241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I often cycle from Amsterdam to the polder and cut through the Bijlmer. Yes, for the simple reason of finding pleasure and enjoyment in the cycle ride.

In the area that connects these two regions, I spot a large empty parking lot in the distance. There, in a small strip at the side, three aluminium boxes are piled on top of each other onto a construction with legs. Sort of like a three tiered barbeque. Beside it, a car is parked next to which a man and a woman are preparing a cup of tea. I ask them what they’re doing. Pigeons. They’ve transported these homing pigeons from Zaandam to here, where they’re training the pigeons to fly both long and short distances. Since they’ve only just arrived, the pigeons need to acclimatise for a little while, otherwise their orientation skills may falter.

There are some 57 pigeons in the aluminium construction. Later on, they’ll be released and will have to find their way home. Their sense of direction is guided by the magnetic field.

“Disruptions in the magnetic field have meant that the pigeons are becoming more prone to getting lost than before’, the homing pigeon hobbyist explains. ‘The magnetic field is disrupted by mobile phones, by everything that is sent via airwaves’. ‘Is there no more room in the air?’

‘For example, if you pay attention, you’ll see many pigeons in the Dam with a ring around their leg. These are carrier pigeons that have lost their way. In fact, the other day a man from Krommenie called me to see if I could pick up my pigeon from him. Pigeons fly in groups, first in a circle around the area where they’ve been released, then they’ll pick up speed and fly away. But nowadays they seem to get lost quite often.’

‘It’s a wonderful hobby’, the man excitedly tells me. ‘`It’s so relaxing.’ He bares his perfectly white teeth in a broad smile. When he speaks, saliva sputters in all directions, but, oh well, that’s probably just because of his dentures

Then they release the pigeons and I watch as they circle around and fly away, and they’re as beautiful as a flock of sparrows.

I cross the Thames; silver under a grey sky, and watch the throngs of pedestrians pass the bridge and make their way to the museum. There’s something magical to being one of the newest additions to this city, feeling myself immersed in a great crowd with the realisation that this is home now. Here, solitude lends itself to becoming a welcome spectator seat.

The path is lined with buskers where they compete with one another for air space. A man points his camera to the Rastafarian with matted dreads reaching past his knees – No woman no cry! – he hoarsely wails, while pointing at the colourful hat splayed open, awaiting the clink of change. Further yet, two indie boys croon and strum, a bongo player meditatively strikes his drums, and all coalesce into an arrhythmic cacophony.

As Tate Modern comes into view, I’m surprised to see a group of large, furry animals standing in front of the museum. There must be at least fifteen of them, donned in intricately detailed costumes of cartoon versions of cats, bears, foxes, and wolves. These are not your run-of-the-mill dress up shop costumes, their muscles are defined, sturdy, their masks are eerily realistic, and their jaws open and close at will. I watch as they interact with the spectators, and see the timber wolf taking on his role as the alpha dog, bending his knees and flexing his arms as the tourists snap away. On the other side of the crowd, the silver fox with her big blue eyes walks demurely, somewhat timidly past, and leans her head against the onlookers, allowing them to stroke her, pet her nose, and bury their faces into her furry shoulder.

I was aware that what I was seeing was a group belonging to the Furry Fandom culture. These Furries, as they’re referred to, have an unusual interest in cartoon-like animal characters. In fact, some even believe they’re more like their specific animal of interest than human. They find each other on Internet forums and websites where they write fan fiction, and make fan art; they congregate at Furry Fandom conventions, and as it seems, in public spaces too. It’s a way of life, an identity, a subculture that creates a sense of belonging. Theirs is a tight-knit community where escapism from the every day lends itself in the form of a very expensive and very heavy fursuit, fitted with battery-powered fans to keep the user from overheating.
While watching them strut around the Tate’s bustling yard, I realise there’s no collection box. And what I’m seeing isn’t an artistic performance, either. It’s the simple act of the Furries taking on their role and engaging with the world as their alternate identities. The fur costumes disarm the plain clothed man and convince him of the wearer’s zoomorphic nature. By doing so, the Furries capitalise on our reaction to cute, cuddly animals and in a moment of instant adoration, they’re embraced, loved, and admired by complete strangers. I can’t help but wonder if these costumes are disguising the most deplorable, unattractive, acne-ridden and repulsive members of society imaginable. And, the assumption immediately arises that these people must suffer a certain social deficiency in order to resort to this inverted exhibitionism to find affection.
At the end of the day, I exit the museum. The sky has fallen dark and the masses have dissipated. My steps towards the tube station sound hollow in the absence of the buskers and I think of my new London room awaiting my return: dark and silent and empty. For a moment I think of these Furries, in this big city, and catch a glimmer of understanding.

