Several years ago in my lectures I would use the term ‘animal-deprivation syndrome’, to describe a condition of insensitivity and indifference toward animals that was acquired in early childhood. Today I regard this condition as an impaired sensitivity toward animals that may or may not be caused by a child being deprived of any meaningful contact with animals, since other factors are involved in the genesis of this animal-insensitivity syndrome. It is a cognitive and affective developmental disorder that I see as part of a larger problem of insensitivity and indifference to the Earth.
Ethical blindness that comes from a lack of empathy with other living systems and beings is linked with a lack of respect and understanding that when we harm animals and the Earth, we harm ourselves, especially in our production of food and fiber, and indirectly in our dietary choices, consumer habits and life styles.
We harm animals by destroying their natural habitats, and in making them suffer so that we may find new and profitable ways to cure our many diseases. The actual prevention of disease is in another domain based on an entirely different currency from what is still the norm in these sickening times. The currency of unbridled exploitation and destruction of natural resources and ecosystems, and the wholesale commercial exploitation of animals, cannot continue because it is not sustainable. One of the greatest sicknesses is the proliferation of factory livestock farms—the intensive confinement systems that are stressful to the animals, promote disease, are environmentally damaging and also put consumers at risk.
These animal concentration camps of the meat, dairy and poultry industries will only be phased out when there is greater consumer demand for organic, humane, and ecologically sustainable animal produce for human and companion animal consumption.
So I was heartened to see that author Richard Louv has written a book entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books). This is the flip side of the coin that shows ‘Heads, Nature, Tails, Animals.’ Both are in our hands, for better or for worse.
In the common currency of compassion and respect, our transactions and relationships with each other, with other animals, and the Earth or natural world, are framed within the Golden Rule*, where gold alone does not rule. This currency includes such ancient coins of wisdom as altruism, that is, enlightened selfishness; ahimsa, Sanskrit for not harming in any way, and karma, having prescience and understanding that what goes around, comes around: All our choices and actions have consequences.
Sustainable rates of exchange are based on mutual aid, a point emphasized by Russian Count Peter Kropotkin, who envisioned the ideal human community like a functioning ecosystem of inter-dependent, democratically integrated individuals and species creating a mutually enhancing, symbiotic, micro and macro communities that he discovered in his studies of the co-evolved flora and fauna of the vast wild Steppes of his native land. (Finding no dictatorial hierarchy in Nature he coined the term “an-archy”, which now has negative societal associations and which I would instead term Holarchy).
Nature Deficit Disorder leads ultimately to regarding and treating the living Earth as a non-living resource, just as the Animal-Insensitivity Syndrome can lead to animals being treated with out feeling, as mere objects. Insensitive, indifferent, and cruel contact and experiences with animals during the early years, probably a critical sensitization/desensitization developmental stage or period between 18-36 months of age, can mean a poorly developed and extremely self-limiting capacity to empathize with others, to be able to recognize, anticipate, experience and share other’s feelings, and to express and deeply consider one’s own. Adult rationalization, denial and ethical blindness are rooted in early childhood conditioning and desensitization leading to acceptance and eventual participation in many forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. This is vividly documented by British hunt saboteur Mike Huskisson showing children witnessing deer and fox hunting and being ritualistically “bloodied” and receiving parts of the murdered animals to take home either to eat or as prized trophies, mementoes of their presence at the kill. (See his book Outfoxed: Take Two; Hunting the Hunters and Other Work for Animals, published by Animal Welfare Information Service, www.acigawis.org.uk).
In some countries such as India where I have worked with my wife Deanna Krantz, we have both witnessed how people simply turn a blind eye to the suffering animal and the polluted stream because they themselves are struggling to survive. Individuals who feel helpless become resigned fatalists, or are either lazy, too busy, desensitized, or too blind to lift a finger to try to make a difference. In some contexts intervention to help a suffering animal, or to stop a stream from being poisoned by a tannery or a slaughterhouse, could mean death threats and violence. (For details see our book India’s Animals: Helping the Sacred and the Suffering, Create Space books, Amazon.com). Observing another’s suffering, and being unable to do anything to help, leads to learned helplessness. Seeing other’s suffering, and being indifferent about it, is the next step toward the total disconnect of empathy, termed bystander apathy. The next step is to observe and derive vicarious pleasure in witnessing another’s plight. (see “Ways of Seeing: Animals in Life and Art”. pp. 168-174 in Animals & Nature First by Dr. Michael W. Fox. Create Space books, Amazon.com). This is but one small step away from deliberate torture and calculated cruelty either perpetrated alone, or in participation with others as in the name of entertainment, sport, quasi-religious or cult ritual, and as some see it, experimental vivisection.
