On using animals

Humboldt Surfrider, Humboldt Baykeeper and Ocean Conservancy all co-host a first Thursday Ocean Night. This week, we showed The Cove, a documentary about the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan.

I’d read about The Cove months ago in the New York Times

this is no angry enviro-rant but a living, breathing movie whose horrifying disclosures feel fully earned

– and had hoped to bring it to town, but I’m not sure I would have seen it on my own – as great as the reviews were, the subject matter is more devastating than I likely would have opted to bring home as a DVD rental. We had a good turnout despite many people sharing my same fear of what we were about to witness. And it was tough to watch. Fortunately, much of the film was devoted to showing what the filmmakers had to do to acquire the footage, including hiding high-definition cameras in rocks, secretly planting underwater audio gear, sneaking into the cove at night, dodging police, avoiding threatening fishermen and keeping from being arrested.

By the time the inevitable scene occurred, I couldn’t step away (my original plan had been to duck out during the actual slaughter). After all the filmmakers had gone through to get this footage to an audience, I felt compelled to bear witness. It was so, so awful. Why we, as a species, are so numb to inflicting pain and death upon other species, I do not understand. Why some people can kill animals as if they have no other value than to serve our needs, I do not understand. In our history with animals, at least since the Industrial Revolution, we’re constantly on the side of ignorance: animals keep proving smarter, more feeling, more complex than we previously thought.

Dolphins have been declared the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting they are so bright that they should be treated as “non-human persons.”

“If an animal is clever,” Broom wrote, “it is less likely to be treated as if it is an object or a machine to produce food, and more likely to be considered as an individual of value in itself.”

“This would seem to be a trait common to and independently evolved by animals with large, complex brains, complex social lives and known capacities for empathy and altruism, even though the animals all have very different kinds of brains,” researcher Diana Reiss, a senior cognitive research scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Brooklyn, N.Y., told LiveScience.

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.

When are we going to prevail on the side of caution instead of exploitation?

I have yet to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, but this excerpt (again, from the NYT) reflects my own feelings and experience greatly:

My wife and I have chosen to bring up our children as vegetarians. In another time or place, we might have made a different decision. But the realities of our present moment compelled us to make that choice. According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives — which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot — are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.)

According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves. We know these things matter.

I am not a purist. As I’ve said before, Nick’s diabetes diagnosis forced me into a difficult place regarding animal testing. I’m generally against it, “it” being so often excessive and unnecessary – yet we’re so grateful for the progress made in treating diabetics (primarily by scientists experimenting on dogs and pigs). I would not sacrifice my son to uphold my ethics nor ever scold anyone for taking advantage of the best medicine offered.

But much gray area exists. And because we think nothing of using animals for whatever our needs (except to satisfy sexual cravings; even a society that allows factory farming, circuses, killing animals for their skins and sacrificing them in the name of cosmetic testing draws the line at bestiality), who knows what alternate methods for finding treatment exist?

Now, we’re killing endangered sharks to make H1N1 vaccine – a vaccine received, at my request, by both my children. Would I have refused it on their behalf if I’d been better informed? Again, probably not. But, like most people, although my moral beliefs may be consistent, my actual behavior is greatly influenced by who (my children) and what (potential risk) make up the equation.

…the general rule is, Help those close to home and ignore those far away. That’s in part because the plight of a person you can see will always feel more real than the problems of someone whose suffering is merely described to you. But part of it is also rooted in you from a time when the welfare of your tribe was essential for your survival but the welfare of an opposing tribe was not…

Complicating things further, the vast diversity of opinion and practices. If we shun everyone with whom we disagree, how do we evolve as a whole? But sometimes accepting that people whom we love will do things we abhor takes its own toll; if we desire to work actively against an activity yet absolve the people close to us, are we therefore condoning the very thing we see as wrong? Being judgmental is bad – and dangerous – so where does one draw the line between agreeing to disagree and working to change behavior. After all, at some point, “Live and let live” fails.

Food (vegetarian and local!) for thought.

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