No one is so openly treated as inferior as the animal. People enjoy meat, rave about leather, do useless tests on animals, hunt for pleasure and have divided the world up into territories owned by us. Many months ago, I wrote about ‘co-ownership’ of Indian women. At the time, I struggled intellectually with whether ‘ownership’ was the right concept. Is it ‘ownership’ that drives a lot of mistreatment and injustice in the world? Having the wisdom of several months of thinking about this, I think it is.
We do because we own. If you can’t own, you are powerless. That is the tragedy of the intellect-less animal. She can’t own her forest. She can’t own the seas. She can’t own her offspring. She can’t own the air she breathes. She has no rights. And in fact, you act as if you own her.
I have to be honest about my views here: I think people that belittle animals are the littlest people on earth. In Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales so cruelly imprisoned in SeaWorld, we hear one of the trainers say she pitched to management to keep a mother and calf together. One of the managers made fun of her in a meeting saying ‘Oh, Does Tilly miss her mommy?’ (Tilly* is one of the killer whales). The implication being how trivial for an adult to care about an animal or even let an animal’s welfare be one criterion in a decision. Needless to say, they separate the calf from its mother, shipping the calf off to another resort.
I’ve often felt the same way via people’s subtle responses and attitudes to animal rights: as if I’m ‘wasting’ valuable airtime with trivial talk on animal rights. I don’t think the suffering of an animal is at all trivial!! If we strive to be empathetic and selfless and moral (or have we given up on that? I haven’t), how could the topic of animal rights possibly be less important than discussing ice cream or football or Game of Thrones? It’s far more important! Why are we so keen to shut off empathy when it comes to other species? To ignore it, to turn our backs, as if suffering is not suffering everywhere. Anastacia’s rich song ‘Lifeline’ reminds me of animal rights.
It’s high time we started talking for those who can’t talk for themselves.
It’s all about us
The other major hurdle in good discussion on animal rights is our constant obsession with seeing things only from our human perspective, and evaluating decisions only in terms of costs and benefits to humans. Let’s protect that forest because it’s good for us. Let’s protect that species because it produces honey for us, pollinates flowers, pollinates crops for us. Of course, we are all connected in the ecosystem and the removal of species does impact us. Not to mention, we do behold some of these species as beautiful and they give us a lot of pleasure.
But thought experiment: what if they didn’t have any value to us? Does that mean there is no reason to save animals? To give them some space?
We expand agricultural land cutting down forest. If there are indigenous people, there is still some uproar or debate. But what about other species? What about elephants down to the humble rabbit? What about their land? Their need for habitat? Their rights? Their right to roam? Their right to migrate? Their right to feed? Their right to live?
Our ownership is taking a toll on species. Many have gone extinct. Others are fast accelerating down that path. Taking an iconic species for illustrative purpose, there are 3200 tigers left in the world. Many companies have more employees than there are tigers in the entire planet! 97% were lost in just over a century from hunting and habitat destruction.
If they go extinct in my lifetime (which is a real possibility), I will feel a huge loss. I will not feel this loss just because I liked looking at tigers in the zoo, or that I liked watching tiger documentaries. I feel it because there was a species that had every right to the planet as humans do, and it should have been allowed to live. And to live for reasons beyond: because it brought in tourist dollars to Thailand (if I had a dollar for every Facebook photo in Thailand holding tiger cubs or sitting next to a ‘pet’ tiger….); because it inspired art; because it allowed great documentaries; because it taught us about courage; because it was good-looking. It should be allowed to live even if there is no human around to view it, because it’s beautiful even without us watching.
A Panthera (an amazing charity that works on big cat conservation) activist expressed this higher reason for protecting other species nicely at 5:28 in this video.
“I may never see a snow leopard in the wild. But I want to know he’s out there. That he’s living in his landscape, doing what he is supposed to be doing.”
That said, if you don’t buy my arguments on the intrinsic value of other species, I don’t want you to leave this blogpost thinking that that is the only reason species should be saved. As it turns out, biodiversity has huge economic value to humans, and if we disregarded their intrinsic rights, it’s still very much in our self-interest to fight for biodiversity. Good economic valuations of biodiversity are hard to do (try thinking about it), but the most often cited expert and pioneer in economic valuations is David Pearce. I’m not going to throw around numbers here because I can’t explain the methodology well enough (It’s been a few years since my economics undergrad degree!), but the takeaway was the numbers were huge – in the order of trillions of dollars.
