Not "What" but Who Are Animals?
To comprehend the organs of the horse,
is not to comprehend the horse himself.
—LIN YUT AN, Chinese Philosopher
Let me start with a true story about a rhinoceros. These animals are hard for people to understand. They aren’t furry or big- eyed or easy to pet, and a person might be forgiven for imagining that a charging rhino could flatten you like a locomotive.
Anna Merz, the founder of the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary in Kenya, has lived with rhinos for many years. She now realizes that these enormous animals live in a completely different sphere from ours. They are the Mr. Magoos of the animal kingdom, barely able to see a thing, and their world is dominated by smell and hearing. Anna also realizes that "different" does not mean "stupid." In fact, the rhinos’ communication system is quite complex. To communicate, they use body language, a wide variety of calls, and even urine or droppings as markers. Perhaps most interesting, they use a highly complicated method of regulating their breathing, a sort of Morse code, to talk to one another.
Rhinos are not alone here. Behavioral biologists have discovered "seismic communication" in elephants and mice. Male Malaysian tree frogs use their toes methodically to click out messages, and female frogs send electronic signals by vibrating the small saplings in which they live.
People may fear rhinos because they do not understand them, but Anna Merz says that fear is very much a two- way street, with most of the traffic coming from the opposite direction. "Most wild rhinos are obsessed by their terror of humans" because people have chased them, separated them from their calves, and slaughtered family members in front of them, cutting off their tusks for sale as aphrodisiacs.
The animals’ fear makes close observation difficult. In the course of her work, however, Anna was lucky enough to raise and release a bull rhino called Makara, who had never witnessed an attack by hunters and so never learned to fear people. Over time, he actually came to regard Anna as a friend.
On one occasion, Anna was out with a tracker when the two of them saw a rhino moving very slowly toward them, looking very odd. When he got close, they saw it was Makara, and that he was completely entangled in barbed wire.
Barbed wire is terrifying to animals. When horses get tangled in even a little piece of the stuff, they invariably go wild with panic. Makara had recognized the sound of Anna’s car engine and had come to her for help.
Anna got out of the car, and Makara, although trembling all over, gave her the greeting breathing. Somehow, Anna managed to get a handkerchief between Makara’s eye and the jagged wire that was cutting into it, then took off her jacket and worked it under the wire that was cutting into his huge thigh. Anna and the tracker had no wire cutters with them, so the tracker used his cutlass and a flat stone to cut the wire while Anna disentangled it as it came free.
Anna talked reassuringly to the big bull rhino for the forty minutes or more it took to get the job done. The whole time Makara stood stock- still, except for the tremors that shook his body.
When the last bit of wire fell away, he breathed a grateful good- bye and moved slowly back into the bush.
Anna knew she had witnessed an act of outstanding intelligence and courage. Wire is terrifying for animals to comprehend, yet Makara had known to come for help. Still more incredible was the control he had exercised over himself while he was being slowly extricated, although the pro cess must have been painful to him. And, although Makara knew Anna’s voice well, she had never before attempted to touch him.
Perhaps if we could sit rhino hunters down and get them to see that a rhino is not just an object to line up in their sights, not just a meal or trophy on the hoof, but a living, thinking, feeling player in what behaviorist Dr. Roger Fouts calls the "great symphony of life in which each of us is assigned a different instrument," it might be harder for them to raise their rifles to their shoulders and blow these magnificent beings to kingdom come. Perhaps not. But lightning- quick realizations do happen.
Take, for example, a case in upstate New York one winter when the lakes and rivers were frozen solid. Two hunters, a father and his son, were out looking for "game," when they came across a deer lying on the ice in the middle of a frozen river.
Seeing them, the deer struggled to get up, but the slippery surface prevented her from rising. Every time she struggled, she fell back hard on the ice, her legs splaying out from under her. The hunters stood back and watched her trying to right herself, each time without success, until she seemed too exhausted to try again.
