Some Animals Eat Their Young
In 2013, researchers found the 2,000 year-old bones of a toddler in an Egyptian burial ground. Labeled “Burial 519,” the toddler’s injuries indicated he had been shaken and beaten repeatedly. His ribs, pelvis, forearms, back, upper arms, and clavicle had all sustained fractures, each in a different stage of healing at the time of his death. ¹
For three weeks after a male mouse has impregnated a female, he will kill any young mouse he encounters. Once his own children are born, he is paternal and caring toward them for two months before returning to his pattern of violence. ²
Inside a 22,000 year-old mass burial grave in Germany are the skulls of 33 children who appear to have been victims of sacrifice, the oldest known form of human infanticide. ³
Content Warning: Graphic Violence
Hanuman langurs live in groups consisting of a dominant male, multiple females, and subordinate males. The dominant male enjoys a reproductive monopoly within the group. If a subordinate male overthrows the dominant male, he kills any infants, establishing his new role as the reproductive alpha. ⁴
From Charles Eisenstein: …contrary to the assumptions of [modern] economics, biology, political philosophy, psychology, and institutional religion, we are not in essence separate beings having relationships. We are relationship. ⁵
The Senjero tribe of eastern Africa sacrificed firstborn sons to maintain stable seasons. ⁶
¹ This information is a cover. Don’t be fooled by my careful research. This is all about me.
² If I tell you my niece died, you’ll think I’m telling the story of my loss. I’m not. I never met her.
³ The story of her death is not a story of my grief but of my culpability. Or maybe it’s a story about animals and what we do to our young.
⁴ The thing about my niece’s death is that my brother wasn’t even there. Her mother’s boyfriend suffocated her with a pillow when she wouldn’t go to sleep. My brother was somewhere else – jail, rehab, using, clean – I really can’t remember.
⁵ At my mother’s request, I went to the funeral. Met my niece when she was two years old and dead. My brother in the back of the room. Wailing “I’m so ashamed” over and over. I didn’t know he was capable of feeling shame. Or grief. Or love.
⁶ When we adopted my brother at age five, we didn’t know it was already too late, that abuse and neglect had destroyed his ability to connect, to feel joy, to be human.
Human parents typically kill infants and young children with their bare hands, while older offspring are killed with knives, firearms, and other lethal weapons. ⁷
Male attackers tend to use more violent methods such as striking, squeezing, or stabbing, whereas female perpetrators more often drown, suffocate, or gas their victims. ⁸
The discrete and separate self, surveying a universe that is fundamentally Other, naturally treats the natural and human world as a pile of instrumental, accidental stuff. The rest of the world is fundamentally not-self. Why should we care about it, beyond our own foreseeable utility? ⁹
As early as the walls of Jericho and as late as 1843, children were sealed in structural foundations because it was believed their bodies provided strength and stability. ¹⁰
Queen Dracula Ants often chew holes in their larvae and drink their blood. The mutilated children survive and grow into adulthood bearing the scars of their mother’s teeth. ¹¹
When everything is subject to money, then the scarcity of money makes everything scarce, including the basis of human life and happiness. ¹²
⁷ I’d like to tell you that I cried, that it broke me to see such a small body, a child-sized coffin. I didn’t and it didn’t.
⁸ I guess this is the part where I write that I died once. My father’s bathroom floor, my six year old body pinned under his knee, his thumbprints on my windpipe.
⁹ Light in my stomach. Warm, full, clean. Spread up to my chest, to my legs, into my hands, rolled across my tongue, moved outside of me. Until I floated on it. Until I was only light. Like drinking hot chocolate in reverse. Soft. Warm liquid light. No body. No pain. I haven't tried heroin, but I have a feeling it was something like that.
¹⁰ I watched from the ceiling as my lips turned purple, then blue. My father pumped his hands against my ribs, calm, patient. Down and up and down and up. Brought me back. To the body and to pain.
¹¹ Did I actually die? Was this the entrance to the afterlife? Probably not. Probably, when I stopped breathing, my hypoxic brain flooded itself with dopamine so I wouldn't feel whatever came next. That’s what the body does. It doesn’t matter, doesn’t change what I remember.
¹² The moment I died the happiest in my life.
Domestic sows sometimes “savage” their offspring after giving birth. This behavior is most common among females under 1 year old who have given birth for the first time. The mother will bite, crush, or sometimes eat her babies. These actions can be attributed to her environment, including the attitudes and behaviors of the humans around her. ¹³
The United States has the highest rate of child murder among developed nations. ¹⁴
Reasons for infanticide in the animal kingdom can be broken into the following categories: sexual conflict; population control; resource scarcity; extreme stress (such as captivity); and pathology. ¹⁵
Giant Water Bug males hydrate masses of eggs with water from their bodies, without which the eggs will desiccate. Sometimes a mother cannot find an available male to care
for her eggs, so she will stab another mother’s unborn children. The male will then fertilize and care for the conquering mother’s eggs. ¹⁶
In humans, almost all neonaticides (killing of an infant within the first 24 hours after birth) are committed by mothers. Women who commit neonaticide are most often young, poor, unmarried, socially isolated, and unlikely to have received prenatal care. They are also likely to be victims of domestic violence. ¹⁷
According to anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Sarah Hrdy, maternal infanticide most often occurs in species where mothers depend on social support systems to raise their young (also known as “cooperative breeding”). In these societies, if a mother feels she is not receiving the support she needs and expects, she is more likely to resort to violence. ¹⁸
¹³ So, if I’m being honest, I was jealous of Hennessy. She got to stay dead, got a funeral. People wept for her. Her murderer in prison. Her father ashamed.
