I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the disconnect that seems to be prevalent in society when it comes to how we treat animals, and wondering how it came about. These thoughts have been simmering on the backburner for a while now, but started to bubble with my experiences this summer, and have really come up to the boil since I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer a couple of weeks ago. (I won’t review the book here, but check out this excellent review by my colleague, Ward.) The book was fresh on my mind last week as I was walking past the butcher’s shop and did a double take at the contrast between the decapitated birds rotating on a spit outside and the woman walking out with a very pampered pooch on a leash. The disconnect hit me like a brick.
Of course I realize that throughout history and in countless cultures there’ve been some animals we eat and some we keep as companions. Sometimes there’s crossover and sometimes there isn’t. But it seems to me that modern industrialized society has taken that divide and pushed it to the extreme, to the point where it’s nonsensical. Beyond nonsensical; it’s hypocritical. And it’s not just in terms of agriculture that we seem to have lost our way. We’re so far removed from nature that our understanding of animals in the natural world is seriously skewed. These are some of the disconnect that I’ve been thinking about lately:
* We are (rightly) horrified when we hear about the mistreatment of dogs and cats at the hands of animal abusers, hoarders, or puppy mills and yet we pay the meat and dairy industries to mistreat food animals as badly or worse on an industrial scale on a daily basis. (And one thing that becomes clear when reading Eating Animals is that cruelty is built into the system in such a way that even buying meat from “good farmers” doesn’t alleviate the problem.)
* Wildlife in most people’s minds is something exotic and, ironically enough, something you find in zoos. When I told people I would be working with wildlife this summer, I was amazed at how many folks immediately thought of lions and crocodiles rather than the indigenous wildlife of the region I was going to. And upon expressing a desire to continue working with wildlife now that I’m back home, 90% of the well-meaning people who came up with suggestions started out with the thought that maybe I could get a job at the zoo. We’ve gotten to the point that the only animals that people think of when they think “wild animal” are actually captive exotics rather than the true wildlife that surrounds them. Yet those exotic captives, no matter how well they are treated, are denied the true wild existence that is their birthright, and children grow up thinking of lions and tigers and bears as creatures that belong in an exhibit rather than in the wild. (This is emphasized by children’s toys that label these species “zoo animals” rather than wild animals.)
* Meanwhile, we’ve developed a contempt, or even an active hatred, for those species that constitute real wildlife in our own areas: pigeons, seagulls, badgers and raccoons, for example, have suffered and continue to suffer persecution at the hands of individuals and institutions. We are so far removed from nature that our local wildlife is the last thing most people think of when they hear the words “wild animal”. I wonder if this would change if, instead of field trips to the zoo, schools would take kids on excursions to local nature reserves and teach them the joy of spotting, for example, woodpeckers, squirrels, and deer; of observing wildlife in its natural habitat. An added benefit is that it might help kids understand the importance of stewardship on a local level, and that nature is not something far away in the rainforest. It’s in their own backyard.
* We’re so accustomed to disturbing the balance of nature in our own self-interest that any attempt to redress that imbalance is met, ironically, with cries that those trying to help are disturbing the balance of nature. This was brought home to me recently when PAWS took in 100+ seabirds affected by a massive algal bloom that left, from the last estimate I heard, something like 10,000 seabirds dead and dying on the Pacific Coast. Scientists are as yet unclear as to what caused the massive bloom, but while it can be considered a natural disaster (in contrast to, say, an oil spill) it’s theorized that blooms of this magnitude can be traced back to human activity such as agricultural runoff and overfishing. Clearly the 100 or so birds that PAWS took in (less than half of which survived to be released) represented a drop in the bucket, and the release of these birds was a small triumph of compassion and the hope that the work of a few dedicated individuals can make a difference in correcting a wrong in the ecosystem. And yet local news stories reporting the event and the involvement of PAWS in helping the birds were met with hostile comments about how organizations like PAWS are “disturbing the balance of nature”. Ironically, the commenter who most vehemently objected to help for the birds on these grounds was a commercial fisherman. If any industry has disturbed the balance of nature in our seas, it’s the commercial fishing industry. And yet the hypocrisy inherent in “TheFishermen’s” comments seemed lost on both him and the other PAWS-bashers who commented on the article. (Moral of the story: don’t read online comments. It’s bad for your blood pressure.)
Lest you think I’m being a holier-than-thou vegetarian, I know that I’m not innocent of hypocrisy myself. I still eat dairy and products containing eggs even though I know that these industries are just as bad as the meat industry when it comes to animal welfare (although I try to be conscious of where these products are coming from). I still wear leather on occasion (although I did just buy my first pair of vegetarian shoes). And not so long ago, I went with my sister and my three year old nephew to the zoo because that’s where he wanted to go (although I recently told my sister that I won’t be doing that again.) I just can’t help wondering about these disconnects, and how they came about. And how we can start getting society to make those connections again.
Edit: September 3rd, 2012. I’ve renamed and changed some of the wording in this post. While playing with words, I co-opted and misused a word that refers to a serious mental illnness, and as I really don’t want to perpetuate misunderstandings or stigmas about mental illness, I felt it best to change it. My apologies for not doing this sooner.