Beastly attitudes

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

Statistics reveal that on death row in the USA, a significant number of murderers confessed that their first acts of cruelty were perpetrated on animals. It worries me that here in India, intentionally or otherwise, we may be teaching our children that cruelty is a way of life, by reinforcing in subtle and not so subtle ways that humans have the right to dominate animals.

I recall being made to slice up a frog when I was 12 years old. I did not understand then and cannot understand to this day how our education system rationalized this absurdity. Millions of frogs were slaughtered, many millions more died in the process of being captured. Quite apart from the cruelty aspect, this was a very "uneducated" effort at teaching. Decades of such senseless killing caused the population of frogs to nose dive and this is one very significant reason that India fell prey to insect borne diseases like malaria.

For years the fact that I had to slice up frogs led me to believe that all other life forms were dispensable. At ten years, the death of a snake at the hands of our watchman in Calcutta roused mere curiosity, not a sense of loss. 

As a kid I was once gifted a pair of parakeets once by a loving relative (I released the survivor after a few days when I could not bear to see it turn cartwheels any longer). When I was young I also remember going to the circus. It amazed me that tigers could be made to jump through hoops and elephants walk on two legs, but I hated the fact that the animals were whipped from time to time. It was only much later that I discovered that whips were the least of their woes. Electric pads on their front feet administered shocks... which is why they lifted their feet to the command of a boorish trainer. As for the tigers, they were starved, often for days on end and the only way they could access food was when they jumped through a hoop.

And what can I say about visits to the zoo? Often it was teachers that took us there. And no one told me that poking a near catatonic (with frustration) animal to evoke a response was bad. Or that throwing stones at the hippo to see if it was alive or dead was insensitive. It took me three decades to find out, of course, that both zoos and circuses often end up with employees who earn more from the illegal wildlife trade, than they do from their employers.

What is it in the make up of apparently sane and (superficially) sensitive humans that we condone, even encourage, cruelty that is directed towards animals? I find this attitude myopic, offensive... and chauvinistic.

I found myself astounded, for instance, by one teacher who argued passionately against the chauvinism of men towards women and who in very the next moment displayed the most naked chauvinism against animals, by advocating that dogs be killed because "they bark at night". I must also constantly deal with fathers who castigate animal rights activists for preventing their children from "enjoying" the torture that passes off as entertainment in circuses and zoos.

Why is this I wonder? What is it in the psyche of humans that desensitizes them to the pain and suffering of other species?

Bertrand Russel probably had it right when he said: "Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."