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:
“”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.
A few months ago, I started reading ‘Thanking the monkey’ by Karen Dawn, who runs dawnwatch.com. I’ve learnt so much and become a ‘flexitarian vegan’ as a result of the book. My blog is no substitute for reading the book itself, which is funny and engaging and I cannot overstate enough how good it is. But I wanted to share with you my journey of knowledge on the topic of animal rights.
We think we know, we do not
I used to think that I’d learnt the basics of most issues animal-related by the time I was 15. When we were kids, our parents took my sister and me to lots of science and natural history museums, bought us lots of books on animals, took us to zoos and safari parks all the time. My mum says I probably went to my local zoo in India once every two weeks.
We learnt the basic facts that now pretty much every member of the public knows:
• There are many species in the world, and some of them are really weird (e.g. the praying mantis who bites her male partner’s head off during mating)
• A cheetah can run up to 70 miles per hour
• There are brightly coloured birds in rainforests
• Dodos are extinct
• Many creatures face habitat destruction
In addition, through school, we learnt facts like “every second, an area the size of a football pitch is cleared.” Facts that shock us for a few minutes, but because we hear them so often, we become desensitised to them.
Recently, I became enlightened enough to realise that I need to sensitise myself to reality once again and be brave enough to research what can be heart-breaking findings. Shock is an appropriate reaction once you digest the scale of destruction. And one should never stop learning, because new information arrives every minute, and old information becomes obsolete constantly.
So in the next section I distill what I learnt from reading ‘Thanking the monkey’, from researching animal rights on the web, such as following WWF on palm oil and PETA to just 8 of the most important findings right now (more blog-posts on others later I’m sure).
8 critical/surprising findings about animals, the environment and animal rights, and my suggested actions
1. Pet shops are bad, get your pets from an animal shelter
Domestic animals suffer from ‘overpopulation’ in most countries. Abandoned dogs, cats, rabbits are dumped in garbage disposal sites, killed, or given to animal shelters. The ironic situation is that breeders are breeding new puppies in factory breeding conditions where females live in small cages 24 hours a day. They are not even let out to defecate. They give birth to one litter after the other. When they can reproduce no more, they are sold to vivisection labs (for animal testing) or killed.
Every year, retail pet stores across America sell 500,000 dogs, while 5 to 7 million dogs enter shelters.
I have an issue with people who support what is essentially a species caste-system with reasoning like “My dog is pedigree”. How come caste discrimination in people is generally regarded as unacceptable but it’s okay in animals? All dogs are created equal.
Well, I’m happy we got Hazel and Yuvraj (our two cats) from an animal shelter, for £30 each. In the words of JLo, ‘love don’t cost a thing’.
Actions: Use animal shelters, most species turn up there, just be patient if you want a particular species. Do your homework before buying a pet – check out RSPCA guidance on what to look for.
2. Fur is made in the most cruel ways imaginable – it’s not just skinning of a dead animal. Animals are often electrocuted from their anus ‘microwaving them inside-out’ to preserve their coat.
Most fur comes from China where animals are farmed for fur in abusive conditions with limited space. A common way of killing the animal for its fur is to electrocute it through its anus – essentially microwaving it from the inside.
I’m not a person who watches horror movies, being a ‘sensitive soul’ but I did start watching this video. I have to admit it was so horrific I couldn’t watch past the first minute. So only watch this if my arguments haven’t convinced you yet that fur is bad (no need to watch it otherwise if you’re like me and are pledged to never wear fur already!!):
I personally know people who wear fur and belittle how it was made ‘oh, it was a one-off purchase’ and ‘oh but it feels so soft’ and ‘oh but fur is a luxury’. Not sure you’d say the same if someone made a one-off purchase with your skin after killing you in such a cruel way.
And I like these people, except for that trait of theirs, so I’ve never had the guts to say it to their face. But I watch this and I think it’s atrocious that people like me feel we have to be quiet to be polite. Silence is being accomplice to cruelty. Do you really deserve politeness if you buy unnecessary products associated with such cruelty? Next time I see you wearing real fur, I will politely educate you on how it’s made.
