It is 6:15 am on a Saturday, and I am awake. The rising sun peeks through my window, nudging me from sleep. My room is stuffy. I am compelled to go outside.
The streets are empty. All is still and quiet…except it’s not. A rabbit bolts across the street, and I watch her bound away, her cottontail bobbing up and down.
Listen closer, and hear the squirrels chattering. Hear the birds cooing to one another, and the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves. The smell of fall. It is in small moments like these that I realize that I am never alone. Even at an hour where many humans would find it abominable to be conscious, I am surrounded by a community of creatures.
I am a second year law student here at Queen’s University. Every day is challenging for many reasons. Here is one that is very dear to my heart:
I am in my Environmental Protection Law seminar. We are discussing conservation, and how the environment is a human resource for us to manage. We own it, and we should monitor and control what species will flourish and what will not. I’m sitting there thinking: What about the animals?
I am in my Mining Law seminar. We’re being taught about mining in Canada, and how prospectors can virtually come onto any land to start burning trees and digging up the earth to stake a claim. Student responses revolve around concerns for the aboriginal clans. I’m thinking: Yes, and what about the animals???
“I love animals!”
If we love animals, why do we accept that animal suffering is more often justified than not?
While many pronounce to love animals, what they really mean is that they love the byproduct an animal brings: the comfort from a loving pet, the meal, the antidote; they love animals as a resource.
But you cannot declare to truly love anything if you are willing to destroy it. Whether it is people (your mother, your partner), or your property (your bed, your books, your record collection) — if you love it, you will protect it from harm. If you love someone, his or her suffering will move you. If we loved our families or partners the way we love animals, we’d have some explaining to do.
We are at a fork in the road, and it is time to face reality. We either admit that animals are resources to be dominated and enjoyed, or recognize that we need to start thinking of animals differently, and start treating them the way we would treat something we truly love.
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
Collectively, we are living in denial, and perhaps willfully blind to the way we live. We are so entrenched in seeing ourselves as first, so wrapped up in ourselves, that it takes intentional awareness to see our culture as it really is. We have severed ourselves so far from nature that we forget that we are, in fact, animals too.
Here is a hypothetical thought experiment. Imagine you live in a world where every morning you wake up, you are in another sentient body. One morning you may wake up, and find yourself a beloved pet snuggled in bed at the foot of your owner. The next, you are a bear in a cave in the redwood forests of California. On another morning you may be an orca in the ocean. One morning, you awake to find yourself a lab rat in a cage, a prisoner for animal testing.
While we may not live in a world where our souls travel every night, I hope you give pause, and consider that when you are born you have no choice in the matter of “which body” or “what species”. The first law of thermodynamics is that no energy is created in the universe, and none is ever destroyed. When you die, your energy goes on to be the stuff of new life. What kind of world would you like to be born into? One that reveres the sanctity of life and considers your interests, whether you are fish, bird, or mammal, or one where you better hope that you are the one percent of the human species that is able to live a life of comfort?
“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one” (Voltaire)
Animal law is a topic in infancy. We have anti-cruelty laws to catch terrible acts committed to animals in public, but these do not protect the hidden animals in our private institutions. While giving animals rights raises controversial questions about the substance and form of these rights, uncertainty does not dispel our moral duty to consider what is owed to animals.
The legal system is a mechanism for us to have a say in the outcomes of our lives. It is a place where individuals can plead for a remedy from harm. But to gain access to this system — well, you need access. You need to be recognized as a “someone” rather than a “something”.
Animals will not be protected under the law until they are recognized as beings rather than resources for humans. This means opening the minds of enough caring citizens. It means recognizing our differences with animals are of degree, and not in kind.
Our laws are limited by the morality of the people who lobby, draft, interpret, and enforce the law.
I hope this post opens your heart and mind to the idea that animals deserve our genuine consideration, and that whether you – the individual – cares, truly matters.