Alex Lacey and his favorite lion

If you’ve ever seen predators in a circus act, you’ll know how intense the experience is. You can smell and hear the animals, see their muscles flex, stare into their eyes. As you watch them perform with their trainer, they suddenly become personalities: awesome and dangerous.

The British animal trainer Alex Lacey's performance at the Carre's winter show was a work of art:an elegant ballet of harmony as he maneuvered the animals into various figures formed through simple actions like jumping, rolling, and sitting; all performed in a state of complete trust and compliance. The climax arrives the moment Alex dips his head between the jaws of the only male lion, Masai. Entwined, they are one, as though the boundary between man and animal has temporarily been lifted.

Placed completely at the mercy of his lion, this position is the ultimate demonstration of trust between a trainer and his animal.

‘I could never dominate my animals’, Alex explains, ‘so I must be their best friend.’ As a member of the audience, this is plain to see.

Circus animals are in the spotlight once again, although not on stage, but in politics. The issue at hand concerns twenty to thirty animals, that is, if we restrict our definition to semi-wild animals such as sea lions, tigers, lions, and elephants that according to some, maybe even you, should be prohibited from performing in The Netherlands.

The slurs and slander directed towards a regular, legal group of professionals and those affiliated –trainers are treated like near criminals, circus directors are threatened, and visitors to the circus are booed– poses some tricky questions. Does this hostile perspective on the circus world secretly contain a deep-rooted distrust to these ‘traveling folk’? The circus is traditionally associated with gypsies. ‘Bring in the laundry, the circus is coming’ is an old saying. Animal activists eagerly pounce on these gut feelings by hanging chains around their necks and gathering in front of the theatre during Carre’s winter show, conjuring images of gypsies forcing bears to dance on hot plates.

Do the animal activists realize that the Serbians, who traveled all over Europe from 1860 until the second World War with their dancing bears, had absolutely nothing to do with the circus? Or that dancing bears have been a thing of the past for a very long time? Even Hitler banned dancing bears from his Nazi Reich out of love for bears and hatred for the gypsies. How easy it is to destroy centuries of tradition and put people out on the street in that fit of rechtaberei and self-righteousness (look at how animal-friendly I am)!

Henri Martin

A famous European lion tamer

The English research report, Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses, explores the physical and mental state of the animals through quantifiable factors such as their levels of stress hormones and the sizes of cages. The report, compiled by those both for and against, uneasily comes to a conclusion: ‘There appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or any worse than that of other animals kept in other captive environments.’ The predatory animals aren’t always kept in cages. Yes, it’s where they sleep, but during the day large roaming areas are set up. Dancing bears and cycling primates have long been banned. Even the tigers jumping through hoops have been abolished. And not because it hurts them. Animal trainer Tom Dieck described jumping through a burning hoop as being the easiest trick to teach an animal, because as long as they’ve never had a bad experience with fire, they won’t be afraid of it. But alas, the fire department has prohibited it.

In January of 2012, a mouse plague at the Binnenhof in The Hague in Holland reached the national news. The mice would bother people and that's why the little rodents were going to be exterminated. This seemed like a great opportunity to collect a beautiful series of dead mice of the Second Chamber for the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. Mice from The Hague were still missing from the collection, let alone mice that populated a location as important as the national house of parliament. A mouse from the House of Representatives would fit seamlessly in our growing collection of 'dead animals that tell a story' that is now led by the legendary domino sparrow.