The father and son skated cautiously up to the doe. Like most hunters, they had never been really close to a live deer before, except to deal a final blow to their prey. The son, a man in his twenties, said later that when he bent down and put out his hand, he was afraid she would bite him. He reached out slowly, and the deer leaned forward and gently smelled the back of his hand, then looked up at him with her big eyes. The younger man began petting her.
The hunters found themselves in a predicament. Things were different. Somehow, they could not bring themselves to shoot this animal who, lying at their feet, as the son said, "looked like a big, old, sweet dog!"
The father and son found a nylon rope in one of their backpacks, and to their surprise the deer let them put it under her rump. Then, working in tandem, they started pulling the deer carefully across the ice toward the bank. It was hard work, and about every ten minutes they collapsed to rest, the three of them sitting close together on the ice until the father and son caught their breath. Then they pulled again, and the deer sat there quietly and helplessly, knowing they were all in this together.
When they finally got to the shoreline, the deer put her hoofs on the snow- covered earth, balanced herself, and stood. But now she saw the men as friends, rescuers, and was reluctant to leave. The three just stood there together, stock- still except for their labored breathing until, eventually, the hunters decided they must shoo her away.
Later, the younger hunter appeared on television, showing his home video of the incident and saying nothing could ever be the same again. He can’t hunt deer any longer because he sees them differently now.
If this wonderful sort of breakthrough happened every day to people actively engaged in harming and killing animals, we would have a peaceful revolution on our hands. Hunters and slaughter house workers and people who steal cats to sell them to schools for dissection would not see animals as inconsequential and unfeeling commodities or as enemies. Animals might come to be viewed in the way Henry Beston, an English philosopher, saw them— as members of "other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time."
Most of us can’t imagine picking up a firearm to slaughter a deer or a rhino. We never meet or come to know the animals we ourselves harm, directly or, far more likely, through strangers. Because we haven’t really thought much about it, or don’t imagine there is a choice in the matter, we buy products and ser vices that provide the funds to pay others to put harsh chemicals down beagles’ throats, to castrate lambs without anesthetic, to shoot mother orangutans out of trees, and to build tiny cages in which foxes and lynx live until their necks are snapped and their pelts turned into the fur trim on winter jackets and gloves. These experiences are all very real to these animals, who aren’t lulled into acceptance, as we are, by the myths about humane treatment and necessity, and who aren’t distracted, as we are, by the pretty packaging, alluring descriptions, and upbeat marketing that surround almost everything we buy, from floor cleaner to circus tickets.
Although anyone who has taken Biology 101 would agree that animals are not inanimate objects, people often treat them as though they have no more feeling than a desk or a chair. Stop and look at the images of animals offered to us by fast- food companies. Animals are converted from flesh and blood into caricatures to make us feel comfortable about our complicity in their slaughter: happy chickens in little aprons dance their way merrily across the sign above the fast- food restaurant; a cute baby pig wearing a chef’s hat stirs the pot. Similarly, to nip children’s inquiries in the bud, the research industry sends colorful posters into schools, dishonestly depicting the rats it poisons and kills by the millions as cute cartoon creatures, snuggled up in cozy laboratory homes. And so it goes.
Walt Whitman saw things somewhat differently. He wrote:
I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars, And the ant is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, And the tree- toad is a chef d’oeuvre for the highest, And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven. And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery, And the cow, crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
To the outside observer, the human race seems not to agree. It has separated the entire animal kingdom into two parts. Humans are given the status of gods. We can do anything we please. We can take baby orcas away from their loving families at sea and put them in a SeaWorld tank for visitors to gawk at, or we can destroy scores of animals’ habitats to build a new driveway or roller rink. Quite separate from us are all the other animals, be they our closest living relatives on the phylogenetic tree, the great apes, with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA, or the tiniest beetle. We see them not as whole, complete, or important in their own right. In fact, they are viewed as inconsequential, allowed to live only if their existence serves some purpose to us, if they are pretty, amusing, tasty, or strong. We debase their nature, deny their needs, and consider them to be merely cheap burglar alarms, windup toys, hamburgers, or handbags.
