I am currently reading “Animals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion and Respect” by Marc Bekoff. I will be blogging the book, chapter by chapter.
This week, I am blogging the second chapter, “Animals in a Human World.”
“Just because most animals do not do things as we do does not mean that we are ‘better’ than they are or that our perception of reality is more ‘true’ than theirs. All living beings on earth are valuable on their own terms. Each knows and understands the world in his or her own way. […] So, rather than think that other animals are not as smart or capable as we are — that they are ‘less than human’ — it is better to realize that being different is not in itself ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Animals are certainly not less than human.” — Marc Bekoff, Animals Matter
Marc begins chapter 2 of Animals Matter by describing how “we” are similar to “them.” For example, although it has been commonly reported that humans and chimpanzees share between 98% and 99% of their genes, more recent research shows that the difference between humans and chimpanzees might be about 6%. And yet despite the kinship between humans and great apes, humans continue to exploit animals such as chimps in experiments.
If you are wondering how animals can be treated by humans so poorly, like subjecting them to cruel experiments, one of the subsections in the chapter serves to clarify. This subsection provides a very brief overview of animals and their legal protections (which I believe to be very weak). Because the legal status of animals is property, their self-interests always lose against humans.
Something to remember: Animals are not things or objects. An animal is not an it. And yet under the law, that is exactly how they are considered. Thankfully, the movement to grant nonhuman animals personhood is gaining traction. Until nonhuman animals are granted rights, when describing an animal, do not objectify him or her. Remember: Animals are someone, not something.
And as nonhuman persons, their points of view should be taken seriously. The final bit of this chapter deals with anthropomorphism, which Marc defines as the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman animals. Because I participate in activism and discussion, I have often been told, “Stop anthropomorphizing!” This has been especially true in my activism to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City. Many carriage horse supporters have been quick to point out that activists like myself are anthropomorphizing the horses when we criticize the industry. And yet those same people also rely on arguments like, “The horses like being outside”; “Working makes horses happy.”
And this is exactly the double-talk that Marc addresses in the last part of the chapter: “Animals can be happy but not sad?” In this part, he tells the story of Ruby the elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo. Ruby’s stereotyped behavior had many people concerned that she was lonely, sad, and unhappy. Of course, the former director of conservation and science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, reportedly stated at the time that, “Animals can’t talk to us so they cant tell us how they feel.” And yet, when the mayor of Los Angeles said, “[Ruby]’s in good spirits,” no one cried anthropomorphism! It’s interesting that the AZA director only spoke up to criticize anthropomorphism when it described negative emotions, but not happy ones.
Marc wraps up the chapter by reminding us to “ask what it would be like to be a particular individual from his or her perspective, not merely from our anthropocentric or human-centered view of things.” So remember that being anthropomorphic doesn’t necessarily mean we are ignoring the animal’s perspective.
The last thing I want to add: After spending 20 years imprisoned at the LA Zoo, Ruby the elephant was eventually granted the right to live out the rest of her life at a sanctuary, where she died.
Animals Matter: Previously Blogged Chapters