4 Reasons We Should Rethink At Our Relationships With Animals

4 Reasons We Should Rethink At Our Relationships With Animals

“I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self contained, I stand and look at them long and long; They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, not one kneels to another, nor his kind who lived thousands of years ago, not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth”.

-Walt Whitman 

Following the production of the 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws creator Peter Benchley was devastated to hear that throughout the world sharks were under threat because of his fiction. Telling the story of a villainous shark who terrorised the residents of a costal town, Jaws made Benchley a millionaire, yet he regretted every minute of it. Following the success of the movie, Simon Thorrold a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute said that the movie legitimised the killing of sharks. Benchley then dedicated his life to conservation, stating that they are a vulnerable animal which are no threat to humans at all.

The killing spree cut the shark population by 90% in some places, as they were being hunted faster than they could reproduce. In the press the language used about sharks completely changed. University of Queensland’s Adrian Peace explained terms that were used describing their behaviour became terms that were used to describe the mafia. Lurking, “loitering" and “encroaching” were all utilised to describe how they infringed on “innocent” and unsuspecting bathers. Looking upon sharks in their home as "menacing” and “terrorising” is something that is completely the result of media propaganda. When a whale accidentally swallows a person, it is viewed as just that, an accident.

While one would never minimise the experience of someone who has suffered a shark attack, these attacks were not committed by a shark with villainous intent. Many shark experts believe that they only attack when they are in their own habitat and it is said that this is an instinctual reaction, rather than a predatory pastime.

The moral of this story is that an unsuspecting creature, with no ability to defend its reputation, became the target of hate because of fiction. Benchley regretted his part in the problem for most of his life. However interest from the public in research into sharks has been one positive response. Likewise, Finding Nemo led to a surge in demand for clownfish as pets. Across their habitats unsuspecting clownfish were plucked from the sea and placed into tanks, leaving clownfish parents devastated. How ironic.

“Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you're lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you're in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don't see sharks.”
-Sylvia Earle


1. Animals Are Altruistic To Human Beings

Shark attacks on humans are not entirely uncommon, but, then again, neither are reports of heroism on behalf of dolphins and whales in the face on such a threat. In 2004 reports of a pod of dolphins saving a group of swimmers from a great white shark in New Zealand captured the worlds imagination. Lifeguard Rob Howes was swimming with his daughter and two friends when they found themselves circled by a pod of dolphins. Initially, the group assumed that the pod was just being friendly, as their persona would suggest. However they were amazed to discover that they were being herded. From the corner of his eye Howes could spot a Great White Shark and then he realised, the dolphins were protecting them. The dolphins kept a watch for forty minutes until the Shark lost interest and swam away.

Ingrid Visser from Orca Research explained that dolphins often exhibit this kind of behaviour when they are trying  to protect their young. Dr Rochelle Constantine of The University of Aukland School of Biological Science, believes that dolphins are natural altruists. They help the helpless, but they may not be the only ones.


2. Animals Experience Emotions

In 2011 behavioural ecologists Jane Krause and Alexander Wilson at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology were puzzled when they noticed a pod of sperm whales had taken in a bottlenose dolphin. Sperm whales are not known for forging relationships with other species, but noticed that this lone dolphin would rub against the whales and they would return the gesture.The dolphin foraged and played with the whales and their calves for eight days. Wilson states that this type of relationship had never been witnessed before, but suggested that the dolphin had an unusual spinal shape which could have made it difficult to keep up with its own pack. It is also suggested that since the dolphin was alone it may have needed the whales to protect it from predators.   

Stories of kindness within the animal world are littered across the internet. Is it possible that they have a life so completely separate from our own that we have no knowledge of? Likewise, stories villainising animals are rampant and often based on popular media, skewed facts and ignorance.

Emotions play a huge role in terms of animal palatability. Our reactions to reading the stories about the Sharks compared to that stories about the Dolphins indicated that some animals produce a more profound response than others. The arousal of emotions such as disgust and anger in certain circumstances and not others, would indicate this is a learned response. Psychologist Melanie Joy believes that eating animals is incongruent to our true nature as we don’t want want them to suffer, so we have adapted mechanisms to shut our feelings off. Context also has a huge role to play when determining our reactions. In certain societies one has no other choice but to eat animals and therefore wouldn’t have the luxury of befriending the animal and pondering the existence of its soul.

Emotions are designed to support our evolution and survival, however many have become outdated in our modern industrialised world. William James suggests that fear, although it was helpful at one point in the history of our species, is damaging to one’s health in society. Designed as bio-mechanical problem solving devices, we are programmed to steer clear of dangers and navigate social situations to ensure our acceptance into the group. Primatologist Frans De Waal, in his book Mama’s Last Hug, explores the similarities between emotional responses in both humans and animals. De Waal suggests that “the possibility that animals experience emotions the way we do makes hard-nosed scientists feel queasy… partly because animals never report any feelings and partly because the existence of feelings presupposes a level of consciousness that these scientists are unwilling to grant to animals”.

