To conserve our vanishing species, we must change the language of conservation
My cousin, Aniruddh, a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego has an ongoing love affair—with a sulfur-crested cockatoo. Aniruddh studies music, language and the brain. Two years ago, Aniruddh’s colleague introduced him to Snowball. He—Snowball—isn’t your garden-variety cockatoo. He has a very specific like, and it is, quite improbably, the Backstreet Boys’ song, Everybody. He dances to it. In an interview in June with the New York Times, Aniruddh spoke about his work (all cutting edge) and, specifically, Snowball. Throughout that interview, Aniruddh referred to Snowball by name, or as “the bird” or “he”. Never “it”.
Aniruddh’s field is cognition and neuroscience, not animal behaviour per se. But changing attitudes in ethology have clearly begun to seep through the world of science, including recognizing that animals are not simply dumb “things”. This is a significant shift from the approach in the late 19th and early 20th century, when scientists declared animal anthropomorphism—the attribution of human qualities to animals— “unscientific”. Much has changed since.
Depending on whom you ask, answers to the question “What separates humans from animals?” range from the facetious—cutlery; taxes; recreational sex; traffic jams—to the arcane: “A sense of social and retributive justice”. But the question is increasingly irrelevant, even to most philosophers, simply because underlying the question is the theory that evolution has rendered humans naturally superior and thus they alone have special rights and qualities—an ethical and moral compass, for example, or the ability to distinguish between absolute rights and wrongs—and that these rights include the right to kill animals for sport and subject them to painful experimentation. The so-called “soft utilitarians” who claim that animals are not entitled to any rights or, if at all, to very limited rights, are members of a dwindling tribe. This is not mere fashion. There is a moral and ethical revulsion that accompanies images of seal slaughter and dolphin and whale butchery. Human beings can live without doing this; they are not meant to do it; it is impossible to justify. Also, the logical consequence of accepting the argument that humans alone have rights is that it is, therefore, perfectly all right to slaughter animals beyond what is needed for physical sustenance. Hence, deer and duck hunting are socially acceptable.
They are not. We often see photographs of 18th and 19th century rulers, maharajas and the inevitable Great White Hunter all standing proudly over the carcass of a lion, a tiger, an elephant, a bison, a leopard. These are described in accompanying or contemporaneous texts as “beasts”. We are called on to view these photographs for their technical expertise, artistry and their apparent redolence of a more cultured sepia age. To views of bedecked royalty and ancient temples, we might indeed have a suitably awed response. But to photographs of tiger shoots there is now seldom anything but acute revulsion. Captions that tell us that this is a photograph of Maharaja so-and-so of such-and-such fiefdom with his 897th tiger kill do not evoke admiration.
The brilliant 1982 film by Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi, shows just how much life on our planet is utterly out of balance. For this reason, too, questions about whether or not animals have personas and, therefore, whether or not humans have an obligation to protect them, and whether animals have a right to protection, all suggest their own answers. We now know at least this: that the earlier concepts that animals do not feel pain ‘like us’, that they do not ‘grieve’ and do not have the ‘feelings’ we do are all now shown by research to be quite wrong. There is quite often a deliberate obfuscation of the very real difference between sentience (the ability to feel) and sapience (wisdom, or the ability to reason). The argument that animals are never sentient must now be discarded as anthropocentric twaddle; the evidence against is just too overwhelming. Even the argument that humans alone are sapient seems to be losing ground.
