Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation http://www.harmonyfdn.ca/
The prevailing view that humans are superior to other animals is a corrupted idea that has allowed us to ignore the tremendous pain and suffering we have caused and our responsibility for it. This idea derives from Christianity, Judaism and other faiths, which see our relation to other animals as one of dominion, but not domination or willful exploitation. What dominion really means, is a great responsibility to treat other animals respectfully and safe-guard their well-being. It does not confer on us the right to arrogantly do as we please, using other animals for food, recreation, clothing, transportation and medical experiments with little or no regard for anything but our own ambitions.
As a teenager unwilling any longer to participate in the slaughter of animals for food I began a life-long struggle to understand not only animal’s inherent rights, but, more profoundly, our human obligations to ensure these rights. More and more people are becoming aware of our alienation from nature and environmentalists, vegetarians, animal lovers, gardeners and people like you and me are trying to fix it. As exciting as these new movements are, growing human populations and our growing appetites present huge challenges. Can we “save the environment” and save wild species from extinction if we continue to demand our current material quality of life? In fact, despite many good efforts, animals of the world are today experiencing the worst moment in human history. Their forced relationship with us is proving detrimental to their very survival.
The fundamental problems are these:
Our interaction with nature. We cannot differentiate our own increasingly urban lives from the lives of those who live “in nature,” because we depend on the natural environment as much as all other species. Some people tend to think of nature as a recreational place, but overcoming our own alienation from the natural environment is not really about “getting out in nature.” We are part of the world and have to consider what we want our role to be in its many ecosystems. Only fools spoil their own nest.
Protection of ecosystems. I spent the early part of my career as a wildlife biologist in Alberta and British Columbia working desperately to save caribou and grizzly bears and other wild species from the ravages of logging, mining, oil and gas development and other industrial and recreational activities that are driving most wild species to the status of threatened, rare or extinct. I’ve witnessed the sickening sight of animals chewing their leg off to escape a trap or caught deep in a pipeline trench condemned to die. I’ve seen magnificent elk or caribou shot and left dead along the side of a road punched open by companies extracting natural oil and lumber and minerals to feed our voracious appetites. I’ve watched hunters drive with the heads of magnificent animals draped over their trucks heading home as trophies to their manhood. There is a great educational need for making people aware of the connection between human activity and the loss of wild things and wild places.
Animals used for human recreation. Our many zoos, circuses and aquariums contribute to the fact that most people unfortunately view nature as some kind of museum or art gallery, with various species on display. Most of these institutions argue that they have educational value, but regardless of the affinity children may feel for the dolphins they see in the Vancouver Aquarium, San Diego Zoo and Ringling Brothers Circus, these are commercial enterprises. What is worse, the “education” they provide reinforce the idea that humans are superior to all other animals and that animals exist for our enjoyment, whether as food on the dinner table or “clowns” in the aquarium.
Protection of companion animals. I always have enjoyed the company of animals and anyone who does should recognize them as valued companions, not animals kept for amusement. Unfortunately some, driven by a belief in our superiority to animals, thrive on control and power. These people call “their” animals “pets,” underlining their ownership over other living beings. We give animals shelter and protection and affection and they give us companionship, which has well known benefits for our health and happiness. Is it an equitable relationship? That depends, but more importantly, is it humane? In an ideal world all pedigree breeding of animals would be abolished. There are just too many dogs and cats without homes, living desperate, short lives on the street. Many of these animals get killed every year because people let their dogs and cats breed indiscriminately.
Experimental use of animals. For many people the use of animals for research purposes poses a tough question: what has greater value, the lives of the animals that are being experimented upon or the lives of the humans that benefit from the research? I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, I am not sure one exists. While I despair knowing that a group of monkeys are being injected with the HIV virus to test possible cures, I can’t deny my compassion for human suffering. My problem is that medical research has become an industry and the animals simply tools. We must make much more ethical decisions about what is so important that it justifies the deprivation and pain we cause, and consequently use far fewer animals with much more compassion for research purposes.
Industrial killing of animals. We were never meant to be more than opportunistic users of animals, but our 21st century technology and appetites mean large-scale killing without reverence for the lives taken. Millions of cows and pigs and chickens in factory farms live and die under horrid conditions. Our oceans are being depleted of fish because of big trawlers that not only scoop up millions of fish as they rip through the marine environment, but also kill millions of by-catch, such as dolphins, turtles and birds. Wild animals are being hunted and trapped, some for food and some for the grotesque enjoyment of hobbyist hunters. The laws that regulate these industrial and recreational killings are clearly inadequate, focused on human privileges, not on our obligations or animal rights. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when our criminal code regards animals as property, in regulations unchanged for many, many years. Clearly if we only value animals as food or property that attitude diminishes our respect for their lives and wellbeing.
While it is clear to me that most of our agricultural and industrial practices concerning animals are inhumane and our heavily animal based diet harmful to public health and the environment, mandating vegetarianism is unrealistic. However, it is long past time we, in law and practice, gave other animals the respect and protection they deserve. So let’s be pragmatic and look for immediate improvements of disturbing and destructive practices while we are trying to reach for higher ideals. Hardliners may reject this approach, arguing that their refusal to enter a research facility where animals are being experimented upon maintains their integrity intact. But such refusal to engage with the problem is in fact a way of turning our backs on the animals that suffer.
We may speculate how it is possible for such an intelligent species as the human species, to continue to dig our own grave by mistreating our natural environment to the point of destruction. The world does not need us to survive. In fact, we are in the midst of killing ourselves through our uncontrolled economic growth, which comes at the price of our natural heritage. This heritage is not just ours, we share the world with many other species, and we have no more right to live healthy and happy lives than they do. We can intellectually conceptualize these mechanisms and that very ability should remind us of our responsibility to do better and improve the lives of all living beings. Even if you don’t think you owe it to animals to treat them better, you owe it to yourself and your fellow human beings: we lack respect for each other when we forget about the intrinsic value of other life that we share the planet with.
Recommended further readings
Dawn, Karen (1999): Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking The Way We Treat Animals. New York: Harper and Princeton University Press.
Singer, Peter (1975): Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Regan, Tom (1983): The Case for Animal Rights, University of California Press.