Some people rationalize their abuse by saying that humans are the cleverest animals on Earth, the only ones to land on the moon or write a symphony. True, but humans are also the only animals to devise an atomic bomb, invent concentration camps, and kill hitchhikers for sexual gratification. So what does it mean?
Grand and pompous statements about human superiority are reminiscent of the claims we read in history books, made by white slaveholders to defend auctioning black children after taking them away from their mothers (for more than a century, many people actually thought that slaves were incapable of maternal love), and by powerful men determined to deny women any rights whatsoever ("You might as well give asses the vote," wrote one Boston editor).
No doubt human beings, or at least some of them, are clever in ways other animals are not, although cleverness is hardly the criterion by which we decide whom to treat decently. If we did, many humans would be in deep trouble.
The fact is that animals are often amazing and awe inspiring, and their intelligence often leaves us in the dust. Long before any human sailor made the discovery, albatrosses knew the world was round because they had circumnavigated it without benefit of even a compass. The tiny desert mouse is far superior at surviving in Death Valley than the people who travel there, usually equipped with all manner of helpful gear, to test themselves against nature. These tiny rodents construct piles of stones around their burrows to collect the dew so they can take a drink when morning comes.
Name any animal, and our silly prejudices fade in the face of their feats: male Emperor penguins go without food for up to 145 days while guarding their eggs in the frozen tundra.
Fruit- eating bats act as midwives for bats who run into difficulty giving birth and have been known to bring food to ailing group members. Some birds, like indigo buntings, guide their long flights by learning the constellations; other birds fix their position by the height of the sun and, if blown off course by the wind, reset their path by the phases of the moon and the rising and setting of the stars. Turtles "read" Earth’s magnetic field in order to navigate thousands of miles across vast, open oceans. Elephants mourn their relatives by cradling the bones of the dead animal in their trunks and rocking back and forth with them. Seals can absorb their own fetuses to prevent overpopulation during a time when food is scarce. Octopuses collect pretty objects and use them to decorate the walls of their subterranean caves. Chimpanzees seek out and use medicinal wild plants that have antibiotic properties. Birds make clay by mixing water and mud to harden nests or as casts for broken limbs. A type of Antarctic fish can feed under the ice because they have the highest known level of serum antifreeze in their blood; salmon know the taste of their ancestral rivers; whales sing their histories down through the generations, adding a "verse" every year; dolphins can "see" through the human body to detect cancers. Ants form living bridges to get their fellows across streams; orangutan babies use big leaves as umbrellas when it rains heavily, holding them over their heads to keep dry. And there are dogs who can warn of impending seizures and detect cancerous tumors in their human companions.
Some of these traits and accomplishments can be attributed to nature or instinct, but they are no less impressive because of it. After all, much of what we humans do is "natural" or "instinctive" too. Few people love their children or choose a mate based on careful calculation.
Ironically, animals are kind to us. Pigs have pulled children from ponds; canaries have flown into rooms where their guardians were sleeping, frantically warning them of fire; beavers have kept lost trekkers alive in the freezing forest by pressing their warm bodies against the hikers; dolphins have kept sailors afloat in shark- infested waters; and Binti, a mother gorilla, and Jambo, a giant, silverback male, both won international admiration when they guarded and protected human children who, in separate incidents, fell into concrete enclosures at a zoo. Fearing the worst, keepers ran to get tranquilizer guns with which to subdue the apes, but the apes recognized that these children needed their help and simply offered it, at personal risk.
Of course, dogs and cats, the animals we interact with perhaps more than any others, have saved our skins from everything from frozen lakes to armed attackers. They look after their own kind too. The mothers of cats and dogs will suffer burned faces and paws, crawling back into buildings to rescue their young. Take Sheba, a mother Rottweiler in Florida, who watched helplessly from her chain as her own er dug a two-foot- deep hole in the backyard, dropped her live puppies into a paper bag, and buried them. Neighbors reported that they heard the heartbroken dog howl mournfully and strain at her chain all that day and night.