A January 2010 the Sunday Times of London reported that researchers had published findings showing that dolphins—long known to be intelligent—are in fact second only to humans in intellectual ability, and are even ‘cultural’ in that they learn, adapt and progress from what they learn, and can learn from each other. Their communication is very similar to that of humans, and their native intelligence is higher than chimpanzees. Physiologically, dolphin brains display many characteristics of high intelligence. A zoologist at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, Lori Marino, did MRI scans of dolphin brains and found them to be actually larger than human brains, with a size second only to humans when corrected for body size. The work of Marino and others shows that dolphins have individual personalities, self-identity and—this is incredible—”can think about the future”. Like us, and our children, they learn from one another. One, a rescue, was trained to tail-walk during a three-week convalescence. On her release, scientists saw the tail-walk move being learned by her fellow dolphins in the wild. Diana Reiss of Hunter College at CUNY reported that dolphins quickly learned to recognize their reflections in mirrors and began using these to inspect their bodies, something that was so far thought to be limited to human and great apes. They respond too to efforts to find a species-neutral communication system based on simple symbols; and this is nothing if not a language. Swine flu threats cause pedestrians and motor scooterists in Pune to hold surgical masks over their noses; off the Western Australia coast, dolphins hold sponges over their snouts to protect them from sharp objects on the ocean floor. Both are acquired adaptations to environmental situations.
The conclusions are irresistible. In February 2010, these scientists and other academics presented their studies at the 2010 annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among the speakers at the conference was Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University. He suggested that dolphins are actually non-human persons. At the “Intelligence of Dolphins: Ethical and Policy Implications” sessions, Marino, Reiss and White argued that the cognitive and affective sophistication of dolphins have vital ethical and policy implications that make it unjustifiable to confine them for amusement, hunt them or even allow their accidental deaths in fishing operations (some 300,000 dolphins and whales are murdered like this each year).
The conference was in San Diego, not far from where Aniruddh works.
Perhaps no story is as dramatic as that of the lion named Christian, bought as a cub in 1969 by two Australians, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke from Harrods in London (Harrods then had an “exotic animals” section where you could actually buy something like a live lion cub). With Rendall and Bourke, Christian was every bit a pet. He loved soccer. He travelled in a car. He went everywhere with them. He responded to voice and tone and needed no physical force to learn what was appropriate and what wasn’t. He played in a walled garden next to the custom furniture shop where Rendall and Bourke worked.
Within a year, he weighed 185 pounds and, while no danger to anyone, was clearly in the wrong environment. This is the kind of situation in which ‘serendipity’ actually means something: Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, the stars of the movie “Born Free”, based on Joy Adamson’s book about the real African lion, Elsa, visited the furniture store. They recommended that Rendall and Bourke contact George Adamson. In 1971, Rendall, Bourke and Christian flew to Kenya. Till then, Christian’s world had been first the cage at Harrods’s and then the walled garden in London. Now, suddenly, he was released into a world he’d never known, his natural home. For the next year, Rendall and Bourke kept in touch with Adamson and visited Kenya to see Christian from afar.
In 1972 (the video wrongly shows the date as 1974), Rendall and Bourke returned to Kenya. Adamson warned them that Christian, by now a member of a pride, might not recognize.
The video of what followed at that meeting is the kind of thing you want to watch again and again: It shows Christian approaching the men cautiously at first and then, as recognition dawns, leaping playfully on them, standing on his hind legs and wrapping his forelegs around their shoulders, nuzzling their faces. Two females and a foster cub also joined in the welcome. A year or so later, the two men returned again. This time, Adamson said they would be lucky even to see Christian—Adamson had not seen him for the better part of a year. By now, he had his own pride, his own cubs and was truly enormous. To everyone’s surprise, Christian and his pride had returned to Adamson’s compound a day before. Rendall describes the encounter:
We called him and he stood up and started to walk towards us very slowly. Then, as if he had become convinced it was us, he ran towards us, threw himself on to us, knocked us over, knocked George over and hugged us, like he used to, with his paws on our shoulders.
