I am often asked what are the worst kinds of animal suffering in the world today? With some 30 years experience as a veterinarian and animal care advocate working in the US and in poor third world countries, I offer the following review. This will, I hope, encourage international efforts focusing on improving the human condition to also address animal concerns because Human Wellbeing depends on the integration of Animalcare with Earthcare and Peoplecare.
Animal health, environmental health, and public health are interwoven, but have been so neglected and disconnected that millions of people around the world are starving and diseased, along with their livestock, while on out of every four Americans become ill every year from food poisoning. Similar numbers are metabolically dis-eased (obese), have compromised immune systems, are dying from cancer, as are their companion dogs and cats.
A healthy population of domestic animals improves public health and the livestock-based economy. A healthy population of domestic animals also means fewer diseases being spread to wildlife, an aspect of conservation that is too often neglected, along with livestock invasion and livestock-keepers’ annihilation of indigenous predators like the tiger and the wolf, the Bushman and the lion.
This review on how animals suffer around the world for many of the same reasons that people do, will also help encourage donors, from both private and corporate and government sectors, to give more support to animal and environmental care and protection worldwide, and dispel the erroneous view that people must come first and that human well-being has no connection with animal care and environmental protection.
Animal suffering is a worldwide problem. Most of their suffering is associated with human poverty – insufficient resources to care for animals – as well as human ignorance, indifference, need and greed. Progress in animal welfare and protection, and ultimately liberation of animals from cruel domination and exploitation, entails greater public recognition of the worldwide plight of animals wild and domestic.
As we rank animal suffering in terms of severity, we must consider the duration of suffering, especially the deprivation of basic physical and psychological needs, chronic diseases, malnutrition and cruel methods of human domination and control.
In the wild, animal suffering is minimized by predation where carnivores kill and consume sick, aged and injured animals and help regulate herbivore numbers and prevent habitat destruction from overpopulation/overgrazing. But wildlife suffer from a host of human influences, from habitat encroachment and destruction, and fall victim to trapping, hunting, poisoning, and diseases spread from infected domestic animals who compete with wild herbivores for food and with wild carnivores for prey.
While the extinction process is being accelerated for wildlife by these and other anthropogenic factors, including global warming, agrichemical poisons and industrial pollution, the plight of domestic animals is no less pervasive around the world; and their suffering is more severe because their lives are not mercifully and swiftly ended by natural predators. Instead, their existence and suffering continue because of various human influences, be it the garbage that keep third world dogs and much livestock alive; and the antibiotics and vaccines that keep factory farmed livestock alive to grow quickly for slaughter.
First, I would rank third world street dogs, in terms of the sheer duration and degree of agony that the animals suffer, and in view of the numbers of animals so suffering. Millions are slowly eaten alive by mange, maggots, and internal parasites, and endure only so long as they can find enough food so that they do not die from starvation first, or before rabies or distemper puts an end to their lives.
Some of these common diseases that are easily prevented are frequently transmitted to humans, especially children. Consequently, dogs who are sick are often shunned, stoned, and clubbed. In order to control such zoonotic diseases, both sick and healthy free-roaming dogs are often poisoned by local authorities with strychnine, or are caught and killed with an injection of Epsom salts, or are electrocuted, drowned, or killed with engine exhaust fumes. Periodic dog roundups and the killing of dogs, many of whom are owned and valued by the community, cause much anguish especially to children who witness the mass dog massacres. In the absence of spay, neuter and vaccination programs, these mass dog killings must be repeated at regular intervals as the dog population increases.
Second, I would rank the plight of the beasts of burden in the third world – the goaded and overburdened donkeys, bullocks (oxen), ponies, horses, camels, lamas, and water buffalo. Veterinary services are either too costly, or not available when needed for most of these poor creatures, who, if too ill or crippled and malnourished to work any more, are simply abandoned to fend for themselves.
I would rank in Third place all the billions of livestock in the third world who suffer seasonal starvation, die from thirst, and from the many diseases that they too often spread to wildlife with devastating consequences. The suffering of cattle, buffalo, goats and sheep is aggravated by chronic overgrazing and lack of adequate feed and veterinary care in most developing countries, and especially for the “sacred” cows of India where the religious taboo against slaughter means slow death from malnutrition and disease for millions of discarded, nonproductive cattle.
I would put in Fourth place all caged, chained and confined animals, no matter how ‘well fed’ and ‘kept clean’ they might be.
These include the billions horrendously confined and overcrowded animals in factory farms being raised for their eggs, flesh, fur, and for their offsprings’ own milk, and for various medical products (like pregnant mare urine and bile from bears in China). In this fourth rank are all creatures who spend their lives incarcerated in small zoo and circus enclosures and cages, or spend a life in chains like the working and temple elephants, who have been beaten until their spirits are broken into obedience. Also in fourth place I put the millions of animals – mice, rabbits, monkeys, cats, dogs and many other deprived species – who live their entire lives in small cages and are bred and used in often unnecessary and painful medical and military research experiments, and in commercial product safety tests.
Fifth in the suffering rank are various wild animals that humans kill, like those who are trapped for their fur; who are shot and only too often not quickly killed by non-subsistence “sports” and trophy hunters, and those like the coyote and the panther are poisoned or killed by other cruel means by government and private agents.
Sixth in rank of suffering are the confined “pets” of the affluent sectors of first and third world countries, from guinea pigs and rabbits to parrots and parakeets, who are too often deprived of any contact with their own kind, and are forced to live in small cages for most, if not all, of their lives.
There are many other human uses and abuses of animals, from horse and greyhound racing and bull fighting and dog and cock fighting, to animal circuses and “canned” trophy hunting, that can be added to the above holocaust list and categorization in terms of severity of suffering. The justification/rationalization of human need, be it economic, scientific-medical, or emotional and social/traditional, for the continued exploitation and suffering of animals, be it long- or short-term, must be examined from a bioethical perspective. From this perspective, we ask is it necessary, is it avoidable, and are there alternatives to satisfy our needs and wants that will eliminate or minimize the suffering of animals?
The fatalistic acceptance of animal suffering in poor countries is linked with the hopelessness of people, often oppressed, living in abject poverty. The politics of animal welfare and liberation, and wildlife conservation, are closely tied to the human condition. Human overpopulation and poverty are only part of the problem. Corruption and misappropriation of funds and other resources to help people and animals are major factors that many governments and non-government organizations continue to deny or discount, and blame all on human poverty and overpopulation, which is used as a scapegoat.
Our perception of animals determines how we treat them and whether they suffer under our dominion or not. Behind our perception and treatment of animals lie our needs, wants, values, and cultural and religious traditions. Until these are addressed, and our perception changed so that there is empathy, respect and communion to end the holocaust of the animal kingdom and the annihilation of the natural world, then the demise of what we thought to be a civilized society will be certain. Already bankrupt spiritually, the values of consumerism and materialism have brought us to the brink of catastrophic climate change with the destruction of rainforests to make kitchen floors and cabinets, the over-fishing of the seas, the poisoning of the air and water, and the unhealthy foods and diets that bankrupt the health care system.
Those qualities or virtues that makes us human – humility, compassion and selfless benevolence – will not be crushed by the arrogance, ignorance and selfishness of this epoch when all who love trees and fellow creatures rise up and wise up the politicians, the law makers and enforcers, and all the educators and managers and keepers and users of animals and the natural environment. Reverential respect for all life is enlightened self-interest.