Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Zanesville slaughter and the shallowness of our animal ethics


I've long been deeply ambivalent about our relationships to our pets.  I'm not going to attempt to make a case that the Zanesville, Ohio slaughter of 50 large animals last October is in any way representative of human-pet relations.  But, as a wonderful article in March's GQ illustrates, sometimes it takes extreme cases to make us examine ourselves.

The author Chris Heath doesn't take the stand that animal ownership should be outlawed and that pet owners are all evil.  But he confronts many aspects of our relationship with animals that aren't quite right, and questions our true motives in ways he wouldn't be allowed to except in the context of such horrific events.

Here are some choice quotes from the piece:
"While, we may feel as though we can distinguish between better and worse owners, it is logically impossible to know for certain what the animals are thinking or experiencing. Every human who interacts with an animal and then makes claims about what that interaction means to the animal—in backyards or zoos or even on the plains of Africa—is making a claim neither they nor anyone else can verify."
The convoluted relationship between our good intentions, our emotional compulsions, and our animals:
" 'Why, Terry? Why do you need so many?' 'Because I can. Because I can.' Terry was Terry. He had a heart of gold. He just couldn't keep his brain on the right track."

A quote that encapsulates my motto that if you love nature, you should leave it alone:
"The sentences that go round my brain are ones that were said to me by one of the animal owners I spoke to, Nancy Wider. "My father didn't like animals," she told me. "And he always used to say, 'I don't like animals but I would never hurt one. The animal lovers are the ones that hurt them.' "
Do we love and respect animals for what they are, or just like the way they look?  This quote gets at the long-standing debate over charismatic animals in conservation (i.e. why do we care so much about pandas and polar bears?).  The overpowering role of aesthetics in our valuation of animals to me highlights how ethically shallow our relationships with nature still are.
"What, then, about the way that male tigers are usually neutered in sanctuaries, but male lions are not, because when neutered they lose their manes? (Whose feelings, exactly, are being taken into account there?)"

3 comments:

Wibble said...

I again have to take issue with your first idea-via-quote:

"While, we may feel as though we can distinguish between better and worse owners, it is logically impossible to know for certain what the animals are thinking or experiencing. Every human who interacts with an animal and then makes claims about what that interaction means to the animal—in backyards or zoos or even on the plains of Africa—is making a claim neither they nor anyone else can verify."

That way lies solipsism. I may not know what an interaction 'means' to an animal (if the idea of meaning even _has_ meaning to the animal, given the wide gap between our cognitive modes). That does not mean I cannot extrapolate what an animal wants, needs, and 'thinks' from our interactions. At the base of it, the same is true for humans--how can I know ("for certain") what any creature other than myself is thinking? Language is irrelevant: humans can (do) lie, and animals can communicate, vocally and otherwise. What matters is how much 'vocabulary' is shared between the conversant. And shared vocabulary is developed through close interaction.

I think some of the disconnect here comes from differing levels of empathy. When I watch an animal on TV, or in real life, I inherently start to feel that I know what they are feeling/thinking. From real-life, testable interactions with animals, I know that at least some of this intuition is valid--that I am in fact empathizing with the animals. On the other hand, I have met people who literally cannot empathize with animals at any level--it's like asking them what they think a brick of cheese is feeling: they do not connect to non-humans at all. And of course there is a spectrum of people between extremes of empathy.

I do not claim I know every part of an animal's mind, just as I do not claim to know every part of another human's mind, but for me, an acceptance that I can communicate with a human at some level is absolutely equivalent to an acceptance that I can communicate with animals at some level.

...continued (too long)

Wibble said...

...

Empathy is a proven, scientific fact. Parts of the brain are able to mimic what another feels. The quality of the mimicry (again) depends on how familiar you are with the subject (level of shared vocabulary, amount of interaction), as well as development of the empathic centers of the brain. Empathy is increasingly being shown to not be limited to humans, but rather shared to differing degrees by all mammals. If I am in a bad mood--even if I have shown no explicit sign of it--my dog attempts to cheer me up.

The most basic vocabulary we share is that of being living creatures, with drives to eat, sleep, mate, etc. Beyond that, we share increased vocabulary with creatures we have domesticated, both instinctual through directed breeding, and learned through constant interaction (and it has been shown that animals will pass tricks, vocabulary, etc. on to other generations by example). Dogs sigh, whine, yawn, flop, and give skeptical looks when you do something stupid. Horses prance, sidle, sneak, snort, and laugh. Some of this is instinct, some of it is learned, all of it is communication.

I am not saying anything as to that horrible Ohio incident, nor anything about our encroachment on/interaction with what's left of the wild. I also do not claim that empathy is used well by people--even the majority of the time. There are idiots who would try to cuddle and baby a wild mountain lion, and other idiots who release domesticated, clueless animals into the wild. You have to apply logic to any interaction, and logic is lacking the world over.

But I can watch my dog, and know how she's feeling and what she feels like doing--not that she doesn't surprise me sometimes, but in everyday life, I know her, I know when she's feeling crazy, and when she's about to mope. And when, only three months after I rescued her, she--who overheats easily and will not normally cuddle for more than 10 minutes--stayed in my hot bed, pressed against my side, grumbling softly, while I fought the flu for eight fevered, delirious hours, you can't tell me she wasn't empathizing with me at some level.

It is not possible--for humans or animals--to completely know each others' minds, but we most certainly can communicate.

Jialan Wang said...

Thanks for your comments!

My point, and what I think is the general point of the author, is not that we shouldn't empathize with animals. Animals respond in certain predictable and human-like ways, and I balk, for instance, at people who use similar arguments to claim that animals don't feel pain, or have no cognitive capacity, in order to justify inhumane treatment.

My point is that we often go in the other direction - we go too far in thinking we completely understand what an animal wants or thinks. Dogs, cats, dolphins, etc. are different from us psychologically. And BECAUSE they cannot talk, we might too easily justify our actions by assuming that that's what they want.

An example:
Do dogs really want chemotherapy, or would they prefer to die peacefully? We might think we're doing what's best for our pets by aggressively intervening in their health, but I think that's a little presumptuous.