Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The ethical treatment of animals

I could see it coming for years. Perhaps it was when I first saw a mouse in the basement of my childhood home. Questioning the morality of setting a trap to break the neck of the tiny rodent, I pleaded with my parents to let it live while quietly wishing would it go away on its own. When the critter's offspring made their way upstairs into the kitchen and den, then ultimately up to the second floor where my bedroom was, not only was I setting the traps myself, but I went from timidly disposing the trap and the dead mouse together all the while keeping my eyes closed, to looking the little buggers in the eye as I loosened the spring trap, thereby releasing their lifeless bodies into the trash so I could reset the bloody instrument of death.

Maybe I saw it coming when I read an article in high school saying the problem of world hunger could be solved simply if the highly inefficient system of devoting millions of acres of farmland to raising feed crop for livestock were instead devoted to raising crops intended solely for human consumption. I toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian myself, but never stuck to my guns, I just liked eating meat too much.

That didn't stop me from having ferocious arguments with my father about the morality of eating animals, since it was a luxury I felt, we could learn to live without. My reasoning was there would be enough food for everyone, the animals we ate would be spared, and we would all live happily ever after. My father countered my argument by saying: "shut up, you don't know what you're talking about." Having experienced real hardship in his life, the loss of both his parents before his tenth birthday, the first hand experience of war, the occupation of his country by two hostile foreign powers, leaving his homeland for a foreign country with nothing but the clothes on his back and lots of ambition, my father, God rest his soul, didn't have the luxury of time on his hands to philosophize about what he was eating. He experienced times in his life when just having something to eat at all was enough. That feeling never left him.

Not having had that problem, what occurred to me back in my formative years was that one day, society would have to come to grips with our relationship with animals. On that day I reckoned, it would no longer suffice to justify our treatment of animals by simply stating that the difference was this: animals are animals, period. They're not human beings. "But aren't people animals too?" I'd ask. "Shut up, you talk too much" was the answer I got.

That only strengthened my resolve. My brazenness regarding our rodent intruders and my fondness for eating animal flesh notwithstanding, I could not bring myself to feel superior to non-human animals. For example, I never bought into the idea perpetuated by the religious, that human beings had souls while other animals did not. Nor did I agree with my mother's less metaphysical assertion that animals only acted upon instinct, not logic or acquired knowledge like humans.

My formative years coincided with a period in history when ideas about how people treated each other were turned upside down. Civil rights was the burning issue of the day along with the Vietnam War and the battle for equal rights for women. All those issues centered around ethics and morality, the struggle between the "us versus them" mentality, and the idea that all human beings deserve to be treated equally with respect and dignity. Hard to believe given the way people continue to treat one another today, but I truly believe we have come a long way in our society since those days. This country is more racially and ethnically diverse than at any time in its history and I believe, all the better for it.

Back in the seventies while I was having all those arguments with my father, it occurred to me that once the battle for the ethical treatment of human beings would be won, there would be new battles to be fought, as there always have been throughout human history. One of those battles I thought  to myself, would be the struggle for animal rights.

Sure enough, in 1980 the organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was founded. There are lots of animal welfare organizations that pre-date PETA, the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) comes immediately to mind. The difference is that PETA's goal is not humane treatment, but equality for animals; its catchy slogan, "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any way" tells us in no uncertain terms that this is an organization with radical ideals.

It's the letter "E" in PETA that is the organization's linchpin, and what is the most complicated aspect of the group. On the surface, the idea of the ethical treatment of animals is not troubling. After all, anyone with half a conscience understands that animals at the very least experience pain and would agree that it is unethical to make an animal needlessly suffer.

But ethics go much deeper than that. It's not difficult to determine basic right from wrong when it comes to human beings. That's because people of all colors and creeds have come to accept an axiom that serves as their moral guidepost, one that stands alone above all others. It has been around as long as people have been making rules of behavior, and it forms the backbone of just about every religion and legal system we have devised. So by and large how to we determine if our intended actions are ethical? We ask ourselves this simple question: "How would I like it if somebody did that to me?"

Now suppose we apply that "Golden Rule" to our treatment of animals. Since we wouldn't want ourselves or our children to be killed and eaten, applying the Golden Rule to animals obviously would preclude eating them. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Taking the application of ethics to determine our relationship with animals to its logical conclusion, any domestication of animals would have to be considered unethical, since we expect as human beings that it is our inherent right to have free will to determine our lives.

This means that every animal from a lion in a zoo, to a pig or horse on a farm, to a lab rat in a cage, to a goldfish in a bowl, ethically speaking, should be allowed the freedom to choose its own destiny. Anything less, PETA and its allies argue, is tantamount to slavery.

I should point out that PETA does not advocate releasing domesticated animals into the wild, far from it; but they do say we'd all be better off had the domestication of animals never happened in the first place.

Now I'm not going to slam PETA or similar minded organizations, they are a committed bunch whose heart is in the right place. As you can see from reading the top of this post, I asked those questions myself at one time; in a way I'm cut from the same cloth.

Unlike PETA members however, when I was a teenager I felt I had to reconcile my shortcomings when it came the inconsistencies of my feelings about animals and my actions that were very unlikely to change anytime soon. It turned out the answer to the problem was ridiculously simple.

We got a cat.

Before long, our mouse problem was solved. Of course, death by cat is much more gruesome than the trap. But I reasoned that has been nature's way of population control for eons, and who was I to argue with Mother Nature?

The cat experience made me understand that we humans live part time in two worlds, the natural world and the man made one. As much as we may try to avoid the former in favor of the latter, we can't completely avoid the laws of nature. We all experience bad weather, we all get sick, and even though we may be able to put it off, at some point we will all die. The man made world has done a good job of making nature's less appealing aspects more bearable for many of us but in the end, we are all at the mercy of its whims.

