By Steven Hussey
There are few topics as emotive as animal abuse. The daily evidence I can see of this is no farther than on my Facebook wall, with people calling for the senseless nuclear obliteration of China in support of some powerless petition to stop animal cruelty in rural areas there, of dogs in particular. I loathe animal cruelty, but when I place it in a context outside our human bubble, I come to a stark realisation.
Put bluntly, the cruelty of the natural world far surpasses anything of human invention. Anyone familiar with the BBC series The Blue Planet will understand my disgust in watching sadistic killer whales pluck newborn seals off the beach and viciously thrash them about, apparently for “fun”. The innocent pups are dragged out to sea, quite alive, where they get tossed like ragdolls for hours on the ocean, their pod of bullies gradually exsanguinating them as they try to swim to safety. The cetaceans enjoy their badminton well after the pup is dead, its entrails devoured by happy scavengers. There are countless examples of frivolous, excruciating death scenes in nature, yet this one in particular always works me up.
But there’s far more to this. For more than 550 million years, trillions of animals — perhaps many more — have been preyed upon and parasitized, have had their offspring torn to shreds, and been abused and tortured by rapacious predators. And it is not all about nutrition, as I have just discussed.
Evolution, a natural force of mutation and selection that is a powerful creative agent of design, is blind to any sense of right or wrong. Evolution is amoral. It is apathetic to a species’ quality of life, and callous towards the suffering of the life forms that it moulds. The fact that what I watch on The Blue Planet is a result of this amoral, inanimate process gives me comfort not because I find it praiseworthy, but because it simply is. Inanimate natural processes cannot be the scapegoat for our reservations; they can only be accepted. Getting upset about them is as useless as condemning gravity for its many aeronautical murders.
Against this dim backdrop, then, doesn’t it seem futile that while we cry and protest about the suffering of livestock during traditional slaughters, lionesses are ripping off the limbs of screaming gazelles out on the savannahs? While we protest at dogs having their throats slit and left to bleed to death for a Chinese delicacy, we forget that their ilk, wolves, are some of the cruellest predators on earth, often eating their prey alive or leaving them disembowelled to die. It seems almost fitting that a small number of these canines should pay the price for their species’ own transgressions. Why do we care if in the greater scheme of things the atrocities of nature overwhelm the malevolence of our own hands? I guess it’s all about making a difference for that one beached starfish, as many have adapted from Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower. Preventing pain and suffering for one animal in our care, although pain is ubiquitous in nature, is somehow worth it.
Don’t mistake me for being apathetic. Nobody would be able to soothe my rage if anyone harmed my own dog, a pup that has become like a child. I hold strong values about animal rights. I’m just not sure why those values exist. Some say they come from God, but if God is ultimately behind the evolution of life, God could be charged with more than 300 trillion minutes of torture and death, of extinction and natural disasters, all for the eventual evolution of a fallible Homo sapiens. A purely rational argument for why we should worry about the suffering of animals might not make sense either, since we come from a long tradition of inflicting pain and death to survive: if that is what we have to thank for getting us here, why do we have a responsibility to act against it?
The way I see it humans, being the only evolutionary process that gained consciousness and intelligence, can take control of their destinies rather than follow the blind course of natural selection, blissfully unaware of it. No species has ever managed to do this. We have the unique power to rebel from aspects of natural selection that we simply don’t like (I have written about this before). We value equality, where evolution embraces inequality. We tend to the weak and sickly, where natural selection leaves them to die. A simple, rational principle of treating others as you’d like to be treated yourself, slightly complicated in the case of animals because some of them are so damn tasty, is clearly in conflict with the evolutionary process. I say let’s continue our fight against animal suffering, as insignificant as it is in the greater scheme of things, because it is a trademark of the kind of society we’ve created. Because it makes us feel good about our species.
The question is, where do we draw the line? Are we compelled to intervene in nature too and curb suffering altogether? Or do we leave Mother Nature to its ever-cruel devices, which shall undoubtedly continue for billions of years to come?
Steven is completing a PhD in genetics at the University of Pretoria.