It is striking to me that the rights and welfare of animals and protection of endangered species and their threatened habitats were never mentioned in all the various public, political debates I have heard in the U.S. Solutions to various environmental and related public health issues are deferred if jobs, increased tax revenues from new “developments” and the GNP are threatened. Appeals to protect wildlife and wilderness, save the last of the Asian elephants and Africa’s lions are made for our children’s sakes, not for animals’ or Nature’s sake. Yet indigenous wild animals and properly husbanded farmed animals are vital contributors to maintaining healthy ecosystems and biological cycles as well as contributing to the human economy and greater good.
We must therefore include animals in our politics and put them on the public agenda because of their many values and services to society ecologically, economically, emotionally and morally. Their moral value lies in our recognition and prohibition of animal cruelty and wanton annihilation of living beings and their communities because such actions are considered immoral. Animal welfare is the compass of our compassion. The same must be said concerning the wanton annihilation of trees and other wild plants whose many services and values include bio-fuels, food and medicines; and also the microorganisms in the soil and in our digestive systems that we harm to our detriment. Public health consequences and costs are considerable. Immorality in any form is unacceptable in civil society.
Conspicuous consumption’s underbelly of corporate hegemony and global military-industrial imperialism is sagging with its many industries that have contaminated our drinking water, the food we eat, the air we breathe and poisoned the rains, our brains, bodies, mothers’ milk and wombs with pesticides; created super-bugs with insecticides, killing the bees and butterflies; made super-weeds with herbicides that harm our own gut-gardens of beneficial bacteria in our intestines and spawned super-bacteria resistant to antibiotics that will soon surpass prior diseases of civilization such as cancer and heart disease in reducing our numbers, already far in excess of the Earth’s capacity to sustain. The causes and consequences of this expanding, pathogenic dystopia are self-evident, not hypothetical. Yet they have been ignored by governments and rationalized as the price of progress, but for the last of the old forest trees and indigenous peoples this means extinction.
I feel my life’s work and many writings* as a veterinarian, ethologist and bio-ethicist, dedicated to restoring the human animal bond and advocating mutually enhancing relationships between my own kind and the rest of the Earth community, seem pointless in these times where human rights and interests take precedence over all else for every good reason in the minds and hearts of most: Humans come first. I see no hope of significant progress until animal and environmental issues are put on the political agenda with the same level of public concern as human rights and interests.
I find it challenging to empathize with those afflicted, ruled and corrupted by the social and eco-pathologies of greed and indifference toward the ways we humans harm each other and the entire Earth community, aquatic and terrestrial to satisfy so many non-essential needs. What immediately come to mind are beef and tuna steaks, fast cars, mansions, private estates and public and tribal lands over-managed for recreational hunting and fishing and desert-making “livestock” ranches. Meanwhile, rising numbers of families and communities are descending into poverty, hunger, crime, drug addiction, violence, depression and teen-age suicide.
We may feel trapped in the cultural nihilism of unbridled capitalism, conspicuous consumption and addiction to fossil fuels compounded by non-sustainable population growth where escalating crises and chaos (ecological, climatic, political, social, financial and personal) assail us directly or indirectly every day. The biological deserts created by agri-industry are a testament to human ignorance and irreverence for life. These crises are all connected, in my opinion, to a fundamental lack of ethics, as I reason in my book Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. The denial of responsibility for the environment, our living world, for global warming and climate change and of the connection between the often cruel exploitation of animals and violence toward our own species imperils all.
Crimes against humanity and crimes against Nature, and acts of terrorism against innocent peoples and other animals are of the same currency of psychopathology variously rationalized on the grounds of necessity by the executioners. Various beliefs and denial in particular can inhibit empathy and lead to indifference toward others’ suffering and acceptance of their demise. The recent report by the World Wildlife Fund and Zoological Society of London shows that the world’s wildlife population has dropped by a staggering 58% since 1970, with the greatest decline (81%) in lakes and rivers. Also, considering the billion and more of our seven billion population suffering war, poverty and starvation and many indigenous cultures becoming extinct, we must either evolve and flourish or devolve and our humanity/virtue of being humane will perish.
Understanding the role of human-centered ideologies in the decline and fall of past civilizations and the genesis of terrorism may facilitate their renunciation and the adoption of Earth or Creation-centered values and responsible planetary care. From chauvinism arises the bigotry of sexism, racism and species-ism (regarding other animals as inferior) coupled with xenophobia and zoophobia. Disarming and disingenuous sympathy to cover up injustices and to preserve the status quo of exploitation and expropriation is a perversion of empathy and ethics. Disinformation, especially to discredit sound scientific evidence and to sow the seeds of discontent, coupled with control of the media and educational system ultimately corrupts not just government and the justice system but the collective ethos of the people. But we may yet evolve and become truly civilized, humane, living not by the rule of gold where absolute power corrupts absolutely, but by the Golden Rule, where the power of love is greater than the love of power. This translates into the equalitarianism of justice for all beings, social justice and environmental eco-justice being complementary, and establishing mutually enhancing relationships with each other and other species wild and domesticated.