“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” (Charles Darwin)
Queen’s Law Candidate 2015
I certainly agree with most of what you are saying. Very well written and pretty provocative. This “by-product” we love about animals is just semantics. Our feelings for something whether conditional or unconditional, positive or negative, is always the result of a “by-product”. No animal would love or even like something that it didn’t consider a resource, tangible or not. As the most capable species on earth, when it comes to animals rights we are just fighting ourselves. There needs to be people who look after animals suffering from human circumstance and more importantly stop those responsible. Currently, we dominate the animal kingdom but before and during the existence of humans, other animals have been at the top of the food chain and probably didn’t have the moral capacity as us. So in 10000 years, should I trust that whichever species are at the top then will be looking out for my species? It’s our intelligence that makes us compassionate to the point where we would fight ourselves over another species. The human condition is sometimes madness.
Thanks for the response and I’m glad you found it provocative – animal law is definitely an area that needs some provocation!
I agree with some of what you’ve said – being human is definitely messy at times, but there are ways in which we can redeem ourselves, and fall short of “madness”.
I think that your understanding of us fighting ourselves is somewhat incomplete. At the core of animal rights is the deconstruction of the divide between what is considered “human” and “animal”. The “fighting” you speak of is a breakdown of speciesism. While I can appreciate there is conflict, I believe it is a necessary component to moral progress. Ultimately, if we are unwilling to be moral stewards on earth, we cannot expect any similar treatment from “supreme beings” that I mentioned in the hypothetical.
To address your comment about whether we can ever value anything but a by-product: I don’t think that the appreciation of a by-product displaces the fact that we can inherently value any “thing”. I acknowledge that without an initial reaction, you wouldn’t recognize there was something “present” to value at all, but I don’t think this rejects the notion that you can inherently value a thing, in and of itself. Our senses and emotions are necessary to see the value that is already present.
I loved this smooth piece of writing! You dealt very effectively with the issue of animal rights, a problematic term, when you said that “uncertainty does not dispel our moral duty to consider what is owed to animals.” I myself have never found convincing Ingrid Newkirk’s statements equating animal rights to human rights. Most people would not consider a insect’s rights and a person’s rights equal. I am so pleased that Queen’s has such an intelligent group raising questions about the ways animals are treated.
Thank you so much for your praise! It’s wonderful to get encouragement and support.
Very well written piece. I think the example from your mining law class best illustrates why people often fail to consider animal-law issues; it’s not that we don’t care about animal issues, but just that we care about human-specific issues MORE. I think it is simply a matter of prioritizing values that makes people consider the plight of Aboriginals in Canada living in third world conditions to be more repugnant than animals losing their habitats.
Similarly the potential benefits to humans worldwide that may be gained from testing on lab rats maybe some justification for their tortured existences. Perhaps the end justifies the means?
I think the most difficult question is how we as a society reconcile the interests of humans and animals in circumstances where these interests appear to compete or conflict.
Thank you for your response. You raise some important points that truly get at the heart of why animals continue to suffer, albeit the current anti-cruelty laws we have in Canada.
A vast amount of animal testing is mandated and required by the Canadian government for products beyond drugs and cosmetics. This includes pesticides, industrial chemicals, and genetically modified food to name a few. Only a small sample goes towards inventing new antidotes or cures.
There are viable alternatives out there. A lot of products can be made safely without the use of animals.
For a list you can visit: http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/animals-used-experimentation-factsheets/government-required-animal-testing-overview/
Even if it were justifiable to subject animals to testing for ‘worthy causes’, we may agree there is a large amount of animal research that is truly unnecessary.
So what’s the problem?
The animal research industry is self-regulating. Self-regulated industries are often insulated and self-reaffirming. Hidden from view, norms and standards become more entrenched. Without public oversight, there can be no possibility for change.
I appreciate that life will often contain conflicting interests, and we often have to find balance to come to a just solution. But the question is: who decides the weight and value of the competing interests? Should the decision be left to those who already assume animal testing is necessary?
Shouldn’t our animal companions deserve more consideration than a presumption that their suffering is almost always justified?