Increasing our compassion footprint
By Marc Bekoff
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Our relationships with nonhuman animals (animals) are complicated,
frustrating, ambiguous, paradoxical, and range all over the place.
When people tell me that they love animals and then harm or kill them I
tell them I'm glad they don't love me.
Surely we can do better in our relationships with animals and other
people. Indeed, our relationships with human animals often are of the same
ilk. We observe animals, gawk at them in wonder, experiment on them, eat
them, wear them, write about them, draw and paint them, move them from
here to there as we "redecorate nature," make decisions for them without
their consent, and represent them in many varied ways yet we often
dispassionately ignore who they are and what they want and need.
We currently know a lot about animal sentience and animal emotions, more
than we often give ourselves credit for. Behavioral and neuroscientific
research shows that animals' lives aren't all that private, hidden, or
secret. When someone says they're not sure if dogs, for example, have
emotions, if they feel joy or grief, I say I'm glad I'm not their dog.
Compassion is the key for bettering animal and human lives. People all
over the globe are talking about ways to lighten our carbon footprint and
accrue carbon credits. But what about our compassion footprint and
A good way to make the world a more compassionate and peaceful place for
all animals, to increase our compassionate footprint, is to "mind" them.
"Minding" animals means that we must "mind" them by recognizing that they
have active minds and feelings. We must also "mind" them as their
caretakers in a human dominated world in which their interests are
continually trumped in deference to ours.
To mind animals it's essential for people with varied expertise and
interests to talk to one another, to share what we know about animals and
use this knowledge for bettering their and our lives. There are many ways
of knowing and figuring out how science and the humanities, including
those interested in animal protection, conservation, and environmentalism
(with concerns ranging from individuals to populations, species, and
ecosystems), can learn from one another is essential.
We still have a long way to go. Existing laws and regulations allow
animals living on earth, in water, and in air to be treated in regrettable
ways that demean us as a species. Indeed, in the eyes of the law animals
are mere property and they can be treated like backpacks, couches, and
bicycles with no legal recourse. The animals own eyes tell us that they
don't like this at all. They do, of course, have a point of view.
Objective views of animals don't work.
We also double-cross animals. I can imagine an utterly exhausted polar
bear asking, "Where's the ice?" as she attempts to swim with her offspring
from one ice floe to another as she had in years past only to discover
that the ice is gone due to climate change. Despite global attempts to
protect animals from wanton use and abuse, what we've been doing hasn't
been working — "good welfare" just isn't "good enough."
Excuses justifying animal exploitation such as "Well, it's OK, I'm doing
this in the name of science" or "in the name of this or that" usually mean
"in the name of humans." We're a very arrogant and self-centered lot.
It's time for people to begin to think about how to accrue compassion
credits as they do carbon credits (see for example
www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1709186,00.html). Every individual
can make positive changes for all living beings by weaving compassion,
empathy, respect, dignity, peace, and love into their lives. It's simple
to make more compassionate choices about what we eat and wear and how we
educate students, conduct research, and entertain ourselves at animal's
expenses. Increased compassion for animals can readily lead to less carbon
because there's an inverse relationship between these markers especially
in our consumption of factory-farmed meat from highly abused animals
We can also focus on the value of individual lives when we try to restore
animal populations and ecosystems. It's fair to ask if the life of an
individual should be traded off for the good of their species, for
example, when we try to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park and
individual wolves die so that others might live?
It's a win-win situation to make every attempt to coexist peacefully and
to do so in the most compassionate ways possible. For compassion for
animals will make for more compassion among people and that's what we need
as we journey into the future. Cruelty to animals has serious implications
for humans as well. Studies by Frank Ascione, Phil Arkow, Barbara Boat,
and many others show that children who are cruel to animals are
significantly more likely to commit violence against humans later in
life–the absence of empathy for one indicates lack of empathy for the
other. Indeed, studies of prison inmates reveal that as many as 75 percent
of violent offenders had early records of animal cruelty. The Humane
Society of the United States has a program, called "First Strike," devoted
to learning more about the connection between cruelty to animals and to
The Society & Animals Forum and the Human/Animal Violence Education
Network have also launched similar programs that deserve our support.
Albert Schweitzer once wrote: "Until he extends his circle of compassion
for all living things, man will not himself find peace."
We can always add more compassion to the world. Ultimately, I believe
compassion for animals will make for more compassion among people, weaving
more empathy, respect, dignity, and love into all our lives.
Animals are asking us to treat them better or leave them alone. So,
whenever you try to reduce carbon at the same time try to increase
compassion. Animals and future generations of humans will thank us for our
efforts and I'm sure each of us will feel better about ourselves.
Marc Bekoff is the author of many books including "The Emotional Lives of
Animals", "Animals Matter", and "Animals at Play: Rules of the Game", and
editor of the "Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships." He and Jane
Goodall co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(www.ethologicalethics.org). His homepage is http://literati.net/Bekoff).
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