The concept of One Health is gaining momentum as policy makers and civil society leaders, economists and healers alike see the connections between a healthy environment and a healthy populace and economy. As the organic farmers say, “take care of the land and your animals and they will take care of you.” One of the greatest mistakes of the dominant culture of mammon is to believe that the Earth is ours to exploit as we chose without regard for the other inhabitants because it is divinely ordained, or for the “greater good.” But in the final analysis, we and all life are interconnected and interdependent: one health, one economy and one Earth. This means planetary CPR (Conservation, Protection and Restoration), which is enlightened self-interest for the dominant species on this planet to prevent it from becoming a self-destructive infestation eternally at war with itself that no god or autocrat can prevent: Only we the people.
I find a glimmer of hope when I hear from many other people who are following the old dictum “Think global, act local.” Also trying to live lightly and as harmlessly as possible that others may simply live. We can all find ways to make a difference as responsible citizens in our various communities including: recycling and composting, turning our lawns into wildlife-friendly rain and kitchen gardens, implementing energy saving technologies and “green” energy alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear power; supporting organic and humane food producers and local cooperatives and implementing more effective laws and enforcement of same to protect the environment and animals wild and domestic in our communities and states. We and all life are interconnected and interdependent: One Health, One Environment and One Wealth.
Having studied and treated many species of non-humans, wild and domesticated, I see my own kind as “unfinished”, in part because it continues to change as it changes its environment: Man adapting to man. Right relationships and right-mindedness go hand in hand, leading to mutually enhancing symbioses. Our collective wrong-mindedness now imperils civilizations and planet Earth.
No community or culture can remain viable for long with such an arrogant and indifferent mind-set based on the objectification and unbridled exploitation of life, on materialism, reductionism and moral codes and laws disconnected from bioethics and spiritual values, especially respect for the sanctity of all life and a sense of the sacred.
Some of the consequences of this adversarial, anti-life mind-set highlighted by deploying indiscriminately, antibiotics (anti-bios/anti-life) and pesticides, has been the evolution of resistant “super-bugs” and super-weeds and a host of human illnesses, many being incurable. The biocidal and suicidal consequences of a culture embracing such bio-terrorism amount to Nature’s retributive justice and the nemesis of anthropocentrism.
Wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold long advocated the extermination of the wolf and other predators across the U.S. until he accepted the scientific evidence of the ecological value of predators and with this epiphany, advocated “the Land Ethic” in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There that include his Golden Rule of Ecology:
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Regrettably, sound scientific, empirical evidence of the intrinsic value of predators, the realities of climate change and hazards of petrochemicals cannot change attitudes set by values rarely examined and by vested interests that see such scientific evidence as subversive and threatening the status quo. So there must be public protest until there is appropriate policy change and legislation effectively enforced in accord with the Land Ethic and the lives of all living beings accorded equally fair consideration.
Our collective anthropocentrism, ranging from uninhibited procreation to unbridled consumption regardless of consequences, we are now paying for as our increasingly dysfunctional biospheric ecosystem and its climate adversely impact communities, economies, agriculture and public health. So researchers are genetically engineering crops to be drought and saline resistant, to produce insecticides and resist herbicidal sprays which enter our food-chain, and are developing new ways to treat cancer and other anthropogenic diseases. New therapies include bone-marrow transplants, cancer vaccines and therapeutic antibodies. Veterinarians are at the helm of some of the companies pioneering these new treatments. While these advances may save lives and are highly profitable for the biomedical industry, they will not prevent illness and suffering.
The costs of postponing effective bioremediation and outlawing hazardous pesticides and other agrichemicals and industrial pollutants that have had minimal, if any toxicity evaluation and which now contaminate our food, drinking water, the air we breathe and mothers’ milk and amniotic fluids will far outweigh the short-term, and very costly benefits of these new therapies. Furthermore, the greater the dissonance between the politics of public health and consumer protection and the practice of holistic, preventive medicine, the more dysfunctional the health care system becomes: Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis revisited!
Another major preventive health measure for companion animals, veterinary eugenics, has been long neglected. But it is at last gaining some traction as more diseases of hereditary origin and selection for extreme, abnormal physical traits are being recognized and correctives initiated from closing down high volume puppy and kitten breeding “mills” (where there is no progeny testing) to changing breed standards to reduce the severity of selected abnormalities. Genetic screening rather than invasive gene editing is integral to effective preventive medicine for both human and animal lineages, along with nutrigenomics: appropriate nutrition.
