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21 february 2012
Vultures are common birds of the Texas suburbs. I can't say I love them. It's not so much that their choice of food is creepy – hawks and owls are carnivores too, and for that matter my leetle kitty-cat Whisper Wilson likes to tear open mouse carcasses for fun – but that vultures seem so matter of fact about it. They are sullen and joyless diners. I suppose I would be too, if I had to eat roadkill all day. But I'm not scared of vultures, nor do I find them particularly repugnant or foreboding. They are an item of interest in the otherwise drab birdwatching scene of a major metro area. Their lifestyle complements that of other creatures – and as Thom Van Dooren notes in Vulture, they are supremely inoffensive to any living animal.
Van Dooren writes eloquently and appreciatively of the role vultures play in cleaning up the world. In the big picture, I suppose nothing in nature is either dirty or clean. What looks like a fœtid cesspool to us is House Beautiful to a family of microbes. But in the relative scheme of things, every species needs a particular balance in its habitat to thrive. Vultures have long provided that balance for humans by lapping up the waste animals and parts thereof that we can't eat, and that would make us sick if we hung around them too long.
Vultures even eat us, given half the chance. Vulturine anthropophagy is a staple of one-panel cartoons in the contemporary U.S., but it's an important funeral rite for other peoples, including Parsis and Tibetans. Van Dooren points to a serious imbalance in present-day India, ceated by an inadvertent conflict between veterinary pharmaceuticals and ancient beliefs. Use of the anti-inflammatory Diclofenac has almost wiped out vulture populations that feed on dead cattle treated with the drug (138). In the process, Parsis have lost the helper birds that cleanse the bodies of their dead.
Vultures have evolved to be immune to most noxious germs. But birds who wouldn't blink at dead beef with a sprinkle of anthrax are being killed by a new substance in their food, one that has killed an entire generation of birds with no chance for them to adjust. Sure, one can say "screw vultures"; they have rarely been popular. But every massive, sudden alteration in the food chain has effects at a distance, whether on public hygiene or traditional spirituality.
And vultures have, at times, been iconic. Ancient Egypt was the most vulturophile civilization. Van Dooren shows how the Egyptians saw the vulture as an emblem of good motherhood, and by extension, emblems of a protective, nurturing royal power. Biologically speaking, vultures don't seem to make any better mothers than many another bird species. But vulture food is notably bloody, and to several ancient cultures it seemed that mother vultures tore at their own bodies to feed chicks with their own blood. (The pelican had a similar reputation.) Out of such seat-of-the-pants ethology came a myth with considerable political and ritual power.
Vultures aren't tameable, but they are commensal with humans. Developing countries without garbagemen often host sizable vulture populations that stand around waiting for people to finally discard leftovers. (As long as Diclofenac doesn't intervene.) A famously harrowing photograph taken by Kevin Carter in the Sudan in 1993, says Van Dooren, depends for its effect on ignorance of this symbiosis between people and vultures. In the picture, a starving child crouches on the ground, apparently near death. A vulture stands nearby, apparently ready to eat the child. But actually, in the Sudan, vultures stand around most of the time. They are not interested in living people, or even in people who are fixing to die, and the Sudanese are not like the Parsis in welcoming vultures to eat their dead. The tragedy of the photograph is entirely in the suffering child. The vulture is just minding his own business – but attracting the affective blame.
Van Dooren, Thom. Vulture. London: Reaktion, 2011.