A Copernican Revolution in Animal Rights

Just over four hundred years ago, humans confronted the idea that the Earth orbited the Sun.  Many didn’t like the idea.  Both the church and classical knowledge taught the Sun orbited the Earth.  It was a shock to our egos to think our home planet was not the spiritual center of everything.  Were we not the crown of creation, the apple of God’s eye?  That stung.  Some crazy folks back then, not many, but some, even suggested that there were planets around every star, with intelligent beings on each.  Ouch, now that really hurt, to think God might not be monogamous, going around having children everywhere.

Eyes_of_gorilla

But at least humans were special, different from all other life on Earth.  The conceit that we had souls and animals didn’t gave us justification to enslave, torture and eat animals without guilt.  The concept of animal rights has been around for a very long time too, but in recent decades those pesky scientists have started proving animals had complex minds, at least some of them, and maybe, not that different from ours.  Damn, there goes our sense of special again.

Now, this is not new, except that more people than ever are becoming empathetic with the plight of animals.  The Copernican Revolution didn’t happen overnight either.  I became a vegetarian in 1969, and over the decades I watched the movement grow.  Just because I chose not to eat animals didn’t mean I understood their suffering.  I’m still constantly being educated to how I am insensitive I am to their point of view.  Two recent documentaries reminded me that just not eating the animals is being good enough.

I’ve been to SeaWorld and loved the orca and dolphin shows.  I knew scientists used chimpanzee for all kinds of experiments, including those with sign language, which I thought was a wonderful idea.  Even when we appear to love and cherish animals we often fail to see what we’re really doing to them.  I highly recommend watching these two movies.  Blackfish and Project NIM are available through a variety of sources.  And please don’t avoid them because you don’t like seeing animal suffering.  The more we avoid recognizing their suffering, the longer animals will suffer.

There is a number of issues we need to solve as a species before we can assume everything is hunky-dory and we can all go back to our selfish individual pursuits.  Should there be some kind of cognitive bar that if an animal can chin itself, free them from our cruelty?   

For some animals it’s important that we decide soon before we completely wipe them out.

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Where Is the Dividing Line Between Compassion and Evil?

It wasn’t long ago, and in fact, for many people it’s still true, that the dividing line between compassion and evil was set at anything not human.  Some people extended the line to include their pet pug or kitty cat because they live closely with their pets and see their personalities first hand.  But they’d eat pigs and cows, assuming those creatures are just mindless biological machines.  Did you know, that some studies consider pigs smarter than dogs?

What traits must an animal possess before we feel compassion for them?  Creating a dividing line that defines what we can ethically kill and what we can’t, will be very difficult.  Most people will kill a cockroach or mosquito and think nothing of it, but there are some religions that find all life sacred and thus worthy of protection.  Animal rights are a very complex ethical issue.

Right now the public attention seems to be focusing on large animals that show some self-awareness, tool use, or language ability.  These include the great apes, whales, dolphins, elephants and a few others.  But what if farm animals like pigs and cows prove their ability to do a few cognitive chin-ups?  What about deer?  Or turkeys?  Most people think birds have bird brains, but if you’ve seen “My Life As A Turkey”  you might think different.

I believe science is showing that some large animals like the great apes, whales, dolphins and elephants have a whole lot more cognitive awareness than we thought, and that even zoos, circuses and water worlds are concentration camps to them.

Like I said, this issue has been around a very long time, but some social transformations take a long time to complete.  Pay attention to the newspaper and you’ll see signs of it everywhere.   Yesterday the New York Times ran “They’re Going to Wish They All Could Be California Hens” about how hens in California are getting bigger pens.  Or Nicholas Kristof’s “Is That Sausage Worth This?” about how pigs are fed pureed dead piglet intestines or pig diarrhea to build up their immunity to pig diseases.  Yummy, huh?  But diabolically evil if we practiced such procedures on a human.

Even Christians are exploring animal rights as a spiritual issue, see “Animal Rights and Christian Responsibility” from Wheaton College.  If you search Google or YouTube you’ll find almost endless approaches by religious people becoming aware of animal rights.  They’ve come a long way since the Old Testament and sacrificing tens of thousands of animals at one time.

What Are Animals Fair Share of the Earth?

If we plotted human’s consumption of the Earth’s landmass it will be easy to see that someday we will use it all.  If you plot the number of species made extinct by our development, the graph will show at some point there will be no more animals.  If we don’t want to be alone on this planet with nothing larger than a bacteria for our buddies, then we need to change our ways.

How Smart Do Animals Have To Be To Deserve Respect?

Scientific American recently published  “The Science is In:  Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized.”  If you read this article and watch the videos, will you still feel we should imprison elephants in zoos, or enslave them for work?  And should not a massive international effort be made to stop all poaching and trafficking in ivory?  At what point is shooting poachers more ethical than letting elephants die?

But don’t even small dumb animals deserve rights too?  The other day I watched an episode of PBS Nature “The Animal House” that went around the world showing how animals built their houses.  In one segment it showed cave swiftlets building nests in underground caves, and then showed humans collecting the nests for bird’s nest soup.  Do we have no shame?  Must we eat everything?

Learning to Empathize

To change, every person must reach a state in their personal development where they empathize with animals and nature.  I think one of the best ways to do that is by watching Nature on PBS every week.  The show is not an animal right’s show, but a show about all the varied aspects of nature.  I find the show infinitely inspirational.

Animals don’t believe in animal rights – they practice red tooth and claw, so they are cruel to each other.  A case could be made that we’re no crueler to them, than they are to each other.  But here’s the thing.  God might not exist, but we do, and in his place, we are becoming beings that do know about every sparrow that falls from the tree.  This awareness doesn’t mean we need to convert all animals to vegetarians, but it does mean we can choose between being like the animals or becoming something new.

JWH – 3/4/14

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