The reunion lasted to the next morning. Christian was never seen again.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson spent part of his childhood was in India. He has a doctorate in Sanskrit from Harvard, was a Professor at the University of Toronto and held positions at other universities such as UC Berkeley, Michigan and Brown. He was also once ex-project director of the Freud archives and, in the world of psychoanalysis, the kind of gadfly everybody needs. His most recent writing is on the emotional lives of animals. In his 1995 book, “When Elephants Weep”, he shows us an entirely different dimension to animal life. If Moussaieff-Masson’s insights are startling and his arguments provocative, his examples push the boundaries of what we have been conditioned to find credible. He tells of Michael, a gorilla in a sign-language program, who is hopelessly addicted to the singing of Pavarotti; Siri, an Indian elephant who flavours her hay with a delicately split open apple and happily doodles with pencil and paper, never once letting the pencil fall off the paper’s edge; Koko, a shy gorilla who likes playing with dolls; Alex, an African grey parrot who has a vocabulary that includes apologizing profusely and proclaiming undying love when he is taken to the vet; and Toto, a chimpanzee who, back in 1925 when owning a chimpanzee was not illegal, nursed his owner Cherry Kearton back from a bout of severe malaria—including fetching quinine and a glass and even removing his boots when he fell asleep. Quoting Kearton’s account, Masson says:
“It may be that some who read this book will say that friendship between an ape and a man is absurd, and that Toto, being ‘only an animal’, cannot really have felt the feeling that I attribute to him,” Kearton wrote. “They would not say it if they had felt his tenderness and seen his care as I felt and saw it at that time.”
Marc Berkoff’s more recent book, “The Emotional Lives of Animals”, also tackles the issues of sentience, animal rights, conservation and ethology. His illustrations of animal sentience are even more dramatic than those in Masson’s book. Berkoff describes five magpies—of the corvids family, very intelligent—performing a funeral rite around one of their number who had been hit by a car: one by one gently pecking it, stepping back, and then one flying away and returning with a some grass and laying it by the corpse, and then another doing the same thing. They hold a vigil for a few minutes. A vigil.
In Tezpur, a troop of over 100 monkeys brought traffic to a standstill after a baby monkey was hit by a car. The troop surrounded the baby, whose hind legs were crushed by a car, blocking all traffic.
A government official reported that the monkeys were very angry, and a local shopkeeper said: “It was very emotional … some of them massaged its legs. Finally, they left the scene carrying the injured baby with them.”
These are not isolated instances. Similar reports crop up frequently from around the globe. In December 2005, a female humpback whale became entangled in a hundreds of pounds of crab traps and lines. Weighted down by these, the lines wrapped around her body, tail and mouth, she could hardly keep afloat to breathe. A horrendous death by drowning seemed inevitable. She was spotted by a fisherman off the Farallon Islands outside the Golden Gate. He radioed an environmental group for help. The rescue team of 30 divers decided that the only hope was to cut her free. They worked for hours cutting through the lines. When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around as she was thanking them. The diver who cut the line out of her mouth claimed that she followed him with her eyes throughout.
Then there are the improbable animal friendships that defy all received wisdom. At a rescue centre in Locust Grove, Georgia, a Bengal tiger, a giant American black bear and a lion, all rescued as two-month-old cubs during a police raid on a drug baron’s home (they were status symbol pets) are playmates and friends. “They are totally oblivious to the fact that in any other circumstance they would not be friends,” the assistant director of the facility says. The video says it all.
Norbert Rosing, a German wildlife photographer who has published regularly in the National Geographic and has spent years documenting the lives of polar bears, has a wonderful sequence of images showing polar bears playing with Alaskan husky sled dogs outside Churchill, Manitoba in northern Canada.
Norbert Rosing’s photos of polar bears and huskies
It also cannot be coincidence that the words sentinel and sentience share a common etymological root: sentire—to feel, and to observe. In varying degrees, we are all sentient on this planet; but humans alone are required to be the planet’s sentinels.
There is now sufficient philosophical and even legal support—including from Alan Dershowitz and Lawrence Tribe at Harvard—for granting defined rights to animals. Nor is the movement new: the earliest animal protection laws go back to the 1600s. John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau were early proponents of animal (or natural) rights. Certainly other philosophers opposed this (Kant, for instance) but by the 19th century the animal rights movement was swiftly gaining ground; a notable proponent being Arthur Schopenhauer.