Almost twenty- four hours later, Sheba managed to snap her chain, break free, and dig the pups out of their grave. Some survived, and the owner was charged with animal abuse.
Why is it then that some people still refuse to attribute feelings and emotions to animals? It is very ignorant of anyone to think that love, loneliness, grief, joy, jealousy, or the desire to cling to life are singularly human traits.
Gus, a polar bear in a New York zoo, exhibited such misery from his confinement, including swimming endless laps in his pathetic cement pool, that he was prescribed antidepressants. Other animals in zoos are not so lucky. Wendy Wood, one of the first Jane Goodall Fellows at the University of Southern California, describes how chimpanzees develop autistic characteristics when denied opportunities to perform natural activities, like playing, fighting, and looking for food, which they cannot do in a laboratory cage or inside a trailer in a traveling sideshow. The distressed primates pull their hair out and rock endlessly, day after day.
Even octopuses, casually dismissed as "stupid invertebrates" by those who know no better, show their feelings. These mysterious sea creatures demonstrate their intelligence by learning how to unscrew a jar top to remove food, simply by watching the procedure. When given electric shocks, they show their desperation by biting into their own tentacles. Other cephalopods, including cuttlefish, can not only disguise themselves as plants on the ocean floor to avoid a prowling predatory fish, but can also fascinate a female with their displays of attractive colors and patterns on one side of their bodies while, on the other side, facing away from the female, simultaneously warning off a competitor male by showing colors and patterns that indicate aggression. Pretty fancy shooting!
Altruism too is found in the other animals. In Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, there is a hideous true story about macaque monkeys who were fed only if they pulled a chain, electrically shocking an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one- way mirror. Eighty- seven percent of the monkeys preferred to go hungry rather than pull the chain, and one refused to eat for fourteen days. The authors write:
The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others. If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves— suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others—our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in non- humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others—even those who are not close kin. By conventional human standards, these macaques who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a ju nior high school civics lesson— seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous re-sis tance to evil. Among the macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well?
Professor Frans de Waal, a primatologist who has spent de cades watching chimpanzees taken away from their natural homes and kept in captivity says, "An animal does not have to be human to be humane." De Waal’s observations have taught him that chimpanzees have strong views about what is right and wrong and have a deep sense of justice. They believe in such concepts as sharing and will not usually tolerate misbehavior in the group, literally turning their backs on those who step out of line.
We don’t need these extraordinary examples to derail the myth that our own species is in all ways superior to all others. Many animals have much keener senses—clearer vision, better hearing, such acute senses of smell that you wonder how they tolerate sharing a home with human beings and their cigarettes, floor cleaner, and so on. They are also much faster than we slowly trudging primates.
One of the most infuriating arguments used to deride animals is that they can’t speak— which implies that they can’t speak a human language. None of us, of course, can speak even a word of an animal language, but some animals have made serious headway with ours. Washoe is one such linguist. This chimpanzee mastered 132 American Sign Language signs by the age of five and had a remarkable "vocabulary." Washoe was rescued from a research laboratory by behaviorist Dr. Roger Fouts and lived for many years in a small group of other chimpanzees, including her adopted son, Loulis. Washoe spontaneously combined words to describe her experiences and desires, such as "You me hide" and "Listen dog" and invented names for her possessions, such as "Baby Mine" for her doll.
All this language among apes causes Douglas H. Chadwick to write in the New York Times, "Apes certainly seem capable of using language to communicate. Whether scientists are, remains doubtful."
Some people believe parrots just mimic what they hear, and they certainly do that well, but the way they can use what they have learned shows not only considerable intelligence but also skill with language use too.
A friend of mine has a rescued macaw who can imitate almost any sound he has ever heard in the house, including her husband’s voice. The bird will sometimes drive her mad. As my friend runs to answer the phone, there will be a knock at the back door, then, immediately, the front doorbell will ring. A second later, not knowing which way to turn, she will hear the words, "Can you get that, dear?" Of course, the bird is fully responsible for all these sounds— the phone, the knock at the door, the bell, and the request.
