At some point in our history, an unlikely relationship was established between human beings and wolves. For the longest time those two species had been enemies in the field, mostly with humans as the prey. It is impossible to determine when the first wolf was tamed, but this event, like many others in human history, set a milestone in our ancient past. Ever since, human beings did not consider other species exclusively as enemies or prey anymore. Instead, they were also regarded as potential companions and useful helpers. Man learned to make the living beings around them adapt to their needs. The results are obvious today: Dogs, as our oldest companions, have been so well bred in accordance to human needs, that they will willingly obey any order given by their owner, going as far as sacrificing their lives in a fight for the sake of the human being. Cows produce up to 50 liters of milk every day and hens produce up to 300 eggs a year – an amount unreached in nature. Pigs have grown to enormous dimensions, serving as living meat factories. Horses, as proud as they might be in the wild, willingly jump over obstacles or prance around with braided tails if their owners want them to.
Could we live without domesticated animals?
Human beings have grown very fond of their domesticated animals – and very dependent. With vegetarians being a very small minority in Western societies, most members of our species take killing animals for food as granted. Leather and fur, or in other words the skin of another animal, is commonly used for shoes, clothes, wallets, purses, hats, etc. The story is similar for wool of course, even though the sheep at least don’t have to die when their hair is taken. Milk and eggs are part of the diet of most human beings. Even though heavy machinery is plowing our fields, in many parts of the world horses and cattle are still inevitable for agriculture. Dogs often provide necessary protection against animals or other human beings. The bottom line is that if George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” actually became reality and mankind had to deal with its problems without the help of its domesticated animals, human beings would be in big trouble. What would we eat? What would we wear? Who would protect us?
In addition, human beings have reached a state where animals mean much more to them than sheer survival. Homo sapiens have surrounded themselves with other species for so long that today it goes not only without saying that we use animals for essential needs but also for our entertainment. We don’t need pets to survive and still they have become so valuable to us. We love our dogs, cats, hamsters, horses, rabbits, pigeons, etc. After all, our species is a social one and individuals don’t want to be alone. We do not only try to find comfort in relations with our own kind, but also in relations with other living beings. Animals are important for us on a physical and emotional level – no doubt about it. The question is: Regarding that very importance and the dignity of our fury friends, do we treat them in a way they deserve?
You put your pets in prisons, so at least treat them right!
Uncountable numbers of various pets have to suffer and die in animal shelters all around the world every day. They were not born for animal shelters of course but they ended up there because of their reckless former owners. Pets are bought easily without thinking it through. If you purchase an animal, you are going to put it behind bars or glass or on a leash. The least you can do is try to make its life as comfortable as possible. People laugh when they see little Darla shaking a fish in a bag, yelling “Wake up fishy!” in the Pixar movie “Finding Nemo”. It is not hard to find videos online of little hamsters laughed at as they are struggling for their lives in a bowl of water. Families enjoy their time at a circus where captive animals perform moves and tricks so unnatural and dreadful to them that the only force making them obey is their fear of getting punished. Staged fights between dogs, roosters, or other animals are the climax of human perversion when it comes to using animals as entertainment.
Except the last example, people probably don’t even mean to be consciously involved in an act that makes an animal suffer. They behave the way they do just because they are reckless, ignorant, and selfish. We might laugh at little Darla, but the truth is that fish in most aquariums around the world suffer. Being silent as they are, they cannot shout out for help in discomfort – but one thing is for sure: They do suffer and they do feel pain. Fish have needs – just as we do – and fish have desires as well. If you decide to get your own tank, make the effort and learn something about the species you want to add. What do they eat? How much space do they need? Do they need companions? What are the appropriate parameters for the water? You don’t want to be locked up in a tiny cage at 5°C either, with low oxygen levels and surrounded by cows, dogs, and wild beasts.
A small part of my aquarium
Of course one could say: “What is all the fuss about? They are only fish!” Yes, it is only fish, or only cows, or only mice. The problem with this mindset is a bigger one. Human beings destroy their environment with an ever increasing pace just because they have no respect for nature and other living beings. People can justify it if they want, but such an attitude is as selfish as it is inhumane. Indigenous people could teach us what it means to live in peace with nature – but we disregard them as being not civilized. It is this lack of respect for other living beings that can easily be exploited within the human species. People could try to learn about fish and understand how horrible it is to be pulled out of the water on a hook that is pierced through your upper jaw – but they choose not to. A turtle might look funny for some when it is put on its back, but the poor thing is probably scared to death. Circus animals are beaten up brutally and held under horrible conditions – and people call this family entertainment. Comparably, many crimes of the past could not have been committed if the perpetrator viewed their victims as living things that felt and thought just like they did. The most horrible crimes are committed when other groups are “dehumanized” and when they are not considered as equals. People draw a line and everyone beyond that line doesn’t have the same rights and doesn’t deserve the same treatment. The Jews during World War II, the Indians and natives in America, the slaves in Egypt, or the inmates at Guantanamo – they all share that they were degraded in a way that people who committed crimes against them didn’t even have to feel bad or guilty. In both cases, within our species and beyond, it is possible to learn how the other side might feel and how we are causing suffering and injustice. Choosing to ignore such insights is cowardly – and a confession of failure of empathy, the one trait that is supposed to differentiate us from the other animals.
If people take away the freedom from another animal and trap it in their homes, they should do the right thing and ask themselves “What is best for the animal?” rather than “What is best for me?”. Pets are living beings with feelings and emotions similar to ours. People cannot meet their needs without the effort to understand their natural background and their most natural needs. Just because the owners think that something is cute or adorable, it doesn’t mean the animal agrees. Helpless as it is under most circumstances, it has no choice. If people really love their pets, they are going to think it through twice if they can provide whatever it is the animal needs on the long run. Such non-human friends depend on us – we should accept the responsibility and treat them the best we can.
Would you have your hamster for lunch and your dog for dinner?
Many people actually do try to create a natural and comfortable environment for their pets. They do not only view the animal as an add-on, but rather as a part of the family. Such owners make an effort to take their pets to the vet whenever something seems to be wrong; they establish emotional ties with their furry friends; and they cry when their companion dies. Even if you just lose an animal as small as a hamster, as we just did, it is no shame to cry. It shows that you actually felt for your little friend and that he might have had the place in your heart that he deserved. It is wishful thinking that all animals will be treated in a way they deserve, but every single person can make the difference for their own pet.
Cricket in his hamster palace
One thing, however, that I find absolutely striking is how such people who take care of their pets so well can view the suffering of other animals in a completely different way. If they were consistent, they would be vegetarians. After all, they established emotional ties with their animals because they know that they can feel and think as well. How is it then that they stand by with total indifference when it comes to the suffering of cows, pigs, chickens, and others? The meat on their plates stems from a feeling and thinking animal as well. What is the difference? It would be repugnant for them to even think about their pets being eaten by somebody. Why is it ok then to eat the animals you didn’t own? The difference between eating a cow or a pig and eating a dog or a guinea pig is completely arbitrary. Different cultures around the world prove that point. Again, it comes down to establishing groups outside of which other rules apply. The way our meat producing animals are held and slaughtered today is one of the most disgusting procedures established by mankind. When people see their steak on their plate, they don’t think about how it got there. It is always easier to close the eyes and look away, but the fact that people eat meat inevitably makes them responsible for the horrible deaths of hundreds of animals throughout their lives. Pet owners might enable a good life for their animal, but if they eat meat they bring hell down to earth for so many others. If things turned around and suddenly human beings would be the oppressed species, how would we prefer to be treated?