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Animals in Need

Astrid supports many animal welfare groups and occasionally runs fund-raising raffles, etc. to support various charities.

Anything that anyone can do for any animal is welcome and sometimes it is just a click away. Feed an animal in need. Go to this site and follow the "click to feed" link -- your click will donate a bowl of food to an animal in a shelter.

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Why bother with "dumb animals"? I am sometimes challenged by people who think that my animal rescue activities are a waste of time. Increasingly, however, I am finding that more and more people are looking at the world and the meaning of life and making changes to their perspective and practices. The move to becoming a vegetarian is one such example.

Readers and writers of all things "speculative" are familiar with the "non-humans" who share their worlds and quests with wizards and warriors, starship captains, princesses and renegade spacers. Many times these creatures are animals - the be-spelled familiar sometimes included as comic relief. Increasingly, many authors (and readers) are questioning the meaning of "sentience" and are granting animals equality. Non-humans/animals are assuming the mentor and sage roles; they communicate telepathically or verbally with humans and often give a new perspective on "Life, the Universe and Everything".

The concept of "talking animals" is nothing new in the world of literature. Some examples: in the 19th century: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, or the early 20th century: Dr. Dolittle. Then, of course there was Orwell's Animal Farm, Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, McCaffrey's dragons of Pern and most recently, Falconer's Drayco the Temple Cat.

Does this preoccupation of communicating with the "lesser species" indicate that many believe animals are an equal, though different life form? Is this why SpecFic genre books - especially the paranormal - feature shapeshifters? Does this reflect a growing recognition of the duality of our own essence? In a recent conversation, Kim Falconer told me that using shape-shifting ".offers the chance to juxtapose human and non-human consciousness until we see the equality, and brilliance, of both."

The recognition that life, in all its infinite diversity, is equal to our own "but different" is slowly filtering down to the mainstream (campaigns against live sheep exports, battery hens, welfare groups such as PETA, etc.). However, many people can more readily believe in the sentient computer/android than they can accept the equality of thought and feeling within our furred, feathered and scaled brethren.

Animals can talk.

I refute any charge of anthropomorphism laid at my door. Rather than use the word "talk", perhaps "communicate" is more apt. Animals communicate on many levels, just as humans. Verbal communication is just one means by which animals and humans interact with each other and between species. Humans have tended to assume that "talking" is the ultimate form of communication and a species that can talk "intelligently" is superior to a species that cannot. Humans, therefore, according to this rationale are the ultimate life form: the top of the pecking order, because of their ability to talk intelligently.

But what if . what if - that question is one many authors pose in their speculative novels. What if speech is the lesser of other means of communication? In answer to this, telepathy has often been used as the medium of conversation between humans and non-humans - without the misunderstandings of cross-communication. Many refute the existence of telepathy, however.

Animals possess other means of communication, often an understanding beyond that of humans. Telepathy is one. "It's 5pm. I'm hungry! Feed me, now!" Many animals can get that message across to their humans without lifting a paw. There are some exotic means of animal communication, e.g., the strobe light displays of cuttlefish to indicate their emotion to others of their kind and to humans.

It is human arrogance to believe that "talking" is the only and ultimate medium of communication. Once this belief is set aside, then - and only then - might humans be equipped to "talk" (communicate) with alien life forms. How to communicate with a life form that "talks" by changing shape or colour? It is human egocentricity to think that aliens are going to learn to speak in the language of the predominant culture of earth. The measure of our humanity might be in our ability to transcend our prejudices and adopt non-verbal methods of communication: to talk to a lump of rock (the Horta), for example.

In tackling this question of communication, one needs to consider:

What is sentience? Speculative fiction has often pondered this and in so doing has led the way for a revision of "established" thinking at times when society was still coming to terms with the equality of women. In one Star Trek episode, The Measure of a Man, DATA was put on trial for his existence: was he sentient or was he just a smart computer inhabiting a synthetic skin? In another episode, Tin Man, an ancient "living" space ship was so lonely after the death of its crew, it parked itself next to a star about to go nova in order to suicide. Readers will be able to cite numerous other instances of "life, but not as we know it." scenarios.

How do we measure "sentience" or "life"? In the past-mostly, by our own yardstick. But when humans venture into space, how will we be received and how will we receive the alien life form? With a gun, or an olive branch? Will humanity be placed on trial for its existence by a superior intelligence who sees us as a lower life form because we "talk" and not shapeshift or change colour to communicate? Might humans, then, be seen as inferior and only suitable for "harvesting". Such concepts have been recently explored in the films Independence Day and Signs.

Perhaps this is why writers have explored the diversity of life - from Dr. Dolittle, to Drayco the temple cat. Kim Falconer told me she wrote Drayco into the story "so readers could experience another kind of intelligence, another kind of love. These extraordinary relationships are out there, we just need to listen for them."

Those people who work with animals will give countless experiences to illustrate the intelligence and communication skills of "dumb animals". Every creature has its own song, but will humans learn to sing those songs, too, or just believe in the superiority of their own and ignore all others?

The devastation brought about by the recent Australian bushfires reminds us all that life is fragile and precious. There is Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations and as readers and writers of the speculative, we explore that diversity of life, of experience and new ways to view our world every time we dip into a book, or film. Regardless of whether the life form has fur, feathers, scales or skin - does not each have the right to be considered equal and deserving of respect? Speculative fiction poses these questions, challenges our long-held beliefs: more and more people will recognise the sentience in all life and this will be reflected in the stories we tell and what we read.

Victorian Bushfires Raffle


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