The bold solutions I must propose
It’s really easy to write blogposts that everyone agrees with that propose solutions like ‘respect other species’ and ‘change mindset’. Respect and mindset are two things no one ever disagrees with. This type of advice is pretty much useless for policy-making. So I want to be more precise. But forgive me, I also want to be perhaps a bit futuristic and extreme in the way I phrase my suggestions first. But as you’ll see these solutions are not that extreme after all as they’re already weakly in place in small areas of the world.
Solution 1: I want to give ownership of some of the world’s resources to animals. Since animals can’t put their paw-prints on documentation, in practice, this is what nature reserves are. There needs to be more land in the world ‘owned’ in this way by animals and other species. It needs to be strictly prevented from being used for agriculture, human settlement, mining, dumping waste etc. This is also what ‘marine protection zones’ are. Currently, there is more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than plankton! That is a result of us treating the oceans as if we own all of that water. But we shouldn’t own it. Those who live in it should own it.
Solution 2: We need ambassadors for other animal species and ambassadors for plants. These ambassadors really need to stretch their imaginations far beyond the limits of ordinary human beings and think if the whale had the cognizance of a human and if we could communicate with it, what would it want and what would it tell us? If these countless species of plants could formulate plans and give their views, what would they want? (Not because plants have feelings, but because their biodiversity is critical to animal biodiversity and ecosystem stability and resilience.)
Each country’s Government should have a handful of such ambassadors, who are genuinely passionate about animal rights and biodiversity. They should be well compensated, from scientific backgrounds and intelligent. They should be charismatic go-getters.We need slickness and persuasive power in this otherwise neglected field that has come to be associated, rather unfortunately, with weed-smoking ‘hippies’.
In some ways, the animal ambassadors solution is not too crazy. Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, is, in a sense, an ambassador for big cats. And Leonardo DiCaprio is bringing his charm to draw attention to tiger conservation and climate change. But the pace of change is slow. We need more intelligent, creative, charming and prominent people caring and talking about animal rights, biodiversity and this earth that is not just ours, but is a shared home.
Solution 3: Keep an eye on our numbers for once. Spread family planning access and value small families. We talk about over-breeding of other species and about managing their populations all the time. The truth is the most over-bred species of all is us. Check out the graph below. It’s horrific:
WWF consultant Jonathan Loh also notes “No other large mammal comes close to us in terms of numbers.”
I’m tired of having to explain what I mean by this to everyone who is like ‘kill people?’. No of course that’s not what I’m proposing! I’m proposing having two children at max rather than six, which is the average fertility rate in most of Sub Saharan Africa currently. Even more so in the rich world, the best thing we can do for the environment and for other animals is to have one less child. As we get richer, our ecological footprint gets bigger. And it’s massive – think about all the material possessions you own, how many miles they have travelled, how many resources have gone into making them, how much forest has been lost to make your beef burger. Either most people don’t know how resource-intensive their lives are or they don’t think about it. But I have thought about it and researched it, and your life is incredibly resource-intensive. If we are to stay in harmony with nature, we have to stop over-breeding. It’s maths: resources are not infinite.
This is a shared planet, not just ours. And true greatness does not lie in domination of the weak, anyone can dominate the weak. It lies in protecting them.
The number of articles that can back up what I’m saying is substantial, but I recommend this one:
Outlook Is Grim for Mammals and Birds as Human Population Grows http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/center/articles/2013/science-daily-06-19-2013.html
“”The data speak loud and clear that not only human population density, but the growth of the human population, is still having an effect on extinction threats to other species,” said Jeffrey McKee, professor of anthropology at Ohio State and lead author of the study.”
There are also people who vehemently disagree of course. But I struggle to believe arguments on how the world can so easily support more people when already 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day and 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day and we have patches of garbage the size of Texas floating in our oceans. Is that these people’s view of a good life and of living in harmony with nature? Do we want more people in the world living meagre and suffering-filled lives? Is our objective really to crowd as many people in here as possible with blatant disregard for the quality of their lives or the rate of species extinction?
*Tilly may not be the name of the killer whale here but I didn’t think it was worth my time watching the whole documentary again to get the whale’s name right.