The Sliding Scale of Animals as Our Equals: Which Are Pets, Livestock or Neither?



andrew campbell
Andrew Campbell

A number of years ago, one of the first farm meetings I attended as a young radio reporter on the agriculture beat had a speaker talking on a subject that few farmers had considered. It was on what role activism would play in food production down the road, and how farmers could react.

At the time, these activists were slowly becoming the well-funded, well-organized machines they are today. In that talk by Crystal Mackay, now Executive Director of Farm & Food Care – Ontario, she made an important point about animal rights versus animal welfare and that each animal in our mind likely fits on a different spot on that spectrum. For instance, your pet dog likely fits closer to the side of animal rights, where we believe they should have every good fortune we as humans have. On the other side is likely something along the lines of a shrimp, something we don’t consider to have feelings yet is still a living, breathing creature. In the middle, are cows, sheep, chickens and pigs, and each of us has different feelings about how they should be treated. Some marching the streets in protest of milk production believe cows should be protected from a number of on-farm practices they’d call cruel, but others deem acceptable. Most farmers, I think, sit on the side of believing in animal welfare — the animal should be treated well but ultimately have a purpose of serving the needs of society to supply us with nutrition.

Thinking of that scale, where would you put a tuna fish compared to a dog, or a sparrow compared to a giraffe? Where we put that giraffe is an interesting case study in humanizing animals. The Copenhagen Zoo is facing backlash on their recent decision to shoot a giraffe (necessary, the zoo said, to prevent inbreeding) and then invite the public to witness it being dissected and fed to the residing lion pack.

So where, on the scale of animal rights and welfare, does this giraffe fit compared to the frogs that get dissected in hundreds of high schools every year all across the country?

Hearing the initial reactions on the news (there were death threats) certainly didn’t paint a flattering picture. Every story made it clear the giraffe was healthy and that children were present for the dissection. (Even though in many reports, the far more aggressive words butchered or slaughtered were used). Every angle appeared to question why something like this — a healthy animal being put down or children being present at a dissection — should be allowed. Very few stories pointed out the children were there because their parents brought them after learning the dissection was going to take place. The dissection wasn’t a surprise to visitors; it was a lesson in biology. So where, on the scale of animal rights and welfare, does this giraffe fit compared to the frogs that get dissected in hundreds of high schools every year all across the country?

To think that this is the first zoo mammal to be put down because of reasons like preventing inbreeding would fall under the category of “head in the sand.” But what is even more fascinating is the reaction of shock in Britain and North America, compared to the zoo’s home country of Denmark.

A very interesting perspective is from a journalist in Copenhagen that appeared on a CBC radio talk show describing the “pragmatic Danes” as quite bewildered by the world’s apparent dismay. The country seems to question what has people up in arms? Are people upset at reading their morning paper that a giraffe was killed while they enjoy a side of bacon? Is the outrage that the giraffe was fed to lions, when if the giraffe wasn’t there it would likely be substituted for a rack of pork ribs or a side of beef? Or are people stunned that onlookers were allowed to witness a dissection, at their own free will, to learn about the anatomy of an animal?

But the reality is that animals don’t have the same cognitive capacity to understand the emotions that we do

In that same radio talk show, Robert Young, an animal behaviourist spoke about the changing tides in our feeling of animals and their purpose. We as citizens tend to believe, or at least want to believe, that animals share the same emotions as we do. It is easy for us to think that because our brain is programed to relate and compare to our own experiences. But the reality, as Young put it, is that animals don’t have the same cognitive capacity to understand the emotions that we do. He notes that an animal doesn’t understand that it will die or what death means, but in North America we tend to fear death, and therefore believe that animals fear it as well.

And he makes an even more important point in an effort to help people understand the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. Animal welfare, and the way the Danes appear to feel about this case of the giraffe, is that animals need to be treated well when they live and then when they are killed it needs to be done as quickly and as painlessly as possible. This is usually done either by killing after an animal is unconscious; or by the use, in the case of the giraffe, of a single lethal bolt to the brain.

It also highlights cultural differences around the globe when thinking about animals. Some cultures, like ours, treasure dogs, cats and horses, while in other parts of the world they are served as a meat dish. In North America we enjoy beef and pork while other cultures steer clear. Does that make one culture inferior, or is it actually as simple as just being different and accepting that?

My take, as a farmer with cows and as an avid meat eater, is that we shouldn’t feel guilty about our choices or be guilted into changing our values or way of life. If an animal is well cared for and given all their requirements to live a productive life, then it is OK that that animal be used for our benefit. A cow or a chicken for our nourishment, a dog or a cat for companionship, a giraffe or an elephant for our curiosity in animal life while gaining a better understanding of the natural balance of an ecosystem.

If others feel differently and choose not to have a steak or support the zoo by visiting it, then that is their choice. But the idea that meat eaters or a parent taking their child to an animal dissection is somehow obscene and callous is a short-sighted view in how animals and humans can co-exist, and more importantly how different culture hold difference values on the matter.

Instead, let’s ensure that scientists like Young get the chance to continue studying animals so we know how best to care for them, while we move on to more productive debates.

Animals deserve our respect, yes,  but don’t feel guilty about putting that steak on the barbeque this summer. I won’t.

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