Challenging Cruelty in A Color-Blind Way Is Our Duty
While cruelty is universal, so is the fight against it
(This essay is the latest in our continuing series about the relationship between animal-use industries, pathogens and their effect on animal and human health.)
Since early March, after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, there’s been alarm and uproar about the mistreatment of animals in China and how a live-wildlife market launched the COVID-19 virus around the globe.
“Shut down live wildlife sales at wet markets” we have argued.
“End the dog meat trade.”
“Stop keeping bears in confinement and jamming catheters through their skin and into their gall bladders for bile.”
Animal Wellness Action (AWA) is circulating a petition to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States urging government action on all three fronts.
These are not new issues. I’ve been warning about them for years. What’s new is the world’s awareness and understanding there’s a link between animal cruelty and this public health crises.
If AWA had a history of just attacking China or other Asian nations for these types of animal-use practices, we might be rightly criticized for selective concerns and unfairly targeting people in that part of the world.
But our pattern of activism demonstrates a broad concern for all animals, no matter the setting.
We call fair or foul when it comes to the treatment of animals. We’ll call it out in whatever language it takes to be understood.
This week we are stepping up our campaign, in partnership with the Center for a Humane Economy, to stop Australia from slaying kangaroos for athletic shoes.
We hollered about Norway’s recent re-launch of its whaling vessels.
We’ve hectored Botswana for re-opening its extraordinary landscape to monied tourists for elephant and lion trophy hunts.
In recent days, given the connection between emerging infectious diseases and animal mistreatment, I’ve written essays about game farms spawning Chronic Wasting Disease, cockfighters spreading avian influenza, and factory farms incubating antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
These practices, with all the collateral effects, are threats not just to animals, but in their worst cases to the functioning of human society as well.
As intense and gratuitous as some forms of cruelty may be, it rests as a failing of individuals and not as a behavioral characteristic of ethnic or racial communities. Animal advocates, often rightly angered about seeing cruelty at work, must with all their resolve resist the temptation to attribute its cause to someone’s DNA or cultural background. That’s wrong on its face. And indeed, if they go down that road, there’s no community that would be left unscathed when it comes to their harangues.
It’s also important to remember the converse — that there are good people fighting cruelty from every heritage and whereabouts. There is a burgeoning movement, for example, in support of animal welfare in China, with promising progress against ivory carvers and traders and the dog meat traffickers.
Similarly, there are advocates in Spain taking on bullfighting.
Mexican activists are taking on blood sports, cruel festivals, and even factory farming.
In Guam, where politicians said cockfighting was so popular, our poll of citizens showed quite the opposite. More than 60 percent of Guamanians support a federal ban on animal fighting.
I wrote a book some years ago called The Bond, in which I argued animals have always been at the center of the human experience. Our connection to animals has been built into our biochemistry. We have social bonding hormones that connect us to animals and nature. That’s programmed into every one of us.
Animals should also be at the center of our moral concern. But even at a time when our cause is ascendant, it’s still a relationship fraught with contradiction and conflicting impulses.
There are some forms of cruelty, like factory farming, that are widespread in the industrialized world. Other forms of exploitation, like whaling, are on the wane, and pursued by just a handful of countries. The same is true for trophy hunting of elephants, persisting in just a half dozen or so places, the bursts of violence lending a colonialist feel. Seal killing is reserved for just a few coastal nations, while puppy mills are found in the wealthiest of countries with the highest rates of pet-keeping.
Were we to eliminate them in their entirety, and the other unbearable things we do to animals, would these sacrifices be too difficult to bear, and so time-tested that they should endure? I don’t think any rational and impartial person would think so.
When the last of the live-wildlife and dog meat markets are shuttered; when we see the disassembling of factory farms and industrial slaughter plants; when ecotourists are the only ones in pursuit of elephants and lions; when we gather in arenas to see feats of human athleticism rather than the premeditated stabbing of bulls masquerading as performance art, are we really going to be regretful or nostalgic that these sources of misery are dead and gone?
None of it, including the fight over the live animal markets in China, will be easy. While we are the rational species, we are also the rationalizing one. We can excuse just about any kind of cruelty, defending it as a cultural prerogative, a job maker, or mitigator of conflicts.
In our quest to eradicate cruelty, we are not seeking to impose homogeneity. All of our splendid diversity — in cuisine, dress, cosmology, dialect, language — gives us the flavors and creative expressions of humanity. There’s beauty in heterodoxy. But as with all good things, there are limits. Cruelty to animals is one of them.
In the end, history will be good to the courageous animal advocates who challenged convention, confronted cruelty, and showed their fellow brothers and sisters that there was a better way forward for us as individuals and for the whole of society.