With the theme ‘Connecting People to Nature’, this year’s World Environment Day perhaps implies that human beings are the only species that are becoming increasingly detached from the natural environment, hence the need to establish a connection. One way to activate this connection is by paying attention to animals and acknowledging that they are also part of nature’s web of life. Do we really respect other lives on earth?
In Bangladesh, Chittagong city went ahead with its dog culling plans, despite a High Court ruling against this practice. There have been numerous occasions of wild animals, such as Bengal tigers, leopards and fishing cats, being killed by mobs when spotted in human territories. Deaths have also occurred when authorities failed to provide adequate care or mishandled animals when they were caught.
On the global level, animals suffer in laboratory experiments, are forced to perform in circuses and are bred inhumanely in pet shops. In farms across China and Vietnam, bears are raised in ‘crush cages’ to extract bile from their gall bladders for traditional medicine that have no scientific basis. Open holes are made in their abdomens and metal tubes are permanently implanted. The pain is so unbearable that some bears try to kill themselves by punching the infected area. Starved and dehydrated, thousands of bears suffer this torture for as long as they survive – around 20 years.
Animals are being trafficked for the illegal exotic pet trade, traditional medicine, and unauthorised zoos and farms. In 2016, a global assessment by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that animal trafficking has escalated into transnational organised crime in which all regions of the world were more or less involved, either as a source, transit or destination country.
The fur industry spread across China, US and Europe is another sector where gross animal abuses have been reported. Crammed in small cages, minks, foxes, and raccoons are bred in such deplorable conditions that they become insane and were found to self-mutilate – biting their skin and limbs. Their deaths are anything but humane - they are even skinned alive to cut down costs.
These are just a few snapshots of the larger picture. The massive - and underreported - abuse, exploitation and extinction of non-human animals by our human species pose serious ethical and philosophical questions. Now is the time to revisit the moral status that we have attributed to non-humans and nature for centuries.
Philosophical origin of animal rights
In addressing animal abuse, it is essential to look into the underlying philosophies that have shaped our perception and explain our present treatment of animals.
While religion has been influential in determining moral status regarding animals, it is largely the philosophy of the West that has shaped the paradigm. Aristotle wrote that nature existed only for human use and as animals do not have the power to reason, they are suitable for exploitation. However, Pythagoras viewed animals as kindred souls, promoted a vegetarian lifestyle and explicitly forbade animal exploitation. In the East, ancient Jain and Buddhist philosophies recognised animal suffering and put a strong emphasis on ahimsa or non-violence towards all living beings. Confucianism believed in the oneness of nature and humans.
Dr Sultan Hafeez Rahman, a reputed economist associated with founding of the Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary in Chittagong, reminds us the root cause of today’s cruelty to animals: “The 500-year long history of plundering nature and destroying species has its roots in the Man versus Nature paradigm that was born in the modern era and derived its legitimacy from the Industrial Revolution.”
Between the seventeenth to late nineteenth centuries, the Aristotelian view of human superiority over animals largely dominated philosophy and modern science. Francis Bacon advocated the subjugation of nature through mechanical knowledge for human benefits. René Descartes spoke in favour of “mastering” and “possessing” nature and regarded animals as machines, devoid not only of reason but also of feelings. Although Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant attributed feelings to animals, they did not assign moral status to animals for the latter’s lack of reasoning capacity. By contrast, Jeremy Bentham argued that while deciding on a living being’s fundamental right, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’” Bentham concluded that because animals suffer, they have the right to equal consideration. More recent works in philosophy are those of Peter Singer who is in favour of attributing moral consideration to sentient beings, and of Tom Regan and Gary Francione who advocate the “abolitionist approach” and oppose treating animals as a resource or property.
While investigating human-nature relations, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno of the Frankfurt School criticised humanity’s intellectual and material progress for degrading nature and animals to the status of commodities to be exploited. The critical theorists proposed compassion as a means for creating a just society and supported extending this moral sentiment to animals. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess observed that respect and care for other forms of life in nature greatly improves the quality of life.
The Qur’an makes it clear that animals are equally important to God as humans are: There is not an animal on earth, nor a creature flying on two wings, but they are communities like you; we have not ignored anything in the Book and all [living things] will return to their Lord [Surah Al-An’am:38]. There are numerous Hadiths that forbid beating animals, forcing them to carry excessively heavy loads, slaughtering animals in front of one another, sharpening knives in front of sacrificial animals, to mention a few. A moving account of kindness to animals is available in Sahih Bukhari [Vol.4, Book 54, No. 538], where a sex worker was pardoned because she gave water to a thirsty dog.
Do animals have feelings? Besides Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking discovery of animal behaviour, recent advances in cognitive ethology (a branch of science that studies animal mind) are concluding that animals indeed possess complex emotions. There is much research on animal consciousness by biologists like Marc Beckoff and Jane Goodall which show that, like humans, animals also feel pain, joy, jealousy, sympathy, depression, and motherly love.
Animals and environmental conservation
Sadly, we remain largely unaware of how our consumption causes suffering and threatens animals through deforestation, overhunting, and overfishing. When we buy foreign breeds of pets instead of adopting local breeds, we sustain the farms that breed these animals in horrific conditions. By buying exotic animals as pets and purchasing commodities made from wild animals, we contribute to the illegal wildlife trade. Irresponsible consumption also undermines biodiversity conservation efforts of millions of dollars and leads to greater negative environmental footprints, of consumers and manufacturers.