Emotional trauma in children and other animals, especially during critical and sensitive periods in development, can have adverse physical, immunological, psychological (cognitive and affective) consequences throughout life, calling for intervention when identified. Prevention calls for optimal nurturing, both physical and emotional, and recognition of the epigenetic, generational consequences of neglect and mistreatment. The most primal emotion of fear, especially associated with physical pain, helplessness and abandonment, awakened early in life, can permanently wound man and beast alike.
Like true altruism, enlightened anthropocentrism discards those values, beliefs and aspirations that cause harm to the environment and other living beings. The ethical and empathic compass of compassionate respect for all life should be activated as soon as children reach the age of reason and ability to feel for others. Keeping animals as in-home family companions is ethically acceptable when their catalytic presence awakens such sensibilities which a visit to the local zoo or animal circus more often blunts, leading to desensitization and acceptance of keeping animals in captivity for our entertainment.
Regular visits to a natural history museum, wildlife rehabilitation facility and structured time-out in the timeless presence of nature in protected and restored wildlife preserves can expand awareness and connectedness–antidotes to anthropocentrism and narcissism. Every child should also learn how other beings, plant and animal, contribute to health and beauty of the living Earth, and also how those whom they consume and wear were treated and what more humane and environmentally sustainable alternative choices they can make.
While the malleability of the human psyche facilitates adaptability and creativity, its vulnerability can be its nemesis. With rare aberrant genetic exception, the psyche of every human infant has the chimeric quality of becoming more or less angelic or demonic, and all grades between good and evil. Our chimeric nature allows for objective discrimination/discernment and can facilitate cultural diversity and creativity, but also lead to conflict and division where there is no unified sensibility in accord with the Golden Rule. Ideologies can function like genes, (mnemes), possibly a uniquely human capacity, influencing behavior and perception and spreading like a virus through the culture. Teaching every child the virtue of adhering to the Golden Rule may be our specie’s best hope for the future when that moral principle extends to embrace all sentient beings, though some may argue that this would not help arm them to face the real world where gold rules and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Natural, mutually enhancing (symbiotic) relationships are the foundation of functional and sustainable ecosystems and should be the template and praxis of any society and economy if they are ever to remain viable. These relationships are destroyed when natural ecosystems (polycultures rich in biodiversity) are supplanted by the monocultures of industrialized agro-forestry, commodity crop agriculture, plantations, aquaculture and farmed animal factories. The backlash (karma) of invasive weeds, insects and other pests, predators and diseases from these fragmented natural ecosystems mean ever more pesticides and other poisons and even genetic engineering being applied in the “war against nature and wildlife”.
Indeed, the last wave of global industrialism and its commoditization of the living Earth has all but exterminated indigenous cultures, tribes, habitats and species. So I retire in mourning but embrace the hope that this looming planetary apocalypse will awaken the light of understanding and redeem our species through concerted planetary CPR: Conservation, Preservation and Restoration. This is the template of sustainable, ecologically sound and humane organic agriculture. There is Natural Law, the basic principles of which any educated ecologist and observant naturalist can articulate. These principles every traditional, sustainable society sought to live by, understanding the consequences–nature’s retributive justice; eco-karma.
Public attitudes are changing as consumers seek organically certified food and products from humanely raised animals. Society questions various forms of animal exploitation and very soon we may no longer see or permit performing elephants and other wild species in circuses and orcas and dolphins in marine aquariums. But without concerted international support we may never see these and other endangered species ever again in the wild. The veterinary profession can do much to facilitate species’ conservation but needs to question the ownership and marketing of “exotic” pets and its pharmaceutical industry backed support of the non-sustainable, habitat-destroying and climate-changing livestock industry, especially its inhumane and disease-promoting concentrated animal feeding operations or animal factories.
Our humanity can be judged by how well we care for the natural environment and all our biological relations as it is defined by our respect for other animals, refined by their trust and often affirmed by their affection and as our protectors, rescuers, guides, co-workers, healers and devoted companions.
When we still the mind and open our hearts to feel for the Earth and all who dwell therein, we experience the suffering of all sentient beings under our collectively inhumane dominion. Their plight awaits our compassionate intervention in the name of loving kindness and justice. All beings have personhood, individualized sentience, a will to live and degrees of sapience which, in some sensory and cognitive as well as physical realms, often far surpass our own. When our hearts are open we also experience the miracles of life that are our primal source of joy, inspiration, communion, devotion and wisdom. When we care for the Earth we care for ourselves. When other animals are part of such a community of care and concern, we will be closer to enjoying a humane and sustainable society with respect and justice for all.
*For example see Agricide: The Hidden Farm and Food Crisis That Affects Us All. NY. Shocken Books, 1986 and Inhumane Society: The American Way of Exploiting Animals. NY St Martin’s Press 1990. The author is an Honor Roll member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, holds doctoral degrees in ethology/animal behavior and medicine from the University of London, England and writes the nationally syndicated Animal Doctor newspaper column with Universal Uclick. Website www.drfoxvet.net.