Monday, October 12, 2009

Restrained Freedom – Life on a leash

(Another TCC entry made on 17 Feb 2008...a spur of the moment outpouring of my feelings on animal rights and society’s attitude towards animals in general.)

For a while now,I have questioned society’s attitude towards animals. It has been of immense interest to me since I learnt of Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “A society is judged by the way it treats it’s animals” After careful study of the human animal relationship, I have come to believe that there is much truth in the great soul’s words. It is more probable than not, that our ambitions, our feelings and emotions, our turmoils within and without, are all mirrored in our behaviour towards our “nonspeaking” counterparts. And as all other aspects of human behaviour go, I have tried to paint a picture of the human animal bonds and breaks, in the various shades of grey that tint it in real life.

Creatures, of all shapes and sizes have been sharing our world and our lives with us, since time immemorial. The earliest known fossil of a modern day cockroach appeared in the Cretaceous era (145 million years ago). Compared to this, the appearance of anatomically modern humans in the Pliocene epoch, some 3.6 million years ago, seems to fade into the historical limelight rightly accorded to the roaches. Also they are one of the hardiest species prevalent on planet Earth. Which of us great humans are capable of remaining active for a month without food (barring Yogis), or being able to survive on limited resources like glue from the back of a postage stamp? They are also known to have a much higher radiation resistance than the “higher vertebrates”, and a popular saying goes that in an event of a nuclear disaster, “cockroaches will inherit the earth” on account of their relative unaffectedness with radiation. Not only cockroaches, but all members of class insecta, comprising a million described species and nearly 30 million undescribed species, account for 90% of life on this planet. In light of this fact, insects should command more respect from the human world than is presently warranted to them - if not for anything else, then at least for their ability of make their presence known as a species. We certainly did that to ourselves.

However, few people actually interest themselves in the study of insects. And many of the entomologists that do are spurred by their curiosity of the creatures’ habits and biology, and very often in order to find out how WE can benefit from something that nature has bestowed them with. Very rarely do we come across people like Joanne Elizabeth Lauck, author of “Voice of the infinite in the small-Revisioning the insect human relationship” take an open minded approach towards insects and treat them with love, not spite, in their hearts. Ultimately it all boils down to what man perceives as externally attractive. The principle that applies to a man’s perception of a woman or vice versa, also applies to human perception of an insect. In poetry and fairy tales of all kinds, references to beautiful butterflies and even sparkling beetles sometimes, are fairly abundant. How often does one come across favourable stories about cockroaches, or ugly bugs with large eyes and waving antennae. These genres of insects are more “aptly” promoted as villainous aliens or mutated beings preparing to take over the world as unassuming humans go on with their lives without a clue as to what lies in store for them. Similar portrayals have featured reptiles and worms of all sorts.

We teach our children about the inner beauty of god’s creations, but we do everything in our power to convince them otherwise, by unloading on their impressionable minds, our inherent vehement fear of insects, and encouraging such opinions by allowing exposure to different kinds of media that do more harm than good in our very human centric society. What drives us to do this? Prominent differences among our two species which gives rise to an illogical fear? Inclination towards conventional standards of beauty and complete disregard for other handsome characteristics that define individuals-human or animal? Or is it a false vanity produced by our apparent evolution to the top of the food chain?

For a moment let’s cast aside the insect aspect of this debate, on grounds of too much difference between the species and a consequent inability to tolerate their existence. Sadly even when we turn our attention to animals belonging to other species, much closer to humans, and with the ability to feel with very much the same intensity, a range of human emotions, we witness similar intolerances there. Not only intolerance but a flagrant need to assert the human superiority by blatant abuse and torture of trusting and sometimes harmless creatures. Some animals like snakes have been rumoured so strongly to be harmful and have been encouraged to be murdered on sight, without second thought, it reminds one of dangerous wanted criminals who have been ordered to be shot at sight. Incidentally, most cases of snake bites on humans, have happened because the snake was incited to do so by poking or some other such show of gallantry. Like all misconceptions, it is difficult to kill those such as this, and in the long run the hapless animal suffers a violent and sometimes painful death.

Cruelty to animals is visible in all strata of society, be it high end or more low profile. Parrots being caged by fortune tellers in an effort to extract money from clueless travellers by having their fortunes told by a psychic parrot, is cruelty. Monkeys and bears being captured from their natural habitats and made to perform for public entertainment is cruelty. Dogs and cocks being gladiatorized against each other, to satisfy our innant violent instincts, is cruelty. Buying dogs in large numbers to herald in the Chinese year of the Dog, and then abandoning them only to be rescued by local SPCA’s and euthanized because of the sheer numbers of abandoned animals, is cruelty. Shunting electrodes in a monkeys head for experimental observations is cruelty.

