All of us know the heartbreaking pictures: the big sad eyes looking into the camera seemingly pleading for help. “I am locked away behind bars; people in white coats test weird substances on me, put electrodes into my brain and torture me”, the ape might say.
When looking into these eyes it seems beyond doubt that there is something human in these creatures genetically similar to us. Indeed, researchers have just offered support of the idea that chimpanzees share human emotions like grief – that they mourn over the dying, caring for them gently. From what research suggests about the sensibility of animals, their perception and their intelligence, it seems necessary to grant them rights.
Indeed, there are people speaking up for these in various ways: standing in front of the Sheldonian holding up posters of wide-eyed apes, marching in demonstrations in London, breaking into laboratories, running hate mail campaigns, or threatening the lives of scientists and their families.
Condemning the work that is done in such labs conjures up big questions, especially whether the ends justify the means. Is it justified to test on animals, imprison them, cut into their brains, in order to find cures for Parkinson’s or dementia?
These are important questions to ask, and morally difficult ones to answer. Surely, the animal rights activists know their reply and battle acrimoniously. Yet the protest against animal testing is, in some respect, a hypocritical fight. In our everyday life we accept thousand fold suffering by animals: day after day without even so much as thinking about it.
Many of those who are delighted by the snub noses and lop ears of their pedigree dogs disapprove vehemently of “cruel” animal testing, while they forget that the short-headedness of their doggies bred over generations makes breathing difficult for the animals. Around 14,000 years ago humans subdued the wolf and bred the dog from him.
Since then he has been a tool for the hunt, food source, guard, a toy for the child and accessory for the heiress. The results of these developments are some picturesque creatures, which can hardly walk or breathe. Physical and mental cripples are being walked in our streets: Obese slobbering pups, neurotic terriers and helpless Chihuahuas with deformed heads and heart diseases. Do their owners everask them whether they would rather have stayed as wolves?
Most vitally, do people think about the suffering taking place each and every minute in slaughterhouses all over the world, so that they can happily enjoy their well-done steak every day? The average English person consumes around 80 kg of meat per year – far more than a kilo per week.
We love and eat them, our animals! Or, let’s be frank, we eat them and don’t love them enough to ask about where the tasty meat comes from.
Nothing induces vegetarianism so much as a day in an abattoir – but hardly anyone sees it as a moral duty to see inside one before munching the habitual pork kebab. How does a pig feel when it slowly bleeds out and awakens again in its own liquids? We don’t want to picture that! Out of sight, out of mind.
In many countries outside the EU, hens laying breakfast eggs still live in battery cages – which have a size somewhere between a book page and a sheet of printer paper. Jonathan Foer vividly describes the situation in his book “Eating Animals”: imagine yourself in a crowded elevator, an elevator so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into your neighbour.
Indeed, it is so crowded, that you are basically held aloft – but this is a blessing because the floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet. And there is absolutely no respite, no relief within sight; no repairman is coming, so some of the others become desperate, violent, go mad and deprived of hope and food become cannibalistic. When the doors finally, finally, open, it is the end of your life; a painful death is your relief at last. Did you want your eggs fried or scrambled?
Without much pondering, most of us treat animals as buyable, useable, soulless objects in our everyday lives. We know no kindness to all living creatures, and no avoidance of unnecessary pain to them when we want our cheap meat, milk and eggs, a nice trip to the zoo, our oh-so-cute Chihuahua. If we bigheartedly pity the poor little lab apes and accuse the scientists of being cruel torturers we had better be sure that there is not much filthier blood on our own hands.