Woman Typing

 Essay

At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living. 

February 2022

Are Birds Real?
Feathered ones get appropriated by humans… again. (sigh)

by Rev. Sarah Bowen
birds_aren't_real.jpg

A Birds Aren’t Real billboard in Memphis. Photo Credit:. Peter McIndoe

You know that feeling when you read the morning news and your heart sinks? Another tragedy. A death, a disaster, a pandemic. It’s enough to make you want to stop reading so-called mainstream news. So, I understand why many activists and animal advocates prefer to get their news from outlets that don’t exploit animals, such as VegNews or the Unchained News Network


A case in point: I’m still grappling with my outrage at a December article in the New York Times profiling Peter McIndoe, the 23-year-old creator of a parody social movement titled "Birds Aren’t Real, or Are They? Inside a Gen Z Conspiracy Theory." Though I urge you to read the entire article, here’s the gist of the movement according to the Times.
 
“What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism.”
 
The movement’s publicity stunts have included protesting outside Twitter’s headquarters demanding that the company drop its bird logo, burning a St. Louis Cardinals flag at a rally, and putting up billboards proclaiming “Birds Aren’t Real.” And, of course, selling merch to cover the rallies and the founders’ living expenses.
 
Although I understand the rebellious snark of the Bird's Aren't Real parody movement, it's built at the expense of sentient beings who are endangered. And that is no laughing matter. Human actions increasingly threaten birds, and we are in actuality causing many species to become "unreal" not in metaphor but material substance.
 
Birds Aren’t Real’s attempt to “fight misinformation with misinformation”—such as suggesting that birds are drones!―denies the actual problems facing birds.
 
The reality is that according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 190 species of birds have gone extinct in the last four centuries. 226 species are critically endangered, 461 are endangered, 800 are vulnerable, and 1018 are near-threatened. The overwhelming factor in this loss of biodiversity and individual bird deaths is humans, who harm birds through destructing habitats, polluting airs and waters, applying pesticides and herbicides to plants birds consume, and wild bird trafficking.
 
Even more troubling, billions of birds are forced to live in the horrific unhygienic “farms”, most without access to sunlight and the out-of-doors. They are subjected to painful procedures and killed in the name of business and profit.
 
The Birds Aren’t Real movement is another case of using feathered beings for human causes. Righteously, the movement’s founders tell the Times, “Everything we’ve done with Birds Aren’t Real is made to make sure it doesn’t tip into where it could have a negative end result on the world … It’s a safe space for people to come together and process the conspiracy takeover of America. It’s a way to laugh at the madness rather than be overcome by it.”
 
It may be a safe place for some people. But it’s certainly not creating a safe space overall. And, I’m certainly not laughing. I think the movement is indeed having a negative result through their complete denial of what is actually happening to birds all around us.
 
Further, Birds Aren't Real misses the opportunity to link their advocacy to positively impact the world, not just be concerned about avoiding a negative impact.
 
Instead of merely functioning as platform to process their anger and frustration, they could use their earned visibility to help mitigate bird extinctions, stop the suffering of farmed birds, and draw awareness to entangled planetary problems that are likely to significantly impact Gen Z as they age.
 
McIndoe even tells the Times, “I have a lot of excitement for what the future of this could be an actual force for good. Yes, we have been intentionally spreading misinformation for the past four years, but it’s with a purpose. It’s about holding up a mirror to America in the internet age.”
 
While the amount of misinformation in the world is troubling, and I appreciate Birds Aren't Real's prophetic attempt to draw attention to that very real problem, the movement makes clear they have no problem exploiting birds to make their point. And that's troubling as well.

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Rev. Sarah A. Bowen is an animal chaplain and advocate for all creatures. She offers workshops on interspecies mindfulness practices, works with humans around animal grief/loss, and advocates for exploited and endangered species within both religious and secular contexts. Bowen is a cofounder of Compassion Consortium, the first interfaith, interspiritual, and interspecies faith community; an academic dean at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary; a columnist on animal/human relationships for Spirituality & Health magazine; and the author of two award-winning books on modern spirituality and the forthcoming Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice for Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, and Healing the Planet (Monkfish, April 2022).