I found out firsthand what a terrific sense of fun macaws have, when the Washington Humane Society asked PETA to temporarily house two who had been taken away in a raid on a badly run pet shop. Although these birds eyed us warily— they had good reason to, given what they had endured at human hands— they learned eight different laughs and greetings in a single afternoon, simply by eavesdropping. If you passed their room, you could hear them practicing to themselves.
At about three- thirty every weekday afternoon, workers from the factory below our office would start up the hill to the bus stop. Every day at that time, the birds would quietly move to the window and wait. When they spotted someone moving up the hill, two stories below them, they would start their game.
"Hello!" they would call out, just loud enough for whoever was trudging up the hill to hear. The victim would look around but see no one near him on the street. "Hello! Hello!" The birds would pick up the pace, using a slightly different tone, calling a little louder.
The man would cast about, baffled.
"Hello! Hello! Hello!" they would scream in unison.
Finally, the worker would look up, see the parrots, and, inevitably, relieved to have solved the mystery, say "Hello!" back.
The parrots would then become quiet as church mice. Whereas they had been completely intent on this game, now they concentrated closely on grooming a nail or picking at a sunflower seed.
"Hello, there. Hello, birdies!" the man would call up.
The birds ignored him.
Giving up, he would move on. Then the birds would choose one of the laughs they had adopted as their own, drop all other sham activity, resume their positions, and wait intently for their next victim.
Alex, an African grey parrot with a large vocabulary of English words, which he could use in whole sentences, used his language skills to try to save himself from unpleasantness. In one memorable moment, when he found himself about to be left behind at the vet’s office, Alex urgently called out to his person, "Come here. I love you. I’m sorry. I want to go back." His death in 2007 was the subject of obituaries in major newspapers and a book by Alex’s guardian, Irene Pepperberg, entitled Alex & Me.
Alex’s avian relatives notwithstanding, most animals have throat and vocal chord structures that do not permit them to make the same sort of speech humans make, and most use very different forms of communication than ours. Dolphins, for example, use echolocation, bats use sonar, octopuses and cuttlefish use fantastic color waves and patterns that ripple through their bodies, and bees flap their wings at varying speeds to give complicated directions for locating flower beds.
Some cetacean experts believe that dolphins may transmit whole pictures of events to one another in ways more sophisticated than we can fathom. But even those animals that are commonly despised out of sheer ignorance— the animals who bear the brunt of our prejudice—communicate in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Rats and mice, like elephants, "talk" at frequencies we cannot hear. Sadly, for them, cats are tuned in to the same wavelengths. Prairie dogs’ squeaks and chattering sounds are certainly components of a structured language, according to, among others, Professor Con Slobodchikoff at Northern Arizona University. Slobodchikoff converts the little rodents’ sounds to sonograms, then uses a computer to correlate them to events. He has identified many dozens of words so far and realizes that prairie dogs can distinguish colors, shapes, and sizes, as well as tell a coyote from a German shepherd and a man from a woman. You can just imagine them warning one another to get back in the burrow quick, because "here’s that insurance salesman from Prudential again."
E. Sue Savage- Rumbaugh, a behavioral researcher at Yerkes, a huge primate laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia, found that chimpanzees are so like us, they tell lies.
She reported that when one baby chimpanzee in a sign language study broke a toy, the student who had been watching him quietly behind a two- way glass panel entered the room.
"Who broke the toy?" she signed to the responsible infant. "He did!" the baby signed back, pointing to his innocent friend.
This story illustrates the perhaps painful fact that though animals are not inferior to us in some grand way, they also have their own load of bad behavior.
We might well ask, as did the author of this verse:
Coat with fur, Hat with feathers, Lobster broiled alive, Shoes and bags in sundry leathers Of animals who’ve died.
Hunted, trapped, and torn apart For me to satisfy And, who am I? And what my rank? That I may live And they must die?
Let’s explore where such thoughts will take us, and see how we can stop killing and hurting animals as an incidental part of our lifestyles.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Respect animals as individuals. Don’t call them "it," but "she" and "he" and use "who" not "that." Be patient, understanding, and thoughtful around animals. Put yourself in their place.