I took my request to the department of Public Relations of the House of Representatives and could hear the adviser hesitate before he answered: "I'm going to check up on it. We will get back to you." The same day I received their official position regarding dead mice: 'The House of Representatives does not make rodents, dead animals and other waste available to third parties, also not when it's regarding a collection.' Their words were loud and clear, but their response was little tedious. My hope was now aimed at parliamentarians and clerks who could smuggle one of those dead mice outside the building. Diederik Samson offered his help but tweeted: 'Well, if I find one. But that change is small. The traps are emptied conscientiously over here.' What followed was a month of silence concerning the mouse of the Second Chamber.

Until Monday evening, February 13, 2012, when our nanny accepted a package form someone who pointed out he wanted to remain anonymous. It was a thick envelop coming from the House of Representatives (type TH-9), with the words 'to Kees Moeliker Here is 'the mouse of the Second Chamber', written in big block letters. The package indeed contained a mouse, still in the trap that had obviously killed it.

Meanwhile, the mouse has been prepared and included in the collection 'Dead animals that tell a story' of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. Section made clear it was a healthy young female of the house mouse. Her stomach contained bread crumbs, and the bait that had been used to capture her was peanut butter that had been put inside a professional mouse trap of the type Snap-E®.

The mouse of the chamber of parliament - The Hague, February 14 2012

The first mouse of the Second Chamber that was included in the museum collection.

Mus musculus, young female, including trap and envelope; anonymous donation (NMR 9990-03072).

Photo: Kees Moeliker

Website Nature Historic Museum Rotterdam

As a child I had the wish to befriend a Siberian tiger. I can completely relate to that inner desire that many people have to be among wild animals. It's an amazing thing to see it when it works: some people manage to swim with tigers and hug wild bears.

When those two worlds meet or collide (sometimes resulting in the dismembering of an arm or of bodies being crushed,) I sense the overwhelming beauty of the situation. I often find that beauty on YouTube. There are hundreds of clips of people living with wolves, juggling with tigers. One of the videos takes place in a zoo.

A polar bear gets hold of the chubby leg of a typical tourist. The women had climbed over the fence and wanted to look at Blinky (his name) up close. It turned out to be a risky situation.

For the tourist, this was not a very logical thing to do. For the polar bear, it was.

My imagination is not only triggered by the fact that

From the safety of my bedroom, my imagination is not only triggered by the fact that I’m watching a polar bear named Blinky adorably sink his teeth deeper into a tourist steak on Youtube. But it’s also that I get to see Blinky as a real animal.He comes to life. Blinky momentarily experiences that his true nature lies within the borderline between the pathways on which visitors stand gawking at him and his cage.

Call it instinct, call it boredom. But what Blinky does, is not easy to explain. It just is. The name Blinky disappears with each bite he takes. Because in between the bars of his cage lies the real world where the bear might know his name or he might not.

John Berger writes that animal have been marginalised in our society because of our tendency to turn animals into products of our life. It relates to the given of dogs strongly resembling their owner. And in that margin, wild animals explore the borders of their imprisonment. A drunk tourist in a football shirt with waxy spikes on his head bangs on the glass wall surrounding a wild animal that lays on his back like some couch potato. 'For the bloody love of God, do something!' roars the man.

I'm thinking of the man who lives inside a whale. According to people, the bars of imprisonment in Disney movies or Biblical stories mainly exist out of the skin or mouths of the animals, trying to penetrate or open humans. Just like Jonah.
The impossibility of being with wild animals makes me want to try it myself. I think people who want to pet tigers are crazy, but I am tempted to try it myself. To kiss each other like lovers, press our heads against each other. Our brains should blend. The twisting of the tongue, the muscle in our body that can turn miniscule particles into big things.

Fortunately, a dog has a shape and doesn't float through the room like batter. Luckily we get to adore and pet our dogs and cats. And maybe even send them into space for the sake of experiment.