Thou shall not harm the animals.

The shades of animal abuse

Krzysztof Kałużny, London School of Economics

In the times of coronavirus, people, depending on their whereabouts, have to practice social distancing and isolation. In Poland, those who return from abroad or had contact with an infected person are obliged not to leave their house under no condition. However, some people seem to be unable to force themselves for the sake of the overall public good. Meanwhile, foxes and raccoon dogs raised for fur spend their whole life in 0,6 m2 cage while minks have only 0.225 m2 for themselves. People think it is appropriate to keep the animals caged, degraded and subjected to the way worse form of living than the one we cannot stand for a few weeks.

 

Diffusion of humanity - the duplicity of morality

The term ‘animal abuse’ is ambiguous. Society has culturally and socially sanctioned some actions that harm animals, yet the vast majority does not perceive it as abuse. That is why, it is usually defined as socially unacceptable behaviour, which deliberately causes unnecessary pain, anguish, unease or death of an animal. The textbook examples of torturing cats, starving dogs or drowning unwanted litter wrapped in a plastic bag could be listed here. However, animal abuse goes way beyond these. 

 

Meat and fashion industry or animal testing remains in people’s consciousness as the unavoidable price for commodities. Corridas are widely accepted, mostly because of tourists, while ritual slaughter thrives within some religious groups. Milk cows are not living happily on vast meadows as portrayed in the dairy campaigns. For the milk for breakfast, cows suffer gruesome anguish which circles from artificial insemination to be separated from their offsprings until they cannot produce enough milk and are sent to slaughterhouses. 

 

Animal abuse has no nationality, and various laws will not change the fact that humans feel entitled to use other creatures for their benefit. It is one of the areas where the western post-colonial mindset is still visible as it presents this ‘culture’ as superior. We dread that our beloved cats and dogs are eaten in Asian countries, but we have no problem with a piece of a pig on our plate, forgetting, willingly or not, that it used to be a being, as smart as a 3 years old child. 

 

Hierarchy of empathy

Everyone has a code of ethics towards animals. On top of the hierarchy are domesticated animals that we treat as family members and weep once they are gone. As Milan Kundera described the relationship between the protagonist and her dog in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ - ‘It is completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; She did not ever ask him to love her back.’ Yet, in the face of COVID-19, many people around the world abandoned their beloved pets in fear of them contracting the disease, even though nothing like that was scientifically proven. 

 

Moving down the hierarchy, there are mammals that some people consume, while others decide to limit their diets to poultry or fish. That is how we tend to distance ourselves by drawing a line in our consciousness which defines what is not similar enough to homo sapiens, what then to some extent constitutes justification to eat it. Still, the carnivores somehow care about ‘humane’ slaughter of mammals. After all, we do belong to the same division, but it also means ‘forgetting’ about other groups. How many people do actually care whether the crustaceans are boiled alive or torn apart in a fancy restaurant? Or, in fact, think about it at all? Although the hierarchisation also varies across the cultures and religion with the Polish culture being influenced by a mixture of the Sarmatian haunting tradition and the question, whether the animals go to heaven (the pope actually says they do). Nevertheless, humans do not let go of their status quo so easily, so we keep playing god, deciding which species we love, which we eat and which we experiment on. 

 

Fur(ther) agony

There is no ethical industry that uses animals on a massive scale. The animals are used as an input to make money, while the conditions they are kept in are worsened to reduce the production costs. Similarly to cheap clothes made in unethical and ‘un-eco-friendly’ conditions, that is the real price of cheap eggs and meat in supermarkets. However, the animal ‘employees’ have no control over their lives. To change anything, we need a shift in people’s mindsets. Here comes the example of the other livestock industry - fur. 

 

The culture of wearing extravagant furs is mainly associated with a higher class or bourgeoisie. However, the increasing number of the middle-class, that took over the main consumer group, perceives fur as something superfluous has resulted in the hugely lowered demand for fur in Europe and the US. Now, one of the cruellest industries seems to be slowly dying also thanks to many countries banning or restricting the raising of animals for fur. Poland is yet to join them, but economically it is not an easy task. This is only the tip of an iceberg as other industries are thriving better than ever as the Asian demand for meat and animal products increases with their constant GDP rise.

 

In Poland, there are some non-profit organisations trying to raise the voice for the voiceless. Otwarte Klatki (literally ‘Open Cages’) has been advocating for animals for years by not necessarily presenting the extreme solutions like PETA, but attempting to secure fundamental rights so that animals can live in the minimum dignity and not be degraded to products. Before Easter, they remind consumers not to buy eggs (part of Polish tradition) which code starts with number ‘3’ meaning that hens were kept in small cages with their beaks cut off so they do not peck each other. Their main goal is then to start with the work at the grassroots - to educate the Poles and bring a glimpse of awareness to the consumerist lifestyle where we forgot to respect mother nature and her children.

 

My objective was not to guilt-trip anyone nor present a vegan manifesto of some sort. I genuinely believe the international crisis we found ourselves in is the best moment to reevaluate our lives and stop competing in this self-centred race of humanity as we started to lose the sense of what being human is all about. We accept suffering and deaths of animals that do not have to take place anymore due to the civilisation development. The same development, that by many, is still associated with the ‘necessary suffering’ in the name of profit. In a great act of shared responsibility for this planet and for future generations, some try to save and restore the population of endangered species, others rescue koalas from bushfires, while others simply start with small steps, reducing meat and dairy consumption [Read more in here].

 

But is it possible to talk about loving and caring for animals when we accept or ignore the cruelty happening behind closed doors of slaughterhouses? As Sir Paul McCartney said, ‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarians.’