Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Can we live in harmony with our fellow members of the animal kingdom?


Our attitude to the animal kingdom defines who and what we are. That we, as humans, are part of the same world as all the other living creatures is not an opinion but a fact. Obviously. And that we need to live harmoniously with all the rest of “God’s creatures” and treat them with respect - a statement of the obvious. What harmony means is open to debate though - I try to address this debate here.

Our relationship with animals is diverse and to an extent culturally dependent. But it is possible, in my view, to lay down a few principles which ought to override culture. Let’s take as an example the ritual slaughter every five years of around 300,000 animals for religio/superstitious reasons in Nepal. Yes this barbaric event only occurs in Nepal and yes it is a part of Hindu culture there. But these facts are no reason to turn away and shrug our shoulders surely? Similarly, though slightly differently, the killing and capture of dolphins in the Japanese coastal town of Taiji , and also the annual killing of whales and dolphins in Denmark’s  Faroe Islands.  The extent of the historic tradition for these horrific events is clouded somewhat – not all are ancient at all. But surely the “it’s tradition” justification doesn't wash at all – you could say that we once had a tradition of public executions but that was eventually outlawed for the grotesque obscenity it was (though not everywhere on the planet of course).

In the instances of Nepal, Japan and Denmark most of us would say unhesitatingly that what goes on should not be tolerated in the 21st century. It is at the extreme end of animal abuse and it has also the “blood lust” component. People kill animals primarily because they want to. This is not the killing of farm animals for food in humane slaughterhouses – this is men and women killing for their own satisfaction at the deed itself. Which brings us to hunting.


In Africa if you want to kill a Lion, or almost any other creature, you can do so if you pay enough. And it’s perfectly legal. This is the ultimate blood lust – inexplicable to most of us. Why on earth would you want to take the life of a beautiful creature like a lion? But then what about stag hunting – a pastime enjoyed by many who are rich enough to do it, including David Cameron?

stagIs the hunting down and killing of a deer any more acceptable than the killing of a lion. Not for me it isn’t. The only thing that’s different is that killing deer in this way is our cultural tradition not that of the Japanese, Americans or the Nepalese. I doubt that this fact would be of much comfort to the poor stag.

So is it possible to lay down some rules which transcend culture and are universally applicable? What does harmony mean? What about Zoos for example? We have made progress in the last 50 years and in the main the best Zoos treat their animals with respect, look after them and don't abuse them. But when something horrendous happens, like the killing of a baby giraffe for no good reason in Copenhagen Zoo, we rightly begin to raise questions (the same Zoo killed four young lions a few weeks later). Just Wrong. And what about SeaWorld where large sea mammals like Killer Whales are kept in tiny pools to “perform” in front of visitors. Wrong as well surely?

Clearly those of us who care about the animal kingdom will have different views about what is acceptable. I eat meat, for example, which comes from farmed livestock. Does that make me a hypocrite – possibly, and I’m not going to argue in favour of meat eating? And I have respect for those who are vegetarians for principled reasons. That said the odd fly or wasp aside I have never knowingly killed another living creature and the idea of hunting I abhor. And I make no distinction between fox-hunting (rightly called  The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”  by Oscar Wilde) and the stalking of deer which become venison on the table. I eat venison, but as far as I know, only the farmed variety not one shot for “sport” by the Prime Minister.

Hunting is wrong. Always, in all circumstances. Because it all depends on accepting the premise that the killing of animals is something that is in some way “sporting” when, of course, the reverse is true. Those who chase the fox, stalk the deer or pay huge money to aim a high-powered rifle at a lion in the Veldt are no different from one another. They cross the line of respectability as soon as they organise or take part in the killing of creatures for their pleasure.

David Attenborough said this about the controversial conservationist Steve Irwin

“He did wonderful conservation work but I was uncomfortable about some of his stunts. Even if animals aren't aware that you are not treating them with respect, the viewers are.”

Treating animals with respect goes beyond not hunting them. It also means protecting the environments in which they live – something in which man has an abysmal recent record! It means not exploiting them by putting them in circuses. It certainly means protecting them when they are a key part of a sport, like horse racing or show jumping. These are proper sports with long histories and I would not argue for their banning. But the participants do need to clean up their act – the deaths of horses every year over the fences of Aintree is an obscenity.

So there you have it. I have tried not to be sentimental - much as I like animals I accept that they are part of our lives, as food, and in certain circumstances they compete happily with us in equine sports. But in the world today there is too much grotesque mistreatment of too many members of the animal kingdom in too many places. Animals have rights but these rights will only be honoured if those who care speak up. Lets do it.








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