Friday, October 21, 2011

Animal Cruelty

I've frequently been fascinated by the clarity of moral calculus that people engage in with respect to animals. Euthenasia of pets, for instance, is common when we owners come to the conclusion that they have lived a good enough life. People may get carried away, but it's usually a precise calculus what vet bills are worth what extension of beloved Fido's life. Our relationship to other species is complicated by the fact that we eat some of the more sentient ones, but this isn't generally hard to rationalize, on any number of levels, whether it's pure speciesism (they're just not as sentient as us, dammit, and it makes the whole consideration easier), preservation (cows might well be extinct by now if we didn't raise and kill them), paternalism (giving them as good a life as can be hoped for), or a certain fatalist appeal to the natural order (humans are, to some degree, predators and scavengers; prey animals tend to get eaten by animals like us). People can find good hay sown in that moral landscape, but by and large, the decision to kill animals can be sober and considered, but it's still an easy one . More than that, it's one we are more than happy to embrace.

It's almost pathological, how we jump at the opportunity for dignified bloodlust. I remember being about 11 years old, walking up the street to hang around with my friend Ron. There was important news! He came out and informed me of an impressive specimen he'd found just down the road a little, on the edge of the pasture. Push aside the tall grass , and yeah, sure enough there it was creeping along the rigging, a big, motherfucking garden spider, yellow stripes and hairy black legs. Ron looked carefully at me, and nodded portentiously. "We should kill it." (Why? Because it was guilty of being a big nasty spider. Grimly, we must face our fears.) I remember some misgivings of conscience, but I went right along in the quest for a big rock, and was entirely complicit in the deed.

I think I may have told this story before, but much more recently, a couple years ago, the neighbors called the cops about a skunk that was wandering around in the neighborhood. This is not entirely surprising, as our back yards are woodland-like, and wild animals emerge from time to time. The skunk had crossed the street when Johnny Law rolled in, and was by then slowly ambling along into the forest-esque square on the other side of the road. The policeman stepped out of his car and unholstered his pistol, taking careful aim from about ten or fifteen yards away. CRACK! Dead skunk. Now, I was in my living room watching this with my kids. I get that a skunk wandering so close to people might cause some concern (even if they were all indoors), but it's like the dumb beasts have ever figured out roads. I see the risk of the thing being rabid and attacking people not significantly outweighed by the risk of this chucklewit waving a gun around in a residential neighborhood and shooting my car or his foot. But there was a skunk. With a serious face, it had to be killed.

When it comes to mammals, we can also form clear conceptions of cruelty vs. necessary killing. People get upset about animal cruelty, as they have in this Ohio story (and I am pretty depressed about putting down a dozen friggin' Bengal tigers too), even if civilized murder is the necessary response to it (and in this case, the safety concern was much more immediate). I am not sure that the charge of cognitive dissonance is entirely fair when it comes to comparing the way we treat our food animals, automated feed lots and other modern horrors, to individual acts of cruelty, like this amateur zookeeper. I mean, among the people who care about this stuff even when it's not in the news, opposition to both forms is common. Likewise, people who do kill animals (hunters and farmers, say, or your enthusiastic foodies) I've noticed also tend to have their moral equations worked out consistently. I do think there's a pretty solid dissonance in the general public though, bemoaning the murder of tigers as they dig into their Big Macs, at least if my Facebook feed is any indication. If it's industrial cruelty, and hard to avoid in our lives as-lived, then it's invisible (and hell, I like a burger too). Specific acts of cruelty, though? Those are unconscionable. The parallel with war vs. murder is left as an exercise to the reader. Hell, it may be even worse on that level: people cry when random dogs get shot in movies.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Well said. I'd comment more, but I've been thinking political science and voting patterns all morning, and dealing with people's oddly sentimental yet detached attitudes towards animals isn't computing just yet.