In the 1960’s, a small but influential band of thinkers and academics, chiefly at Oxford, and now known as the Oxford Group, began to campaign against animal exploitation. Prominent among these were the psychologist Richard Ryder and the novelist Brigid Brophy. In 1965, Brophy published an article in the Sunday Times called “The Rights of Animals”, in which she wrote:
“The relationship of homo sapiens to the other animals is one of unremitting exploitation. We employ their work; we eat and wear them. We exploit them to serve our superstitions: whereas we used to sacrifice them to our gods and tear out their entrails in order to foresee the future, we now sacrifice them to science, and experiment on their entrails in the hope–or on the mere offchance–that we might thereby see a little more clearly into the present … To us it seems incredible that the Greek philosophers should have scanned so deeply into right and wrong and yet never noticed the immorality of slavery. Perhaps 3000 years from now it will seem equally incredible that we do not notice the immorality of our own oppression of animals.”
A year earlier, Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines, a critique of factory farming and this, with Brophy’s article, led to an explosion of interest in the relationship between humans and non-humans, the obligations of the former to the latter, and the rights of non-humans. In 1971, Ryder, Harrison and Brophy contributed to the extremely influential publication on the moral philosophy about animal treatment called Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans by the Oxford philosophers Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris.
The 5 April 1973 issue of the New York Review of Books carried a review of Animals, Men and Morals by the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. This review, “Animal Liberation”, propounded a philosophical basis for animal liberation, and was to become the lodestone of the animal rights and liberation movement in the following decades. Singer extended Bentham’s 1776 principle of utilitarianism—the rightness of act is best gauged by how far it leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number—to animal rights. The review was so influential that in 2001, another writer said that philosophers had written more about animal rights in the previous 20 years than in the 2,000 years before that.
Singer argues that there is no moral justification for denying equal consideration to the interests of humans and non-humans. This does not mean equal or identical treatment, but an equal consideration of interests; and these interests depend solely on the ability to experience pain (or to suffer). If a being has the ability to suffer, it has an interest that must therefore be given equal consideration with that of humans. Research is now overwhelming that animals suffer and feel pain, and the debate is narrowed to questions of memories of pain or reactions in anticipation of pain. Singer points out that it is the lack of a language—at least the lack of a language humans can understand—that limits our thinking about animal suffering. This is the basis of the argument by many scientists that it is impossible to know when an animal is suffering. More recent research shows that even this is simply untrue. Singer also points out that the argument is flawed as it could easily hold true of humans. He cites Wittgenstein’s reasoning that our concept of pain is based on our observing of a conduct we associate with pain (moaning, screaming, clutching a part of one’s body). If this is accepted, Singer says, then there is no justification for the theory that animal pain is different from human pain.
The opponents of this school of thought — notably Judge Richard Posner of the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the British philosopher Roger Scruton — argue that it is simply monstrous to equate human and animal pain. Human beings have rights because they have responsibilities, Scruton argues, and it is impossible to have rights without responsibilities. As animals have no responsibilities, it must follow that they have no rights. Posner feels that the “pain” of humans cannot be equated with that of animals and this equalizing has nothing to do with a general kindness to animals. Such an equalization, Posner argues, opens up “bizarre vistas of social engineering”. What these arguments overlook is that precisely because of the extent of human domination over other living beings, human responsibilities increase in direct proportion. The survival of the human species is dependent on the giving of these rights to non-humans; any other view is a formulation for extinction.
Scruton also accuses animal rights activists and thinkers of being unscientific in their use of anthropomorphism. The allegation now seems hopelessly dated. It was made, too, against Jane Goodall. It would be hard, if not impossible, today to find someone who could decry her work with chimpanzees for this reason.