Why does it matter if animals must be made to suffer and die, and the natural environment be obliterated, so long as human needs and wants are satisfied? For many people it obviously does not matter, even when their values and actions harm those who do care and who feel that it does matter; and that it is morally wrong to harm and kill animals and destroy the natural environment. The ethics of compassion and ahimsa mandate that we find the least harmful ways to satisfy our basic needs, and relinquish those wants, appetites, and desires that cause more harm than good. Such renunciation is seen by some as the only hope for humanity and for our sanity: To live simply so that others may simply live.
Animal suffering matters because it is a matter of conscience. Deliberate cruelty toward animals and acceptance and indifference toward their plight is unconscionable; a zoopathic state of mind. This parallels the behavior, and cognitive and affective impairment, of the sociopath, and of the ‘ecopath’ who has no twinge of conscience over the destruction of the natural environment. Where there is a lack of empathy, of feeling for others, there can be neither concern nor conscience.
Becoming desensitized to animal suffering and then treating animals as mere things, as objects devoid of sentience, is part of the same currency as treating fellow humans as objects rather than as subjects. Such dehumanization, coupled with demonization, can lead to genocide, and more commonly to ‘speciesicide.’ This is the annihilation of animal species and their communities that are perceived as a threat. Our attitudes toward other animals, degree of ethical concern and moral consideration can mirror our regard for each other, for better or for worse. When collectively, our hearts and minds are open to the tragedy of reality and we really see and feel all that is going on around us, empathizing fully with other’s suffering, times will begin to change for the better.
The antidotes are many. Those in Richard Louv’s book should be coupled with meaningful contact with companion and other animals, with parental supervision and humane instruction to foster respect, self-restraint, gentleness, patient observation, and understanding.
I published the following letter in my syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor ( July 11th 2017) from a mother whose son demonstrated empathic concern for animals at an early age:
Dear Dr. Fox. I read your recent column about the need to bring more environmental and humane education into schools and applaud the efforts of your daughter Camilla with Project Coyote, and others who are doing this. I work for Pro Animale in Germany whose book Memento you recently reviewed, and I want to share this about my son’s natural empathy toward animals which was quite independent of any influences from me during his early years.
Since he started talking when he was only 2 years old I could tell that he has had a very special sense and empathy for animals and their feelings and needs. When he once saw a just hatched chick in an incubator at a fair, he did not say “how cute”, he immediately looked concerned and said it looks for its mother we need to find her. In a wildlife park he saw two raccoons in an enclosure sitting by the fence and said they look sad and do not want to be fenced in but free. When we were on a boat ride to see seals on a sandbank the tour operators suddenly let a net down on the bottom of the sea and fished out crabs and other creatures from there to show to the people and tell them about them. Yukon, 3 years old then, got really mad at the seamen and told them to let the crabs immediately back into the water, because they do not want to be taken out. Unfortunately we were not heard by the seamen even when I said that it is very harmful in general for the creatures on the bottom of the sea when they let a net down every time they have a boat ride to the sandbanks. They did not understand because they thought since they put the creatures they fished out in a tank with water and later back into the sea, that is was okay. When one person said to Yukon “look at these interesting animals in the tank”, Yukon responded “I look at the animals who are in the sea where they want to be” and looked down into the water where he couldn’t see any animals but I think he imagined seeing them there. I was so amazed how a three year old can be more understanding of animals and their needs than grown up people. I am sure you can tell I am very proud of him.
S.B., Sennfeld, Bavaria, Germany.
DEAR S.B. I am sure that many parents reading your letter will have had similar experiences with their young children’s reactions to animals affirming my contention that they have a natural affinity for fellow creatures which is the foundation for empathy and compassion as they mature. But cultural norms with regard to accepted treatments of animals and the attitudes and reactions of adults can either facilitate or inhibit the development of empathy, which some regard as being a sissy and not facing reality. Indeed empathy can be a burden especially when not supported by others and when not expressed in appropriate action or choice.
Your son reminds me of my younger daughter Mara who, around the same age as Yukon, said that she was going to friends at Thanksgiving to eat turkey. Her stepmother and I asked her if she knew what the word turkey meant. Since she did not know, we gently told her that “turkey” was a bird. Her immediate response was one of shock and she exclaimed that she would never eat a bird or any animal. She later told us that at the gathering she refused to eat any turkey but was told that it was Ok because the farmer had killed the bird. From that time on, with no prompting from us, she decided to become a vegetarian. My other two children Camilla and Mike Jr. decided at a later age to become vegan for ethical, humane and environmental reasons.
In sum, all children, with rare exception, have the capacity to identify with and show empathy toward others, the absence of which has been linked to a lack of conscience, feeling for others, dissociation and sociopathic behaviors in later life. It is an attribute best guided by example and enabling the child to make informed choices and to share and question openly, without ridicule, how they feel about animals and how they think they should be treated. For more details see the seminal book by my former graduate student Dr. Randall Lockwood, co-authored with Frank K. Ascione. Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence published by Purdue University Press.1998.
