Did you hear the one about the veterinarian who shot a cat with a bow and arrow? I did, last week, courtesy of Facebook.
I wish it were a joke but it’s not; it’s just sick. However, this person could be chalked up to just your random lunatic if it weren’t for the plethora of “So what? It’s just a cat,” comments alongside the outraged ones.
They say: “Judge a man by how he treats the waiter.” It’s not a bad mantra; who wants to date (or be friends with, honestly) someone who is rude to others based on social status? But I think how a person treats animals may be equally telling.
The importance of empathy comes from the ability to regard others with compassion and understanding even if they are different from you, or in a different situation. Given a certain level of species-centrism, it’s hard to imagine a being more different from you than one of another species. In a way, that’s what makes this a better test. Few (though still too many) truly don’t regard food servers as “people,” but there are plenty who are unable to recognize that animals deserve respect as well.
I admit I was overly empathetic as a child. I spent all of my allowance buying stuffed animals I made eye contact with in the store because I didn’t want to have gotten their hopes up that they were leaving and then not follow through. If there were two next to each other on the shelf, I had to get both to not split them up. Eccentric, sure, but I would rather someday raise my own children to be over-empathetic rather than under-empathetic because of how the lessons translate to the rest of life.
But while I can say with reasonable confidence that the stuffed animals were not conscious, it is extremely difficult to say that about living animals, increasingly so as we look at animals that are more evolutionarily complex and developed.
Let’s address the science first. Although it is a tricky field in which to conduct experiments, studies confirm that most animals have at least some form of consciousness, even if not all have self-consciousness (defined as awareness of themselves as distinct from other creatures) or higher-order thought. Their consciousness includes having receptors for pain and the ability to make reasoned decisions, like “stealing” grapes from humans who have their backs turned as opposed to from ones who are watching. These animals have sentience, or an experience of “existing,” as humans do.
A plethora of experiments have been done on animal behavior. Animals have been found to have empathy and a drive to be helpful, comforting experimenters who display distress, even helping experimenters who drop something. Many animals are self-conscious, as evidenced by the “mirror test,” which involves animals identifying themselves in the mirror and displaying interest in an unusual facial marking reflected back at them. Many chimpanzees have learned sign language, and use it to express their wants and needs, such as a desire for food or play. One chimpanzee, Booee, who was taken for use in testing Hepatitis C, signed the word “key” to his former caretaker, apparently expressing a desire to be let out of his cage.
We assume other humans have consciousness because we see them as beings like ourselves. But what about beings not like us? It is silly to say that humans are entirely dissimilar from animals, when we share 36 percent of our DNA sequences with fruit flies, and over 95 percent with chimpanzees. Species develop gradually, and while in many ways we have brains that are more developed than others, to say that humans are exceptional with regard to something at once so fundamental and so complicated as consciousness is hubristic and contrary to what we know about the nature of evolution.
Nevertheless, many still say it is hard to make conclusive arguments about consciousness. Few animals can communicate reliably with humans and it’s hard to settle on a definition of “consciousness” that can produce experiments with airtight conclusions. Any good devil’s advocate can make a reductionist argument claiming that the animals are just responding to biological feedback, and that therefore, the behavior is insignificant. To that, I say the same argument can be made about humans, but that doesn’t undermine our pretty settled understanding that humans are conscious or undermine the necessity to treat humans decently.
Even if you’re skeptical about science, the argument that “we don’t know whether animals have feelings” doesn’t justify abusive treatment. Is it better to risk being kind to a being that doesn’t feel pain, or risk being cruel to one who does?
Okay, so bear with me on the assumption that animals have some level of awareness, even if it’s not accompanied by intelligence so keen that it can help them compose sonatas or, you know, develop Agent Orange. The next argument is generally the ever-eloquent: “I don’t care.” We are humans and should act like it, dammit! Which means subjugating and mistreating those we think are lesser!
Reasons why people don’t care? The two most common are: “This is the way it has always been” and “This is the way all species act.”
But do you really want to stand by “This is the way it’s always been” as an argument for doing something? Periods of “ethnic cleansing” across history beg otherwise. Subjugation by one group of any other group of people is another obvious counterpoint. Both the subjugation of other humans and humans’ relationship with animals involve a disregard for “lesser” beings. A whole lot of people had to change their lifestyles when owning slaves was no longer an option (well, sort of—the history lesson is for another day), but looking back I find it hard to imagine that many people would be sympathetic to the pitiful cries of “But this is how it’s always been!” coming from the mouths of plantation owners. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s scary how many arguments for animal subjugation sound like old arguments promoting racism and slavery. They’re not really human! They’re not as smart! We are superior!
“This is how all species act.” You know what? It’s true, at least to the extent that many animals hunt. What confuses me is that the people making these arguments are also the ones making the arguments for human exceptionalism. Well? Which is it? Are we “better” than all other species? Or are we all equal in nature, and we must also kill and torture because we can’t and shouldn’t do any better—it’s in our blood? You really can’t make both arguments without hypocrisy. You know what? Humans can also be kind.
Do I sound angry? I am. I’ve been told to be tolerant of indifference to animal suffering. I’m all for tolerance—I’ll tolerate your viewpoint all the way until it actively causes suffering and harm. Just as no one would expect me to be “tolerant” of your desire to curse out the waiter, no one should expect me to be tolerant of your enjoyment of cow tipping, for example (an example that comes up surprisingly often).
For emphasis, let me tell you a story. I am walking at night by a park near my house a couple of years ago. I see a little baby mouse in the middle of the sidewalk, and point it out to my parents. Right as we are saying how adorable it is, some guy and his girlfriend walk by. She sees the mouse and emits a charmingly feminine, “Eeeek!” He takes one Sperry-ed foot and brings his 6’2”, 220 lbs. down with full force on the baby mouse, crushing it. To date, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more livid.
Obviously, not everyone who doesn’t care about animal well-being is a mouse-stomping animal murderer. People have all sorts of nuanced opinions, from “cow-tipping is funny but I probably could never do it myself,” to “Yeah, frankly, I just don’t care about animals. I’m human.” Many profess apathy and cling to it as though apathy is the most coveted personality trait imaginable. You know what? Apathy has no value, and I suspect it is just a defense mechanism to avoid grappling with painful truths.
Wherever you fall on this spectrum, if you don’t think animals are worthy of compassion, I think that reflects self-serving closed-mindedness and an alarming lack of empathy. I get it—caring about animals is hard, and if you eat meat it can cause uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. But it’s time to step up and admit that there’s something lacking in the way humans regard other species, and to use our oh-so-superiority complex to do something about it.
Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.