Action: Just don’t wear fur. If you absolutely have to, wear it fake, and consider getting some therapy for being a fashion victim. The only good fur is fur that is obviously fake!! Oh, and check out Peta’s ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ campaigns (for over 18s only).
3. Zoos are prisonsand far from happy places
How would you feel being trapped in one room for your whole life? Whilst species that you are not used to stare at you in huge numbers and thump on the glass walls.
Amongst other things, zoos:
i) hamper migration
ii) part animals that love each other arbitrarily
iii) grossly mistreat animals when they are not wanted
iv) capture and trade animals in cruel ways
Most animals have migration patterns, some of which span thousands of miles. These migration patterns can be hard to live out in a cage, no matter how big the cage is.
Part animals and do not consider the animal’s welfare
If you think bureaucracy extols a great amount of human suffering (I do), then you will be appalled by what bureaucracy does to the voiceless.
Zoo committees obsess over finances, human politics and what’s popular with crowds, and decide which animals to send where and which animals to put down based on these sort of criteria, rather than any concern for the animal or its social connections.
In the movie ’12 years a slave’, there’s a scene where two young children are sent to different cotton plantations from their mother, who is continually in tears as she embarks on her slave life in the plantation. The white mistress says ‘Oh stop crying, your children will soon be forgotten’. As if black people are not attached to their children, or have no social bonds. Today, the majority of us have moved on in black rights, but there are too many people who haven’t progressed in animal rights. Animals can have very strong bonds with each other and do have emotional lives, and we have no right to break those bonds for reasons pertaining to our own political and financial concerns.
I was so angry watching an Indian new-story once of a rhino that had been kept single in his enclosure for years. Finally, they decided to get a female rhino to join him. Like seriously? We just don’t bother finding a rhino that we caught from its natural habitat a partner because it’s too expensive, or someone has to fill in some paperwork? If you can’t afford to keep animals properly, don’t capture them.
What happens when the curtains close on your career
First of, I hate that animals have ‘careers’ these days, and concepts like ‘She’s a working elephant’. And the fact that many poor donkeys work investment banking hours, and physically back-breaking labour. But anyways, to the point. Ever thought about what happens when the animal can’t perform any more? Or is too old?
The Copenhagen zoo made a big splash in the news by shooting a giraffe in the head this February and feeding it to lions, because they had too many giraffes. Very civilised indeed. I think we have too many heartless people in the zoo committee – can we put one of them down too?The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria estimates that zoos within its 347-member organization kill about 1,735 animals a year.
Other than killing, other ways to dispose of animals include selling them to other zoos, to vivisection labs for animal testing, or to circuses.
4. Those dolphins you see in SeaWorld are starved so they can perform for your entertainment
I didn’t know this until reading ‘Thanking the Monkey’ and yet having read it now in multiple sources, intuitively, it makes sense too. Animals do not like doing tricks. Of course they don’t! They have no friggin’ clue what they’re doing and why you’re making them jump through hoops. They don’t want fame, fortune and Ferraris. They just want to be themselves and be in their natural habitat. To get them to do what you want them to do, you starve them.
“When you see dolphins fixed on their trainer, it is not affection. They are fixated on the bucket of fish.” – examiner.com
These animals are not treated as beings but as commercial assets that their ‘owners’ have to get the most out of. Given how many shows dolphins have to do in a day, I imagine they are pretty much always starving.
How did they get there?
A thought-point often missed when dealing with animals in a captive setting is – how the heck did they get there? The capture and transportation of animals and the huge proportion that die in these processes is just appalling.
Watch the award-winning documentary ‘The Cove’ and you’ll come to know the cruel ways in which dolphins are caught, for meat in Japan (who wants to eat Dolphin and why?!) and for going to casinos, entertainment parks and aquariums.
As ‘The Utter Despair Behind the Captive Dolphin’s smile’ puts it: “Dolphins are very family orientated mammals. The females are particularly close and will spend their whole life with their mother and sisters in a family pod. So capturing even one dolphin from a pod is grievous and is the human equivalent of kidnapping.”
The bare concrete tanks that dolphins are kept in are nothing compared to the oceans in which they would otherwise swim tens of kms a day.
1. Do not go to shows that use dolphins or facilities where you can swim with dolphins in captivity. They are not smiling at you!!