A child’s sense of wonder, if it is nurtured and is not crushed or left to wither, blossoms into the adult sense of the sacred; an ethical sensibility of respect for the sanctity of each and every life. Such sensibility is invaluable in difficult times as in these, where we see so much abuse of life and irreverent treatment of other beings with whom we share the kinship of sentience and of genetic ancestry.
A child’s sense of curiosity leads to natural science and instrumental knowledge. Combined with a sense of wonder, curiosity leads to imagination and creativity, while the sense of the sacred is the foundation for an ethical and just society, and empathetic, caring and fulfilling relationships, human and non-human. This empathy-based bioethical and moral sensibility that gives equally fair consideration to all members of the biotic community, human and non-human, plant and animal, is an ideal that may yet become a reality, provided the potential for such development is properly nurtured, and reinforced by example, in early childhood.
Young children must be informed as to why it is in everyone’s best interests to care for all animals and the environment; and what they can do to help. My old friend Jane Goodall has set up environmental and humane education programs (https://www.rootsandshoots.org) in many schools around the world, as have others concerned about animals and the natural environment. These include the National Humane Education Society (https://nhes.org/education-2); my daughter Camilla Fox’s Project Coyote (http://www.projectcoyote.org/programs/keeping-it-wild/ ) and another of my former graduate students Prof. Marc Bekoff (see Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence).
All educators need to engage young minds with these concerns (involvement is evolvement) and sow seeds of hope for their own good and for the revolution in planetary consciousness, conscience and conservation. . Wisdom speaks when we listen with our hearts as when we enter a forest and the forest enters us and when we empathize with other creatures great and small.
Children ought to learn that every life matters; animals and plants have natural purposes and therefore extrinsic as well as intrinsic value as well as a will to live. Understanding that some of these purposes (and wills) such as predation, living by killing others for food and also food territory and mates are natural and necessary for the greater good of the animal and plant communities. But in such natural acts of killing there is no justification for humans to act in similar ways in their everyday lives.
Children will be enthralled to discover how so many animals, plants and microorganisms benefit each other and us, from pollinating honey bees and rain-gathering forests to the good bacteria in the soil and in our guts without whom we cannot live. There is a wealth of educational materials to help children understand how similar and often identical our basic needs and feelings are to those of many other animal species, notably how they too can show fear, experience anxiety, anticipation, grief; exhibit empathy and altruism; express pleasure in social greeting and care-giving; evidence joy, self-restraint and creative imagination while engaging in play. Many have physical and sensory attributes from speed, strength and survival skills, to sonar echo-location and celestial navigation abilities which put a big question on the notion of human “superiority”. Such knowledge can deepen respect and appreciation for other living beings especially when coupled with learning how animals have benefitted humanity in a myriad ways since the beginning of recorded history and continue to do so today even as our companions, teachers and healers.
This brings in the question of human choices, ethical decision making and how best to direct our relative freedom of will and impulses to avoid harming others like predators, parasites and invasive and infectious organisms. Such analogous behaviors we see on occasion in our own species still ruled by anthropocentrism and mislead by chauvinistic and other prejudicial, even genocidal ideologies and societies. We can also examine our own assumed rights, entitlements and cultural traditions against those within our communities and beyond. Is there more or less accord or more conflict arising from our lack of family planning around the world with a rising population with an insatiable demand for meat, fish and other foods from animals on the one hand while millions of others are landless and starving.
To shield children from such realities “until they are old enough to understand” is a form of denial and obfuscation that I have confronted in giving talks to school children who, from middle-school on should be encouraged and guided into this realm of human existence and ultimate responsibility
Like our physical health, our mental health and Earth health are deeply interconnected. For us to be whole in body, mind and spirit, our connections with each other in our communities and cultures and beyond with animals and the earth must be properly established in early childhood in order to prevent the harmful consequences of the Nature Deficit Disorder and Animal-Insensitivity Syndrome. Our collective inertia over doing anything constructive to address such critical issues as human population growth, over-consumption, pollution, global warming, and the plight of animals domestic and wild, will then become something of the past. Then initiatives, local and international, to promote planetary CPR—conservation, preservation, and restoration, —and to promote the humane treatment of animals, will become a reality, because, in the final analysis, it is in our best interests to do so.
When we harm animals and the Earth, we harm ourselves, and the generations to come will all suffer the consequences of our actions and inaction. As the Iroquois Confederacy advised, the good of the life community mandates that we think seven generations ahead, and seven generations back. This translates into the bioethical consideration of consequences, and in practice means that those who do not learn from the mistakes of their ancestors shall live only to repeat them.
* This Rule, embraced by all world religions, is to treat others as we would have them treat us.