A big difference between the natural world and the man made world is that in nature, there is no concept of ethics. In nature, it is the strong who survive to live another day, while the weak inevitably perish. There are animals who by nature are predators and other animals who are prey. Most predators are both. By human standards, this system in inherently unfair. In the anthropomorphic world of fairy tales, nature documentaries  and Disney films, we root for the underdog: the poor three little pigs against the big bad wolf, the Emperor penguin mother on her unbearably long quest for food for her family against the seal that wants to eat her, or the brave, morally superior lion king Mufasa against his corrupt brother Scar.

But nature could not care less about the plight of the poor penguin and her starving family back home, any more than it cares who leads the pride of lions, evil Scar or noble Mufasa. Nature doesn't care, it simply adapts.

Right and wrong are man made concepts. I have no idea whether some animals share these concepts.  My guess is that most wild animals, (large herbivores like elephants and gorillas may be an exception), are so busy, engaged with everyday survival that even if they could, developing systems of ethics would not be particularly beneficial to them from an evolutionary standpoint.

Through domestication which began thousands of years ago, human beings brought animals into their own world of right and wrong, of laws and ethics. Gradually over time, changing ideas of ethics, and most importantly, the decline of our dependence upon animals, our attitudes toward them have changed. A PETA member might argue that since domesticated animals have been forcibly removed from the natural world to reside in the human one, they deserve to benefit from the same laws that protect human beings. In one of their tracts, PETA says this :
Animals surely deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation.
The paradox is that statement flies in the face of their saying animals should never have been domesticated in the first place. It seems PETA is as guilty as anyone when it comes to anthropomorphizing nature. As opposed to domesticated animals, animals in the wild have no rights whatsoever, they have only their strength, perseverance and their will to survive to protect them.  No animal in nature is ever free from suffering and exploitation. No animal in nature dies of old age.

I said earlier that the day of reckoning would soon be at hand. I was reminded of that when I heard the story about the new mayor of New York City waging a controversial campaign to ban horse drawn carriages in that city. The horse carriages, in Mayor Bill de Blasio's words' are:
...not humane; they're not appropriate to the year 2014; it's over.
I find it an interesting debate because it illustrates the widely divergent opinions we have on the treatment of animals, even within the animal welfare community. PETA (who has  remained uncharacteristically silent on this issue as far as I can tell), would argue that putting any animal to work, especially for "entertainment" purposes, is unethical. The ASPCA has argued that while they don't object to working animals per se, putting an animal in the dangerous environment of the streets of New York, constitutes animal cruelty. Other animal advocates have countered no, these animals have been bred particularly for this type of work, and it does them no harm at all. Still others would say quite reasonably: "an out of work horse is a dead horse."

The thing that troubles me about the horse carriage issue in New York is that the mayor and his allies are prepared to wipe out an entire business and the livelihoods of people based solely on personal conviction, rather than credible, objective, evidence. Whether the horse carriages are "humane" or not is opinion, not fact. The mayor is certainly entitled to his beliefs as much as anyone, however running a city based upon a mayor's personal conviction is in my opinion no different than running any government based upon an elected official's religious views.

Clearly we have a long way to go before we can learn to justly adjudicate issues regarding animal rights. As we have no Golden Rule regarding animals we can all rally around, it's going to be a struggle. PETA and other radical animal rights groups don't do themselves any favors by making statements like this one:
Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable.
Species prejudice, really?

There is also a backlash against PETA from other pro-animal rights groups regarding their support of euthanasia over so called "no-kill" shelters which in effect sentence unwanted animals to lifetime confinement in a cage.

Full disclosure: I happen to agree with PETA on that one, as well as several other stances of theirs.

I do think the tide is turning and if the current New York animal rights struggle is any indication, we'll be seeing a lot more controversial struggles regarding animals in the near future.

For what it's worth, my theory is this: nature for better or worse has put human beings at the top of the food chain. We are far and away the most adaptable and as a result, successful species of life on the planet, (with the possible exception of rats and cockroaches). The fact that we evolved to eat meat is neither right nor wrong, as nothing in nature can be judged by those criteria. Therefore the personal choice to eat meat, even when there is an alternative, cannot be unethical; it is simply put, part of our nature.

As for our other employment of animals this is what I think:
  • Animals and humans have lived together for thousands of years. Contrary to what many in the animal rights movements believe, I feel it has for the most part been a mutually beneficial relationship, certainly not without exceptions. 
  • I believe that zoos when well designed, play an important role in society, educating and sometimes inspiring visitors about wildlife, ecology, and the natural world. 
  • I believe that while countless animals have died in scientific studies, their lives were not lost in vain, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, since many of us even owe our lives to their sacrifice. 
  • I find it very difficult indeed to question the ethics of employing working animals such as those who give help to the blind, comfort to the sick and grieving, and countless other valuable services.
  • Likewise for pets who often provide the only loving companionship their people experience.
In return, I believe that it is our moral imperative to treat every living creature with honor and respect. We are without a doubt responsible for the animals we created and for their welfare. As I said before, no animal should suffer needlessly.

Having said that, as a part time resident of the natural world, I am a human being and as such, I am compelled to put members of my own species first, just as I believe nature intended it to be.

Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It's continuously a work in progress and make no claims for it being bulletproof. 

We humans may not be the masters of the universe we think we are. Yet the power is surely within our hands to destroy all life (save perhaps the rats and the cockroaches) on our tiny planet. In that vein, we truly as it says in Genesis, have dominion over the world and all those that live in it. Since that is the case, it would behoove us to rule wisely.

Unfortunately, we're not a very wise species, we can't even figure out how to best get along with each other, let alone the other species with whom we share this planet.

Hold on tight my friends, it's going to be a long and bumpy ride.

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