By Syed Rizvi (Engineers
and Scientists for Animal Rights) in SouthAsia Magazine
On the surface, the question appears to be quite legitimate. After all, why care about animals when so many humans are suffering? However, behind the question there lies an element of preeminence that can also be extrapolated to a purely human hypothetical: should wealthy nations - The United States, for example - offer assistance to poor countries, when their own poor also need help? One case involves crossing the species' barrier, while the other can be seen as crossing the barrier of nationality, or even race, to some extent.
The question posed above comes with the same political and racial fervor among some such as whites should help whites first. Although such bias is politically incorrect in today's pluralistic, multicultural society, a small but radical element of society do harbor such views. Fortunately, with our cultural and sociological evolution, most have risen above the "stick- with- your-own-kind" mind set - a vestige of our tribal days that has no place today's worldview.
Proponents of animal rights go a step beyond, and include animals within the sphere of their moral concern. They see animals as sentient beings with interests of their own, who wish to live a life natural to them. Like people, animals try to avoid pain and seek comfort, and have a family structure of their own. When a cow gives birth to her calf, we mercilessly drag him away from the mother while she grieves and the calf is destined to spend his entire life in restrictive confinement where he can hardly stretch or turn around. Watch Ohio Dairy Farm Brutality.
This imposition on the life of animals by humans is morally deplorable in the eyes of animal rights proponents. They do not see animals as objects to be exploited. While this view of animals has been predominant since the early days of civilization, so has been the practice of regarding women as inferior being created to serve man. The imprimatur of long-standing tradition does not justify practices considered unjust today. Alice Walker (author of Color Purple) expresses this eloquently in her preface to Marjorie Spiegel's classic "The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery." Walker writes: "Animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men."
Animal rights people see pain as pain, whosoever pain it is, and will make every effort to minimize it, irrespective of the race, sex, or species of the sufferer.
In many ways, the case on behalf of animals becomes even more compelling. Since animals cannot speak for themselves, the element of pathos is added to other moral components. Animals are handicapped when it comes to the power humans have over them. Most suffering inflicted upon animals comes from humans, over whom animals have no control.
Once compassion for animals is aroused, the starkness of their plight becomes ever more apparent. For example, in a city like Karachi the animal population is several orders of magnitude greater than human population, yet the number of animal hospitals and veterinarians in Karachi can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The number of hospitals and other medical facilities for humans can run into the hundreds if not thousands. Globally, the number of organizations dedicated to helping animals is minuscule compared with the number of organizations helping humans, although the human population is tiny compared with the number of animals in the world.
The irony is that not only do people deprive animals of their rights, they often rebuke anyone speaking on animals' behalf, with comments like "human problems come first." With such a mindset one cannot help but wonder what exactly it is that they are doing for humans, that compels them to continue the mistreatment of animals.
Meanwhile, those fighting animal abuse are criticized for not doing anything to address child abuse. Yes, there is child abuse in the world, as there is animal abuse. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two: While child abuse is universally seen as an evil in society, animal abuse is not. In fact, animal abuse has become institutionalized to the point it is accepted as a norm. With such indifference toward animals, their suffering becomes invisible to us, unless someone brings it to our attention. Even then, in most cases our response is no more than a simple brush off: "They are only animals."
Animal people are also alleged of attending to wrong priorities when the world is facing so many other problems. It is true there are issues and challenges that need to be addressed. We have world hunger and malnutrition; war, terrorism and nuclear proliferation; global warming, and more. Thankfully, there are organizations and individuals attempting to address those issues. Many of these issues are interconnected and cannot be addressed separately. It would be absurd to say, for example, "Let's first address world hunger and then work on global warming." Nobody accuses Doctors without Borders of a failure to address the causes of war or terrorism. We do not expect those who are addressing world hunger to do anything to address environmental degradation. But when it comes to defending the rights of animals, its proponents are ridiculed. Every effort to alleviate suffering in our world is worthy - and necessary - in its own right. Singling out animal rights organizations focusing on their supposed wrong priorities reflects our society's prejudice against animals called speciesism that is not very different from the prejudices of racism and sexism that were societal norms not too long ago.
Another accusation directed toward animal rights proponents is that the resources expended on animals could better be used to help, say, the starving children in Africa. The obvious response is to point out that feeding those starving children may also be considered far more important than, say, that extra $10,000 spent on a luxury automobile; moreover, a $100 watch may tell time just as accurately as a $5,000 watch. In fact, if animal advocates were to divert some of their resources from the cause of animal rights onto some luxury items that feed their egos rather than the stomachs of African children, it seems unlikely they will ever be confronted with accusations of moral non-equivalence. What this demonstrates is the human propensity for hypocritical self-justification, rather than anything objective about animal rights versus human rights.
The question which forms the title of this article is inherently skewed toward demeaning the animal rights proponents. No answer would suffice where the motive of the question is apparent. On the other hand, if the question is asked in good faith, then yes, an answer to it can be found in the writings of the 19th century American Philosopher Harriet Beecher, who said: "It is a matter of taking sides of the weak against the strong, something the best of people have ever done."
Note: The condescending attitude toward animal people can be primarily due to lack of public awareness about what we are doing to animals. The award winning film Earthlings narrated by actor Joaquin Phoenix may open our eyes.
Syed Rizvi is a physicist by profession, and through his group, Engineers and Scientists for Animal Rights, he reaches out to the scientific and technical communities, promoting the animal rights philosophy. Syed lives in Silicon Valley, California. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org