Industrial fishing for tropical tuna and sharks makes use of unsustainable fishing gears namely, Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) and long-lines. These generate a large amount of by-catch - unwanted marine creatures that are caught, die and are discarded. WWF puts forward a shocking estimate: around 38 million tonnes or 40 percent of annual global marine catch is by-catch. Each year, thousands of small whales, dolphins, endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles are killed. This also threatens 26 species of sea birds, including 17 albatross species, with extinction.
Such levels of wastage of marine lives are emptying our oceans, threatening future revenues and livelihoods and raising serious questions of sustainability and animal welfare.
Animals and sustainable development
Aside from the fact that there is a moral obligation to refrain from treating animals with cruelty, why has protecting animal rights become important in the age of sustainable development?
Estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UNEP and the International Police Organization (INTERPOL) place the cost of environmental crime, including illegal wild animal trade, to be up to USD 258 billion annually, which is almost twice the amount of the USD 132 billion of development aid disbursed globally in 2015. This means that environmental crime is not only affecting animals but also stealing revenue streams from governments of developing nations and limiting their ability to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
When we are empathetic for the sufferings of animals, we change our behaviour and become responsible tourists and consumers. By rejecting commodities that are made from exotic animals or through ecosystem destruction, boycotting industries that compromise animal welfare standards, avoiding entertainment that exploits animals, we, as consumers, are well-placed to demand sustainability in supply chains and thus pave the path for sustainable development.
There are inspiring examples of industries and retailers which were forced to limit their environmental footprint: Mattel, the world’s largest toy company and manufacturer of Barbie dolls, the food chain KFC, Nestle´, Procter and Gamble, Kraft, Danone and Unilever used to purchase their packaging paper from the Indonesian paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which collected pulp by rampant destruction of Indonesian rainforests. Confronted with worldwide protests by consumers and environmental activists, these companies cancelled their contracts with APP, thus dropping rainforest deforestation from their supply chains.
Top sportswear and fashion brands, such as Benetton, Adidas, H&M, Puma, Valentino, Levi’s, and Marks and Spencer, to name but a few, have committed to working with their suppliers in the textile supply chain to stop discharging hazardous chemicals into oceans and seas. UK supermarket chain Tesco and US retailer Walmart are being forced to remove unsustainably-caught tuna from their suppliers.
Acknowledging that animal welfare has ethical, economic, and environmental implications, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has provided technical guidelines on a range of animal welfare issues, such as humane management of dog population through neutering, compassionate handling, transport and slaughter of livestock, emergency interventions for livestock during natural disasters.
In the World Conservation Congress in 2016, IUCN member countries expressed their support for nature’s rights to exist through their resolution “the rights of nature as a fundamental and absolute key element in all IUCN’s areas of intervention and decision making.” Ecuador has included nature’s right to exist in its constitution. Bolivia enacted the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which not only ensures nature’s right to exist but also guarantees that nature can take legal action against its tormentors. France has changed the legislative status of animals: no longer termed as ‘objects’, animals have officially been recognised as “living, sentient beings,” thereby allowing their sufferings to get addressed. Admiringly, Bangladesh has also taken the right step forward by approving the draft Animal Welfare Act 2016 to punish animal offenders.
The most landmark recognition of animal rights can be felt in target 12.8 of the SDG, which explicitly requires people to adopt lifestyles that are “in harmony with nature.” The central aim here is to create a society that learns to preserve nature and animals based on their inherent value, irrespective of whether they serve humans or not. To advance the implementation of this target, in 2016 the United Nations released a report in which experts from multiple disciplines recommended to “include the rights of Nature in our governance systems, not by advancing its interests within the capital system as resources to be exploited, but by recognizing the fundamental legal rights of ecosystems and species to exist, thrive and regenerate.”
In short, animal rights and welfare, directly or indirectly, are increasingly being recognised across the globe.
Compassion above all
The discussion should not be about whether animals feel pain, but rather about self-reflection. If we humans are capable of feelings, then with all our rationality and emotions, why have we failed to distinguish between kindness and cruelty?
There is a tendency to believe that if one cares for animals, then they are ignoring humans or not considering humans as important. Compassion knows no discrimination on grounds of race, religion or species. A nation does not need to be ‘developed’ in order to be compassionate. No matter which economic activity we pursue, it must have an ethical foundation, one of which is to protect the vital interests of animals. For how long do economists and policy makers expect to achieve environmental conservation without valuing animal lives? Without teaching ethics and nurturing virtues like tolerance and compassion?
Personally speaking, I have known the meaning of injustice from animals – millions of them, losing their forest homes and giving away their lives and their babies’ lives through no fault of their own. It is their sufferings that are not covered by the media, not discussed among the civil society, academia and politicians that have taught me the meaning of injustice. It is their silent, pleading eyes – and not econometrics or statistics – that showed me the scale of brutality, the depth of despair.
I am hopeful though that someday mankind will awaken to a new paradigm and during my lifetime I will get to see a United Nations Declaration of Animal Rights. I derive my hopes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech delivered 70 years ago: “A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
I have found an utterance on behalf of animals, amid the silence of animals.
The author is a staff member of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the institution she serves.