiteness and suggested that black Africans had the potential to be white too.

Today we look back on 18th century racial ideas as a product of crude social, political and economic agendas of the time. But what about the deer I saw? His piebald coat has no relevance to matters of race, but his social status has deep parallels to Mary’s. He’s a conscious, sentient, pain-avoiding, pleasure-seeking being with appetites, beliefs, and friends. No doubt he has his favorites among the shrubs and berries he nibbles with his prehensile tongue. Yet, like Mary in her time, he is a victim of piebald ethics. As a non-human, he could end up pierced by a legal bullet or arrow during this autumn or next. Because of an arbitrary set of rules forged from arrogance and sustained by convenience, he has no more rights of his own than does the bicycle I was riding when I saw him.

Someday perhaps, a few centuries from now, people may look back on deer hunting—and factory farms, vivisection labs, and fur-wearing—as most of us now do on slaving.


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