2. Watch ‘The Cove’
5. The beautiful tropical fish you see in tanks are caught using cyanide fishing – a method that destroys coral reefs that were built up over thousands of years and kills many organisms
Colourful oddball fish that we love gawking at used to live in reefs and loved to hide in all the nooks and crannies of reefs. The most common way of catching them is cyanide fishing. This is when fishermen emit cyanide, i.e. poison, into the water in reef areas to stun fish. Most fish will die in the process. The fish that are left stunned are caught. In the process, fishermen will rip apart reefs with crowbars to get to them.
The reason you need to be aware of this is cyanide fishing is widespread, highly profitable, and causes massive destruction to coral reefs, which are the backbone of much of ocean biodiversity. And it is increasing, now being extended to catch fish for food (alltropicalfish.com). I cite below some facts on cyanide fishing:
• Each year, an estimated 330,000 pounds of cyanide is sprayed on Philippine coral reefs alone.
• Cyanide fishing operations are moving from the over-harvested and devastated reefs of the Philippines to destroy remote and pristine coral reefs in eastern Indonesia, Papau New Guinea, Palau, Tuvalu, the Federated States of Micronesia, and other nations in the Western Pacific.
The practice is now illegal in many places, but does that ever stop anything?
I love colours, and I love tropical birds and fish that are born in such beautiful colours that one cannot imagine to be outside a water painting. But I think tropical fish should be caught in small quantities for selected public aquariums that have big well-looked after tanks where people can admire these fish and learn about them. I do not want them caught by cyanide fishing in any case. And I don’t think they need to be in every bloody hotel in the world or in people’s homes. Keep photos of them in your house if you like them! Don’t deplete the world’s reefs of the real thing!
Honestly, knowing the truth will change your views. I was staying in a not-so-fancy hotel in Washington DC with a small fish tank full of colourful fish. I could not even bring myself to walk near it or look at it for any amount of time. I just felt so uneasy knowing where these fish had come from.
Another destructive practice is dynamite fishing.
Just spend 2 minutes of your life and watch this brief video which shows you what dynamite and cyanide fishing are (it’s not too horrific I promise, it’s just factual):
1. Do not buy tropical fish
2. Spread the word on where they’ve come from – most people have not heard of cyanide or dynamite fishing
3. Watch documentaries, visit well-maintained aquariums and buy photos if you like tropical fish.
4. Stop eating rare fish species that are caught in destructive ways.
6. Going, going, gone…every day – the extinction crisis
Prior to my research in this field and reading ‘National Geographic’ instead of just admiring the pictures, my level of knowledge in this field was that dinosaurs, sabre tooth tigers, and dodos are extinct, and a bunch of species have dangerously few members left. I did not imagine things were this bad….
So my first question was ‘How many are we losing?’
It’s a difficult question to answer precisely, because we do not actually know how many species there are in the world to begin with. WWF estimate that between 1.4 and 1.8 million species have already been scientifically identified.
Directly from WWF:
• The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate (what would happen without human intervention).
• These experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species will become extinct each year.
• If the low estimate of the number of species out there is true – i.e. that there are around 2 million different species on our planet** – then that means between 200 and 2,000 extinctions occur every year.
• But if the upper estimate of species numbers is true – that there are 100 million different species co-existing with us on our planet – then between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year.
1. Do not hunt. Do not encourage people who do. And this one’s personal to me but I would never date anyone who hunts. For f***’s sake, you losers. Find some better hobbies than shooting at animals to boost your egos.
2. Change your mind-set on big families – as I argued in my ‘population’ article, it’s not inconsequential to be having lots of children. Though we’re trained to think it’s a personal choice, rationally speaking it’s not – it affects everyone around you including non-humans. The worst thing you can do for the environment is have a child. That’s one whole massive carbon footprint added for the next 70 years on average in developed countries. Acknowledge the truth. I’m not telling you don’t have a child, I’m telling you to have an educated attitude towards having excessive children and towards people who have excessive children. My opinion is more than 2 is excessive, given the world population which is on track for a whopping ~10 billion people by 2050.
7. Palm oil is in around 50% of products you buy. The vast majority is grown in plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where virgin rainforest is logged to grow these trees.