“Fish are Friends. Not food”
       - Bruce, Finding Nemo
3. They Don't Get To Experience Choice
In the name of medical advancement, animals have made exceptional, non-voluntary, sacrifices. Our acknowledgement of our biological similarity extends to certain settings and situations and not others. Animals are not ethically responsible, that seems the be the big difference between them and us.
Our collective desire to believe so fully in our need to eat meat aids us in ignoring the fact that they are exploited at our hands. Joy draws parallels with some of the great injustices throughout history, such as the oppression of women, people of colour and, of course, the holocaust. Our societal conditioning and our desire to follow orders, even if we disagree with them, was explored by Stanley Milgrim’s famous study on authoritarianism. During the study participants were asked to take the role of a teacher and and learner and the teacher was directed to administer a series of shocks if the learner failed to give the correct response. Many of the teachers inflicted serious pain and misery on their learners, leading the experimenters to draw the conclusion that we act against our conscience as we don’t believe that we are responsible for our actions when acting under instruction.

Free choice, or so we believe, is not actually the case. Norms like eating meat are rewarded, while vegans struggle to find adequate meal choices, must defend their beliefs and ethics and are viewed in society as weird. People believe that animals were designed to be eaten. When it comes to changing a perspective it can be a little difficult as we utilise something called confirmation bias. This means we choose information to support a preferred idea, values or beliefs to prove we are correct. This has been shown in the case of Climate Change and animals rights. We are more likely to acknowledge new information if we already believe in the cause and it supports our current viewpoint.

FBI Special Agent Alan Brantly believes that murderers are likely to practise on animals first before they kill a person for the first time. The Macdonald Triad is a set of factors that are said to predict violent and serial offenders in children. These include obsession with fire starting, cruelty to animals and bedwetting, randomly. Before you put down the book and raise a questionable eye to your child who enjoys pulling the wings off bugs and loves the chaos of pouring water over a colony of ants, don’t worry it’s not that simple, although a study conducted in 2003 by McCellan showed that 56% of murderers admitted to inflicting violence on animals. In children it was showed that it begins as a process to vent frustration, generally caused by humiliation, as animals are viewed as weak and vulnerable. This is said to be how murderers learn how to select their victims. Wright and Hensley conducted a study at the same time that reported that people committed violent acts on animals to maintain control over their own lives.

4. Meatier Don't Necessarily Mean Healthier

Zac Efron’s documentary Down to Earth examined the lives of centenarians in Sardinia. What was particularly revealing was the diet that proved pivotal to the longevity experienced by those on this little island. Apart from regular exercise, community and love, Dr Gianni Pes and Valter Longo explained that contrary to the popular belief that protein is essential for ones health, it was not beneficial in terms of longevity. This revelation stunned Efron as he stated that these findings went against everything he had been told by nutritionists up until this point. The notion that one needs to maintain a diet filled with meat to be a healthy, fit and athletic person is purely a myth as well. Any quick google search will inform you of how popular a plant based diet is amongst celebrities and major athletes.

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals.
-George Orwell

It’s interesting how we can relate and take a stand against certain types of atrocities and not others. None of us would like to be seen as the oppressor, or complicit in the ill treatment of anything. We would much rather see ourselves closely related to the victim. If we take on the assumption that we and animals both undergo the same processes to survive, such as take in oxygen to breathe, we could transform our relationship with our animal counterparts. The ascription of a social value to a life can influence not only how that life unfolds but also how the end of that life is recognised or ignored. Jane Desmond believes that devalued lives give way to devalued deaths, that often go without notice from the wider communities. The ignorance of the individuality and uniqueness of the lives of each of the animals that die on a daily basis could be lessened if we cultivated a commonality with our pets. 

Facing the truth behind our complicity and the effects that it is having on the planet and each other can be confronting, shaming and overwhelming. However, it can also be empowering and liberating to connect with our Buddha nature. The realisation that we are part of a vast living system, which we too are victims of. It can be disappointing when we hear people separating themselves from animals, as though we are a preferential species because of our intelligence. Animals have a lot to teach us, especially with the joy they exude in every aspect of their lives and not forgetting their unfaltering capacity for forgiveness.

Dissociation is something instinctual that we use to adapt, especially in the tough times and times of stress. However, this can allow violence unwittingly, as we can’t feel what is happening around us. As we have stated, self-development, even self realisation, is the goal of human development, when we integrate the aspects of ourselves, both acknowledged and unacknowledged. Ken Wilber often refers to this as the Shadow Side of ourselves. Integration with it is not an all or nothing thing. It happens gradually on a spectrum.

Integration of our humanity and spirituality will begin to open our heart and include the suffering in more people, we will create an equanimity. Meditation and contemplation are key for our cultivation of a universal compassion. This along with the self sacrifice and surrender to service. Teilhard de Chardin suggested that, if we are truly capable of loving another, we are truly capable of extending that love to all of creation. Relationships, if entered into properly, could enable us to cultivate the loving awareness that our planet needs at this time.


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