Avoid bossing animals around. Animals are not our slaves, they have interests that should be respected, even if those interests don’t always coincide with our own. Never yell or tug on your dog’s neck, as if it were something stuck in a door. Never make animals beg in order to receive food or a treat. Do not tease them. And try to imagine their boredom, the lack of variety in their lives, and take the time to help give them diversions and to enjoy their lives.
Look out for animals. In everything you do, try to educate others, stop cruel behaviors, and bring about a revolution in human consciousness.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What do you mean by "animal rights"?
People who support animal rights believe that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other purpose and that animals deserve consideration and what is in their best interests, regardless of whether they are cute, useful to humans, or endangered, and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a mentally challenged human has rights, even if he or she is not cute or useful and even if everyone dislikes him or her). For more information on why animals should have rights, go to PETA .org
What is the difference between "animal rights" and "animal welfare"?
Supporters of the animal rights movement believe that animals are not ours, while supporters of the animal welfare movement believe that animals can be used and even killed for those purposes as long as "humane" guidelines are followed.
What rights should animals have?
Animals should have the right to equal consideration of their interests. For instance, a dog most certainly has an interest in not having pain inflicted on him unnecessarily. We must take that interest into consideration. However, animals don’t always have the same rights as humans (any more than a man needs the same rights as a woman), because their interests are not always the same as ours, and some rights would be irrelevant to animals. For instance, a dog doesn’t have an interest in voting and, therefore, doesn’t have the right to vote because that right would be as meaningless to a dog as it is to a child.
Where do you draw the line?
The renowned humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who accomplished so much for both humans and animals in his lifetime, would take time to stoop and move a worm from hot pavement to cool earth. Aware of the problems and responsibilities that an expanded ethic brings, he said, "A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to aid all life which he is able to help.... He does not ask how far this or that life deserves sympathy... nor how far it is capable of feeling." We can’t stop all suffering, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop any. In today’s world of virtually unlimited choices, there are plenty of kind, gentle ways for us to feed, clothe, entertain, and educate ourselves that do not involve hurting and killing animals.
Aren’t you trying to tell other people what to do?
Everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion, but freedom of thought is not the same thing as freedom of action. You are free to believe what ever you want, as long as you don’t hurt others. You may believe that animals should be killed, that black people should be enslaved, or that women should be beaten, but you don’t always have the right to put your beliefs into practice. The very nature of reform movements is to tell others what we should stop doing—don’t use humans as slaves, don’t sexually harass women, etc.— and all movements initially encounter opposition from people who want to continue the criticized behavior.
Animals don’t reason, don’t understand rights, and don’t always respect our rights, so why should we apply our ideas of morality to them?
An animal’s inability to understand and adhere to human rules of conduct is as irrelevant as a child’s. Animals are not always able to choose to change their behaviors, but adult human beings have the intelligence and ability to choose between behaviors that hurt others and behaviors that do not hurt others. When given the choice, it makes sense to choose compassion.
How can you justify spending your time helping animals when there are human beings who need help?
It’s funny that football players or dry cleaners aren’t asked why they do what they do, even though there are humans that need help, but animal aid workers are! There are serious problems in the world that deserve our attention, and cruelty to animals is one of them. Helping animals is not any more or less important than helping human beings— they are both important and they are usually interconnected. Surely, everyone should be asked, "What are you doing to make this a kinder world in one way or the other?"
Animals are not as intelligent or as advanced as humans, so why can’t we use them?
Animals are intelligent in ways we are not, but possessing superior intelligence has never entitled one human to abuse another human, so why should it entitle humans to abuse nonhumans? Might does not make right. There are animals who are unquestionably more intelligent, creative, aware, communicative, and able to use language than some humans, as is the case when a parrot is compared to a human infant. Should the more intelligent animals have rights and the less intelligent humans be denied rights?
Excerpted from The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights by Ingrid Newkirk.
Copyright © 2009 by Ingrid Newkirk.
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.