Our Attitudes About Animals Affect All Life on Earth
Think of an animal, any animal
Think of all the animals, including dogs and cats, dying right now. Think of animal cruelty and abuse. When we think of these (often ignored) warning signs of future serial killers, we do a disservice to all civility and living beings. Think about breeders who crate animals or treat them as commodities. Think of the many animals that will be dead, or dying roadkill, before this day is out. Think about slow poisons, traps, pesticides, guns, arrows, and more, maybe the 216 wolves killed last month in Wisconsin. Or the bats being killed by association with Covid 19. By now, if you are a person with a human heart, you are likely furious at what our kind does to their kind.
Now, for a brief time, I want you to forget ALL of that.
Think instead of how to be grateful for your empathy, and put it to use.
Most of the animals dying today are not meeting their end by abuse, or hunting, or driving. They die either by deliberate design, as in factory farming, or by simple neglect. For now, I want you to forget even about factory farming. It’s great if a thought persuades you to attempt a Meatless Monday, but that topic is a whole other story concerning how we abuse the planet and (or how) we spread pandemics. It is written about quite a lot.
Instead, I hope we can consider the other living, breathing beings on the planet who suffer simply because we “don’t have time” to do right by them.
Out of sight puts us out of our minds
Many pets are “put to sleep” just because the luck of the draw ordains that they are unwanted. Many are simply locked in (or tied up) and cannot in any way hope to find food, water, or shelter for themselves. Many get caught in the crossfire of broken relationships, moves and relocations, or the cost of living when unemployment arrives. Sometimes, then, there are “getting even” schemes to exact revenge on a perceived injustice by taking away a beloved pet. Many may dash for the door when a chance to run free comes and are thus never seen again.
Many more animals (and their needs) just get forgotten by well-intentioned people. It is well-intentioned people we need to talk about.
People love animals. It is in our nature — and in our desperate need for reconnection to our belonging to the world — to keep animals around. These relationships should be thought of not as merely exploitative but ones that display our unique privilege. We just need to have that awareness.
Our increasingly urban landscapes do not accommodate this need. Our sheer numbers (almost eight billion) consume habitat voraciously — thousands of acres per day. Then we have our climate-driven fires, floods, hurricanes, freezes, and storms. Did I already mention pollution and toxins in air, water, and soil?
Our profit-driven society deprives us of real meaning and belonging to the Earth. Our mental and emotional health, to say little of our spiritual health, is damaged. We are out of our minds not because we are cruel but because we care. And when we care, we feel helpless, overwhelmed, despairing, and lost.
Our inability to see this is blinded by contests of race, gender and nationalism. So long as we can continue to find scapegoats (often through partisanship), we don’t have to face our own responsibility or empowerment. Hating on animal abusers (or meat-eaters, or vegans!) is one such form of scapegoating. Remember neglect hurts more in higher numbers.
Look around you at the state of the world today, and you will probably feel a need to hug a pup or cuddle a kitty. That’s a good sign you are normal.
Fast-changing chains of being
Our socialized order of hierarchy necessarily puts people at the top and increasingly smaller beings at the bottom. We also put their habitats and ecosystems at the bottom, unless a resource or commodity is identified which we monetize to our short-term benefit. Orangutans are endangered largely because we don’t want to even know that palm oil plantations profit from our need to shower, shampoo, or eat food.
Our love for animals, however, is very real. There is a reason why our online lives are peppered with so many cat videos and made tolerable by cute puppy pictures. This love, when juxtaposed with our neglect, guilt, and inability to be heroic, creates an extreme cognitive dissonance.
Let me submit to you that this cognitive dissonance is why we are genuinely upset at direct abuse and sadism but don’t want to hear about the much more lethal (and common) everyday neglect in which we play a part.
When we lived outdoors for 200,000 years, this was not so much of a problem. When we began to farm and industrialize, we slowly disconnected from not only our own animal nature but from the wider world. Now we are connected — human to human, commerce to commerce, online — without even sailing the seas or seeing the trees.
It makes a tremendous difference in how we experience the world.
Beings we create with artificial intelligence or robots that take our jobs add more players to the great chain of being that we unconsciously regard as real.
AI and robotics will only increase this widening gap, and we have every reason to be wary that the natural world, including the animals we dearly love as icons and cultural touchstones, is disappearing along with the supportive biosphere that makes all life possible.
The box on your porch from Amazon can help despoil the actual Amazon without a second thought to that reality. Nevertheless, we still think baby jaguar cubs are the most precious things on Earth for the brief moment we take time to look at the thumbnails.
PETA and cognitive dissonance
Many people hate PETA for what they perceive as hypocrisy and outrage. This is largely due to the cognitive dissonance described above which upon psychological reflection shows that we care more than we know.
PETA only works as it does because people do not pay attention unless their heartstrings are pulled like pulleys hoisting elephants onto ships, or their eyeballs are pried open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Our natural instinct to love and nurture flips our cognitive dissonance on so quickly that we truly cannot tolerate knowing what actually happens in the world. It’s so much easier to watch the Detroit Lions whoop the Chicago Bears. In other words, animal mascots reflect our attraction and devotion to animals by the names and symbolism we borrow from them.
Real animals as flesh and blood, however, can then be discarded.
This is a great disadvantage to the suffering that is allowed to continue, but it can also be employed to help people realize that we (most of us) are not monsters.
In fact, we can be rescuers, advocates, justice warriors, and just plain pet owners as, indeed, very many people who support PETA actually are. The Clintons, Zendaya, Elton John, Ricky Gervais and Bono — among thousands of others who support PETA — are not hypocrites because they have pets, nor are they evil because some think fur coats belong on fur animals. They are just as diverse and opinionated as any other advocates for any cause, like feminists, or anti-racists.
Those who support PETA are not a monolith. Some own pets. Some don’t. Some work with zoos and sanctuaries. Some are more passionate about this or other causes. In fact, people who hate PETA are much like those who support them: not easily put into one size fits all and not at all in total agreement as to what we eat, wear, keep, or cherish.
Taking time to appreciate the natural world
People don’t like pain and thinking about animal suffering is painful. Nightmares are a kind of pain too, and those who don’t want nightmares are better off denying truth if they cannot “handle the truth.” Denial is first and foremost a true and useful defense mechanism.
To me, the difference between people who demand denial and those who don’t is that the latter group understands that what humans do can be undone (or at least influenced). Climate change, racism, sexism, and cruelty all are circumstances that we alone have the power to change. Nonetheless, we often don’t want that power.
However, the more time we spend outdoors, appreciating nature, and finding solace, the more time we step out of our denial of our animal nature. Walking through a park or wilderness and engaging in empathy and alertness free our senses compared to focusing on a screen. We are suddenly immersed in the world in which humans evolved.
It is crucial to realize that human apes are also animals.
We are the only animals, however, that can make a real difference. Accepting responsibility is the last and most difficult step in achieving maturity, either as a person or a species.