That these views are no longer socially or morally acceptable is perhaps best reflected in the Protocol to the legally binding Treaty of Amsterdam. This recognizes sentience in all animals, and voices a shared commitment for the protection of animals and their welfare requirements.
“But,” as Berkoff points out, “sentience isn’t the central reason to better care for animals. Questions regarding sentience are important and extremely challenging, but can be distracting. Well-being centres on what animals feel, not what they know.”
In 1972, the Sierra Club Legal Defence Fund filed a path breaking action on behalf of 25 environmental organisations opposing a $35 million dollar Mineral King ski resort proposed by Disney near the Sequoia National Park. While the SCLDF may have lost that battle (Sierra Club v Morton), they certainly won the war, most notably in Justice Douglas’s dissenting opinion. That is a piece of writing of rare power, grace and passion, a vision of what justice really means and how the law can be shaped to achieve it.
“Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which it represents will stand before the court—the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak. But those people who have so frequented the place as to know its values and wonders will be able to speak for the entire ecological community.”
In more recent times, entire lawsuits have been brought in America in the name of the threatened animal (Northern Spotted Owl v Lujan, where 22 environmental organisations petitioned for the inclusion of the Northern Spotted Owl as an endangered species). To be sure there are aberrations—Lujan v Defenders of Wildlife being the most notable—where the US Supreme Court has limited legal standing and insisted on direct, discernible injury. The majority opinion in that widely criticized decision was authored by Justice Antonin Scalia; predictable and unsurprising. Scalia is the duck-hunting companion of Dick Cheney, a person whose politics are well to the right of Attila the Hun. In a remarkable display of twee disingenuousness, Scalia later claimed that a plane ticket to the affected area would have been sufficient to grant legal standing.
The Indian experience in protecting animals, defending animals’ rights, and providing adequate legal defence is abysmal. When a defence is mounted, it is met with derision and scorn. Raj Punjwani, a lawyer from Delhi, travels the country defending animal rights. At least in the Bombay High Court, he was accorded a civil reception some years ago when he fought for improved conditions for the animals in the Jijamata Udyan zoo. The rhino there has been in a cramped enclosure and without a mate for 20 years. The municipal corporation lawyer thought this was extremely funny. Keeping it in that condition is akin to solitary confinement, for no crime other than being an animal.
For some reason, as a people we seem to enjoy tormenting those who cannot speak. In Ahmedabad, Lisa Warden fights a lonely battle for humane treatment of stray dogs—the video of what that municipality does to strays, hauling them across floors screaming in pain and terror with iron tongs, flinging them out with half-done sterilizations, is stomach-churning. An annual sport, not too far now, is to tie noisy firecrackers to the tails of stray dogs and then delight in the ensuing horror. We all know about the hit-and-run death of the Jhurjhura tigress in Ranthambore and, more recently, of a speeding train decimating seven elephants.
7 elephants killed by a speeding train in West Bengal
7 elephants killed by a speeding train in West Bengal
7 elephants killed by a speeding train in West Bengal
Even more horrifying are the reports from PETA. A prominent medical institute in Delhi keeps confined in small cages several dozen monkeys, apart from rabbits, sheep, guinea pigs and rats. We have laws—paying Rs.100 for mistreating a stray dog being one example—and, of course, in a country where the only constitutional right seems to be to set up or sit on a committee, inevitably, a committee to “control and supervise” experiments on animals (which gives legislative benediction to experiment on animals in the first place). Predictably, that committee issued guidelines and then went into Rip van Winkle mode, till PETA exposed what was going on: guidelines violated, animals confined to small cages, visibly fearful, handled roughly, monkeys imprisoned for as long as a decade—one for 20 years—and utterly traumatised. Video footage shows them rocking from side to side and circling endlessly.