¹⁴ I’m looking for patterns here. We talk about cycles of violence, but I’m not sure that’s how it works. It seems a web; comes from everywhere, converges, spreads. Not cycle but saturation.
¹⁵ It’s a lot more complicated than saying, My father was violent, my brother was violent, and then his daughter died. My brother’s violence did not directly cause his daughter’s death. My father’s violence had nothing to do with my brother, who was not my father’s son and never entered his home. And the violence my brother suffered before my mother adopted him had seemingly nothing to do with any of us.
¹⁶ And I don’t know what any of it has to do with Giant Water Bugs. But I’m pretty sure it’s related.
¹⁷ The more I write this, the more fragmented it becomes. Paragraphs appear in no coherent order. The footnotes don’t correspond to the passages they’re connected to.
¹⁸ I’m telling you about maternal neonaticide, even though the family violence I’ve described was committed by men.
…the view of biology as consisting of myriad discrete, separate competing selves – organisms or ‘selfish genes’ – is more a projection of our own present- day culture than it is an accurate understanding of our nature. ¹⁹
Marmoset and tamarin mothers often give birth to twins or triplets and rely on others to carry and care for children. In late stages of pregnancy, mothers who perceive a shortage of available help will kill other infants in the group – even their own grandchildren. ²⁰
In humans, perception of social support or feelings of social isolation are often better predictors of neonaticide than economic scarcity. Hrdy states, “In our society, for the first time, we have something unusual:
Young women able to ovulate at unnaturally early ages without social support. We’ve changed the rules of human existence, but haven’t provided the tools to deal with it.” ²¹
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “…we've turned societies into a series of hotels. You pay your bills, which are your taxes, and in return, you get a room in which you can do whatever you like so long as you don't disturb the people to the left or right of you.” ²²
In my village, if you went to the medicine man with a sick child you would never say, ‘I am healthy, but my child is sick.’ You would say, ‘My family is sick.’ Or if it were a neighbor, you might say, ‘My village is sick’” (Martín Prechtel). ²³
¹⁹ Like the violence itself, everything’s connected in ways I can’t articulate. Not a jigsaw puzzle but a collage. Not a woven tapestry but a patchwork quilt. It’s all there, but I can’t lay it out for you. Maybe I’m standing too close. Maybe that’s the work of the poem – to ask you to make the connections that I cannot.
²⁰ I know economics has something to do with it. Separation, individualism, competition, the illusion of resource scarcity, oppression – all of these are parts of the problem.
²¹ My niece died, in part, because I did not talk to my brother. She died because we live in a society that allowed for this, allows us to ignore one another, to leave each other to fend for ourselves. A society that fails to recognize our interdependence.
²² We value privacy and individual freedom above all else, so we tell a story that preserves those values. We call people who abuse children monsters and we encourage survivors to speak privately to therapists about the details or turn their stories into memoirs of survival and redemption.
²³ I have been trying to write this in poetry – have tried to write about my niece, about my brother, about my death on the bathroom floor, about economics and individualism –tried to explain that our torture and murder of children is a practice at once natural and perverse – but I fall short every time. Every time, flat.
Scarcity then is merely an illusion, a cultural creation. But because we live, almost wholly, in a culturally constructed world, our experience of this scarcity is real enough that some 5,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes…Our perception of scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. ²⁴
Groups of male bottlenose dolphins will wait for a female to give birth and attack the newborn, battering and submerging it or tossing it in the air, sometimes for hours. Once, a group of nine dead dolphin calves washed up on the Virginia coast with broken bones and bruised organs. ²⁵
In 2002, while five-month-old Brianna’s mother slept in another room, Brianna’s father and uncle threw her to the ceiling and watched as she hit the ground repeatedly. After her death, in addition to full-body bruising, investigators found that Brianna was covered in bite marks. Her blood on both men’s underwear. ²⁶
At the National Zoo, the sloth bear Khali gave birth to three cubs. The first she ate immediately. The second two weeks later. The third she ignored. ²⁷
²⁴ Maybe there are some things you can’t say beautifully. Why Carolyn Forché wrote “The Colonel” in a prose block. Why Theodor Adorno proclaimed “no poetry after Auschwitz.”
²⁵ There are things you can’t dance around, can’t hint at or obfuscate with allusion and metaphor. They’re too important. The lived experience of brutality too urgent.
²⁶ Trapped in the logic of me and mine, we seek to recover some tiny fraction of our lost wealth by expanding and protecting the separate self and its extension… If all the world, all of life on earth, is no longer me, I can at least compensate by making it mine.
²⁷ In 2014, Hennessy Fagin died, a pillow to her face, a man’s hands behind it. She was two, she was my niece, and I did not love her.
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