Throwing acid on a stray puppy “just for kicks” is cruelty. Traumatizing animals by slaughtering others, in their presence, and then killing them painfully, for the meat industry, is not only cruelty but a heinous crime. Caging majestic creatures of the wild like lions and tigers for circus performances is cruelty and humiliating at that. Chaining a wild elephant to the ground and beating him constantly till he “breaks”, is cruelty. Rounding up dolphins in a lagoon, so that they can be shot and hunted, is abhorrent cruelty. These are but instances which make up the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more vicious cruelty recorded in the annals of history and also taking place at this very moment. And these have nothing to do with the insect world, but with mammals and other animals with a spine. Then why does this happen? Is it because man is himself spineless enough to be unable to admit, that he isn’t the only superior most “wonderful” creation that God made in seven days? That he doesn’t have sole power over everything that isn’t him? Maybe. Though I fail to understand the underlying cause for such violence, and torture.

After coming to Singapore and rescuing a dog from certain euthanasia in the local SPCA, i have had the opportunity to observe the life of an animal in a rich, perfectly civilised and almost mechanised law abiding country. And I did not like what I observed. My husband and I always pictured ourselves with a dog walking freely next to us, sniffing around when he wants, what he wants, however he wants-free to go wherever he wants and come back home with us once his outing is over. Sadly whenever we walk our very independent dog (who grew up free on the streets of Singapore), we have to abide by the law of the country that says “dogs must be leashed in public places” My Singaporean dog, has had just one or two free runs on the beach. That too with us standing by apprehensive and ready to pounce on the leash in case someone comes too close. He has never been able to “walk”-a free boy with his mum and dad. We do our best to make him feel loved at home, take him out for long strolls on the beach and large enclosed places, we spend time sitting with him on the grass under the stars, while he carries on his serene observations of people and animals walking by and sometimes a funny bug that climbs onto his leg. But the leash is always there. We feel a tug inside our hearts when we have to play running games with him on the leash.

No matter what we do he will always be a wild spirit inside. He was meant to be like that and I’m proud that he is the way he is. If only society was a little liberal and open-minded, maybe he wouldn’t have to be leashed up always.

I have often thought about the reason why animals have to be restrained and not allowed to be themselves in this society. Is it because we are too scared to be close to them in case they attack? Is it because we have become so selfish that we don’t feel the need to accord them their share of god’s good earth? Or is it because, in chasing after wealth and success in the society we created, we have so far removed ourselves from nature and the multitudinous animals that make this world what it is, that we fail to feel any kinship with them at all? I believe it is all three. The former two reasons stem from the root cause which is the latter. And if that is the case, then we have set ourselves on a path to destruction as a race. We must learn to be proud of the fact that we were made to live in harmony with all of God’s creations and not as a separate entity. By cutting ourselves off from our counterparts, and by trampling them underfoot in a series of destructive actions, we are only debilitating ourselves as a species. A pianist will still exist in body, if his fingers are cut off, but his piano won’t make music anymore. He will have to earn a livelihood doing something that is not his passion, and being uninterested in what he does, the fires inside will die out and he will pass into obscurity as a person. It is certain then, that if we have to make music as a whole, we have to learn to harmonize our melodies with those of our fellow creatures.

There are many breaks in the human-animal relationship. But there are a few glimmers of hope too. For there are a few of our race, who act both with heart and head. They love and think without restraint and as a result are able to bestow the much deserved love on animals of all genres, and receive bountifuls from them. They rescue and aid animals in need, heal their wounds, when they have been hurt, physically and scarred emotionally, they work selflessly to conserve the fast vanishing habitats of a myriad wild animals, they educate our young about the importance of animals and why we should love them for their own sake, not for ours, why they should be respected for their own sake and why they should be protected from the evil that society loves to shower so very often. Such people are heroes in our troubled times, and give me much hope for our future. For where animals are not treated as equals, there is hardly a future at all.

The love of an animal holds immense power. It has to power to soothe in the toughest of times, and is given selflessly, without the expectation of receiving in return. It is folly top shun a storehouse of love and energy like this. Let us not make this folly. Let us not be restrained in our thoughts and actions. Let us break free of those bonds and cleave any that we may have placed on our animal friends. Let us establish them in their rightful positions as God’s creatures much as we are. Let us go out there, throw caution to the wind, and love our animals with all the love that is waiting to be set free from our hearts. Let us take off that leash and cast it into the wilderness. We have no use for it, for you see, in the words of the good Dr. Herriot, The Lord God Made us All!

----------------Shreyasi M.

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