Berkoff dedicates his book to two animals. One is Pablo, a chimpanzee, earlier known only as CH-377 at the New York University lab where he was captive. As Berkoff says, “using numbers rather than names is one way researchers distance themselves from the animals they exploit”. Discover magazine related Pablo’s story: darted 220 times, subjected to 28 liver, two bone marrow and two lymph node biopsies; injected four times with test vaccines, one of them known to be a hepatitis vaccine; in 1993 he was injected 10,000 times the lethal dose of HIV. He survived that, and the hepatitis, and died of an infection caused by years of darts, needles and biopsies.
We need to do this, we are told, for the greater human good. That, as I see it, was very much the argument of the Nazis—ironically, one of the earliest adopters of structured animal rights laws—in developing their Final Solution. Morally and ethically, this is distinction without a difference: the caged monkey, too, like Pablo, has no name, just a number.
Now we are doing this to all animals in the wild, and nothing could be more detrimental to their protection. Again, this is being done in the name of science, for better monitoring and wildlife management. Our pets have names, but tigers and elephants, the thinking now is, should have none. Take away a name and you reduce a personality to a statistic. The seven elephants killed by a train and the Jhurjhura tigress hit by a vehicle are not just erased numbers. These are incalculable losses of demonstrably sentient creatures. Their killings are unacceptable. Every one impoverishes mankind. Giving animals names is not unscientific; giving them only numbers is entirely irresponsible. It cannot be suggested that every single reptile or every zebra must have a unique name. In large populations, this may be impractical and even unnecessary. But certainly for those facing extinction, numbering instead of naming is but a step towards elimination.
If we are at all serious about wildlife conservation of our threatened species, we need to recognize three things: first, that our wild animals have as much a right to be here as us, if not more; consequently, that we must change the language of conservation—give the animals names when we can, refer to them by gender and not as “it”; and, finally, accord them the legal standing that Justice Douglas saw 40 years ago so that we, their legal guardians, can speak for those who do not have our language.
Berkoff’s book is also dedicated to Jasper, a moon-bear. Jasper’s story is the stuff of horror. He was confined to a crush cage on bear bile farm in China. Berkoff writes:
“Crush cages are used to compress a bear’s body to maximize the amount of bile the animal produces (which is extracted by means of a catheter inserted in the gall bladder). Jasper was kept in a tiny cage—a “rusting prison of torture,” according to Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia—and tortured repeatedly over the course of many years for his bile, a chemical used in traditional Chinese medicine. “This poor bear had been pressed down by a ‘crush’ which had reduced the height of the cage by half and had flattened Jasper to the floor,” Robinson wrote to me. “Unable to sit or stand or hardly move, it is beyond belief to comprehend that this wild, intelligent bear lay there in this state for fifteen years before being rescued. Jasper was the victim of catheter implantation and his physical and mental agony must have been intolerable. A mischievous, fun-loving bear today, Jasper is everybody’s friend, bears and people alike. His beautiful, trusting eyes show the absolute forgiveness of his species, and reinforce our goal of rescuing as many bears as possible.”
Animals suffer pain, but they are also long-suffering, and they are quick to forgive. We should invert the question; the answer stares us in the face. This is what separates animals from men.
Jasper in a crush cage
A much shorter version of this article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on Friday, 8 October 2010.
Animal Rights, Human Wrongs
My cousin, Aniruddh, a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego has an ongoing love affair--with a sulfur-crested cockatoo. Aniruddh studies music, language and the brain. Two years ago, Aniruddh's colleague introduced him to Snowball. He--Snowball--isn't your garden-variety cockatoo. He has a very specific like, and it is, quite improbably, the Backstreet Boys' song, *Everybody*. He dances to it. In an [interview] in June with the New York Times, Aniruddh spoke about his work (all cutting edge) and, specifically, Snowball. Throughout that interview, Aniruddh referred to Snowball by name, or as "the bird" or "he". Never "it".
: www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/science/01conv.html?...nce&pagewanted=print "NY Times interview with Aniruddh Patel"