by Pradiva Sawarno
Animal “rights” has been a debatable issue for decades. It covers wide areas of animal-human relationship: hunting, animal experimentation, over-fishing, humane slaughtering, factory farming, pets, to animals used for entertainment. Last year, the issue extended into the art world in an incident where The Guggenheim Museum was urged to pull down artworks that allegedly violated animal rights. Artists argued if Guggenheim should conform to the demand or keep the artworks in display. Guggenheim eventually did pull the artworks down due to pressure and threats of violence toward its staff, visitors, and participating artists.
Along with these arguments, one question comes to mind; what exactly is animal “rights”? To start with, the rights of animals should not include domesticated animals (including pets). To set the groundwork for this discussion, one must think of the whole ecosystem because this is what actually at stake when humans do not contribute to the well-being of (wild) animals.
But, is there such a thing as (wild) animal rights? Do animals have (or demand) rights, as humans do?
While the concern of animal suffering is not a new idea – many ancient religious scriptures observe vegetarian diet for ethical reasons – animal rights activism in the West have only started in early 19th century. In the modern world, the movement gained traction in 1975 when philosopher Peter Singer published a book titled ‘Animal Liberation’. Singer popularizes the term “speciesism” as comparable to racism or sexism; where it questions why can’t other species have rights just because they’re members of different species? It became the starting point of animal rights activism in the 20th century, paving ways for the establishment of Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Farm Animal Reform Movement, and so on.
One clear point here is that there is no such thing as animal “rights”; what must stand is human obligation. Humans have to do the work to defend animals. Even without the existence of animal rights, there are no justifications for humans to inflict pain on animals. Equipped with a more developed brain, humans have the capacity for critical thinking to establish their own rights. Animals on the other hand, live by the laws of nature. But with a more evolved brain, somehow almost all people have developed a sense of superiority or supremacy over other species, that human is special. When in fact, humans are merely a small part of nature that must, in the words of Sacred Bridge Foundation, co-habitate with other living beings (including vegetation).
Once equipped with the confidence in superiority over Earth, humans have continuously disturbed the nature’s order while the ecosystem should not have been interfered in the first place. One example of human intervention in nature is domestication. Its sole purpose is to fulfill human basic need efficiently through the available technology, with a secondary (or tertiary even) hope that it would prevent further abuse of wild life. The quantity has gone massive and required an enormous land area as the technology advances. When it started thousands of years ago, domestication already began to strip wild animals of their natural instincts and put them at the mercy of humans, animals’ new “pack leader”. Meanwhile, humans feel that they have given the animals shelter and protection. It was said earlier that the groundwork to discuss animal rights should not include pets and domesticated animals.
Why? Well, it shouldn’t even be questioned whether pets and livestock animals deserve better, because their “right” as (wild) animals have already been violated when they were domesticated thousands of years ago. So, by default, they should be treated well for their sacrifice.
Wildlife is a Part of Ecosystem
Having intentionally disrupted the ecosystem, everything humans do to nature has its consequences. This is where the Butterfly Effect – the term that was coined by Edward Norton Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist – takes place. It was first used as a concept for meteorology, where it is impossible to accurately predict a large system such as weather because there are too many unknown variables to account for. The name itself comes from the suggestion that the subtle flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one place could affect the weather condition somewhere in a different place. However, this concept applies beyond weather. This describes how the smallest change even only a fraction to a condition can affect large and complex systems.
People living in big cities might not feel that they’re directly impacted by the change in environment due to their ignorance toward nature. Most people, particularly those who live in urban areas, do not even seem to care so long as they can carry on with their daily lives. There are many things that serve as evidences indicating environmental changes of their surroundings. Extreme weather, intensify wildfires, heavy rain, and flood are a few examples that often cost lives. On the other side, indigenous people living in the wild are most likely to be affected by the changes. People living in the forest depend on sounds and conditions of their surroundings for cues to go about their daily lives. They listen to sounds ranging from insects to bigger predators for their survival; to hunt for food, to read animal behaviors looking for changes in the seasons, and to avoid being preyed upon. Because in the wild, the hunter can become the hunted. While Indigenous people rely on the nature to live, people in big cities may not even aware of or care when a bulbul greets them every morning outside the window.
Another impact of nature exploitation is excess waste. In a pure ecosystem, nothing is wasted. Everything produced by plants or animals will eventually return to nature. Plants are consumed by omnivores, smaller animals are eaten by predators, carcasses are eaten by scavengers, even droppings are consumed and serve as fertilizers, and the cycle goes on. With excess waste piling up in the environment, nature is left helpless, creating various complications that eventually affect many traditions forged long before mankind began to try to ‘modify’ nature.
One example of inter-dependency of human and animals when it comes to zero waste is the relationship between vultures and the Parsi community in Mumbai, India. This community traditionally exposed the deceased to the vultures in the Dakhmas or ‘Towers of Silence’. It follows a 3,000 year old tradition from the Zoroastrianism of disposing of the dead by exposing it to scavenger birds. However, approximately 97-99 percent vultures have disappeared in the last few decades. Today, the Parsis are desperate to figure out how to continue their 3,000-year old ritual and respectfully take care of their dearly departed in a world with no vultures.
From Butterfly Effect to excessive waste mentioned above indicate that wild animals existence are very much impact our life.
“Who” is the Animal?
Nature has its way of “responding” to things. Anything that happens within the order of nature will be ‘recycled’ in its own way to sustain its sound ecosystem; anything outside of the order will not be recognized. Today’s climate change is one of the ways the nature responds to unnatural and imposing changes. Like it or not, we are caught in the process because we are the ones making this disturbing change. Humans have created such massive disturbance toward nature’s order, and this is nature’s way of reacting. Inhabitants of the Earth are intrinsic parts of the order of nature, so it must be in compliance with the ultimate common system in which all parts “created” and maintained over millions of years. In this system, no single part functions as the commander in chief as in the military. So, what will happen if we keep dictating nature even after knowing that no single part can ever be the ”pack leader” in the system?
When we talk about wild animals as a part of nature, human’s emotion doesn’t need to play its part, but logic does. Without them, we die – plain and simple. It is our obligation to sustain everything operates within the order. “Animal Rights” on the other hand is just a label (slogan), because it’s impossible for them to fight for their rights. The terms “rights” are human invention only for humanity. Why? Because for us, life matters. And if life matters, do we really think our species would survive on our own? And if we cannot respond to this question, is it still relevant to call our species “Homo Sapiens”?
Author: Pradiva Sawarno