The pie-chart below shows that palm oil mostly goes into food products – and it is in the vast majority of food products.
As you’ll see below, in 2013, just 15% of all palm oil was certified as sustainable.
So what does the non-sustainable portion means? It means rainforests were chopped down to grow palm trees. These are rainforests home to millions of species, one iconic one being the Orang-Utan, now facing extinction.
Think the situation has ‘stabilised’? well look at the graph above – palm oil demand is growing and the unsustainable portion is growing too. WWF suggests 300 football fields worth of rainforest are logged every hour to grow palm oil. Since 1990, Indonesia has lost 20% of its forest (UN’s FAO database) — that’s a huge deal!!
Actions – I was kind of stumped here trying to identify what we can do on an individual basis life-style wise. Here’s my suggestions:
1. Consume less – do you really need that many types of hair products?
2. Look out for products with sustainable palm oil
4. Join the activism bandwagon, write to politicians, corporations and talk about it
8. Animal testing is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a totally unnecessary almost-superstitious practice used by companies to avoid law-suits. So that they can point at animal trials if they ever get into trouble and say ‘but it didn’t kill the rat/rabbit/monkey’
No, only a slim minority is about ‘life-saving’ cancer drugs, contrary to what companies like to have you believe. The majority of animal testing is about rubbing new household detergents into rabbits’ eyes. Or doing other tests with dubious benefits, like tests where they separate young animals from their mothers to prove that separation from mothers causes life-long distress and complications. I kind of knew this without them needing to do studies on animals to prove it really. I can’t do full justice to this hugely complex issue here, so suggest some follow-up resources at the end. Here I share my take on just a few arguments.
Animal testing cannot predict accurately how a human will respond
I’m an Indian female, around 155 cm tall. When my parents give me medicines (they’re both doctors), they always adjust doses down and choose drugs differently. Because most medicines come in doses for white males, and my body is obviously fairly different. Within our species, humans are so different from each other. In her Ted Talk, Paula Johnson discusses how women react differently to drugs than men, and her call for action is for more research to be done on how women react so that we can better serve the female market. I’d go further and say we need more research on different ethnic minorities who also have different bodies from each other. But I digress. The point is if tests on men can’t predict how women will react to a drug, how on earth do we expect tests on other species to predict accurately what will happen in humans?
Karen Dawn has researched this extensively and gives several examples of gross mis-predictions from animal tests, the most famous being of Thalidomide, which produced terrible deformations in human babies, which were not predicted through animal testing.
What happens once the animal’s ‘career’ is over?
For all their help in making big bucks for consumer goods companies, ‘scientifically impure’ animals have to be put down by law.
1. Don’t support animal testing. And being neutral is just as good as supporting it. Make your views clear.
2. Look out for products that are not tested on animals. Very easy to do in Europe for certain classes of products because good news – animal testing on cosmetic products is now illegal in Europe! One can only hope that American lawmakers will get a conscience and follow. And that this ban will be extended in all countries to more and more product classes.
Personally, I’m not against animal testing for everything, but feel it should only be resorted to when there is no viable alternative, the benefits could be huge in terms of savings lives or alleviating human pain and a lot of attention is paid to making the process as tolerable for the animal as possible. You’ll find once you put most experiments through such filters, there’s very few left. Regarding alternatives, Karen Dawn discusses the details of artificial skins – they’re not a thing of the future, they’re here already. Alternatives are out there, we just need to stop being complacent with old cruel practices.
Well, there’s a ton of these. My main one is to do with zoos – you’ll notice I have no ‘actions’ section following that finding. I haven’t been able to come to a stance I truly believe in. On the one hand, I love animals and zoos are the only place I get to see them up close. I’d have to have this discussion with a hardcore animal activists. Are all zoos bad? Can’t zoos be made to be good if they have huge land areas and take each animal’s welfare into account in decisions? I have been up to now a zoo-frequenter, but if the answer is that all zoos are bad, I will happily give it up.
My journey to find out more about animal rights continues. We must speak for those that have no voice, no vote and no power to organise themselves.
Thanking the Monkey. The kindle version is only £4.68. Recommended buy!