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With Liberty and Justice for All

May 7, 2011

One of the challenges for parents in the upbringing of their children is to teach them empathy for others. This is a higher level skill and for those of us that acquire it our lives and relationships are generally more fulfilling. One of the more effective ways that parents teach this skill is by teaching a child to take care of and be respectful of a family pet. They teach them to first recognize and identify that an animal has feelings and what these feelings may be and then to consider and honor these feelings without having to control the animal. This willingness to be understanding, non abusive and non controlling hopefully will transcend to human interactions. But I believe empathy for humans should not necessarily be the end goal. What happens is our empathy often does not seem to transfer to certain other animals as it does to our pet and the importance of our empathy for animals seems to take a back seat to the importance of our empathy for humans. Let me suggest that we should work towards empathy for all animals and to work towards the belief that empathy for animals is valuable within itself and not just because it helps us learn empathy for humans.

The human male, for instance, is at the very top of the food chain. No one is more powerful by virtue of the fact that the human male has a gun. When I work with male perpetrators of Domestic Violence I always suggest to them that because they are at the top of the food chain it is their responsibility to protect and nurture animals instead of use them for their own benefit (eg. hunting). If you insist on using them for food or as a prize on your wall, it is your responsibility to think about how you can give back to that species. For example, what can you do to ensure that you will help more live than you can kill?

Unfortunately, it is the nature of those in power to want to stay in power. As a result, humans use a number of rationalizations so that they don't have to look at how much they use and hurt animals for their own advantage.

Rationalization #1 - We say that animals don't understand. We say they have a lower IQ than us. Therefore we reason that they don't have the same value as us. We reason that because they are not as smart as us they can't possibly be equal to us. This belief that they have less value and are not equal allows us to believe that it is okay to continue to use them for our advantage. It is a rationalization which keeps the animals down so that we can be on top. People do this with other people as well, such as the way minorities have been treated throughout history. Those that are in power want to stay in power. We rationalize that animals are less intelligent than us. The truth, if we should ever want to look at it, is that in various ways animals are smarter than us. Certain parts of their brain are more developed than ours. Their senses, such as hearing, feeling, seeing, smelling are much more developed than ours. They are more intuitive. They communicate telepathically. Their minds are much stronger in these ways. So who is smarter? I believe we could have a good debate about that. But man has more power because he can reason in other ways and can make weapons so that he can stay in power.

Rationalization #2 - We say they don't have feelings, that they are just instinctual. Therefore, we can't hurt them when we use or abuse them. It is clear that animals feel fear and love and distrust and sadness and depression and jealousy, to name a few. They are much more sensitive to stress than people. They take on the stress of their owners like a sponge and often get sick as a result. As the world becomes more stressful and people develop more stress related illness, so do animals. Veterinarians have reported increases in stress related illness in animals, such as cancer, in recent years. If we believed that animals had feelings it would be much harder to use them for our advantage in the horribly abusive or deadly way we often do. We might have to feel guilty. Heaven forbid.

Rationalization #3 - We place less value on their lives than ours. We rationalize sport hunting as being okay by saying "We have to keep the numbers down". this rationalization really means, "we have to keep the numbers down because they are becoming inconvenient to us and our convenience is more important than their lives". They must conform to our world rather than vice versa. We quote the Bible about how the animal was put on this earth to serve man rather than consider not eating them. We depersonalize them by calling them beasts so we can gain a hierarchical superiority in our mind. When we talk about gorillas being slaughtered we say they are "murdered". When we talk about other animals being slaughtered we say they are "killed". Being murdered implies a higher level of violation and this level of violation seems to be reserved only for primate like species such as gorillas or man. We think the killing of a gorilla is more important than the killing of a tiger because the gorilla is closer to man. The laws are slowly changing to protect the rights of domestic animals from abuse and abuses are finally starting to see some consequences but the right of wild animals to co-exist with us is mostly ignored. They continue to be freely abused with little consequence.

We grapple with what is or is not abuse of an animal. What is defined as abuse for a domesticated animal is not the same definition of abuse we use for a non domesticated animal. The closer the animal is to our life, the stricter and clearer our definition of abuse. And, of course, what is abuse for humans is entirely different than what is abuse for any animal. I asked someone once who was assigned to my anger management class for hitting his dog whether he defined hitting a person as abuse. He said yes. But when I asked if he considered hitting his dog as abuse, he said no. I believe that many people feel this way. We believe the animal is our property and this gives us the right to treat them as we choose. Again, those in power want to stay in power. I believe that abuse should be defined the same for animals and people. Why should it be different for people? Why should it be different for different animals? Why is it considered abusive to hurt or kill a cat, but it is not defined as abuse if we kill a steer for food, or kill a deer for sport. As I stated earlier if a gorilla is killed it is called murder. If an elephant is killed, it is just a killing.

Can we be brave enough to define abuse the same for all, people and animals, and to give up our control and moral superiority?

What follows are some definitions of abuse that we normally apply to humans. Let us begin to apply these same definitions to animals.

Abuse is:
1. To control for our own purposes. To not give the other free will. If we choose to consider this as abuse for animals we may have to consider eating differently or treating livestock differently as we raise them or becoming vegetarian or closing all zoos. We would have to learn to live with them equally in the world instead of forcing them to our will. We would have to co-exist. I tell the men in my Domestic Violence classes it's not okay to control another person. Then why is it okay to control an animal?
2. To control through fear- To get animals to respond to you because they are afraid of you. Yelling at or spanking a child or a family pet to get them to obey you is an example of this. This creates poor relationships, relationships bonded by fear. You want them to respond to you through love and this happens only when you offer non-controlling love - safety through love.
3. To neglect our responsibilities to them. Yes, animals are dependent on us. It is our responsibility to nurture and protect them. It is our responsibility to enable them to live happily and freely, as long as possible. If we adopt an animal we are responsible for that animal's life until the day it dies. It is a lifelong responsibility. It is abusive to shirk this responsibility in any way. If we cannot care for the animal it is our responsibility to find someone who can. It is abusive to stop taking care of, abandon or end the life of an animal just because it becomes inconvenient or difficult for us to care for.
4.To inflict intentional physical or mental harm. Just as with people, if we are trying to hurt an animal physically or mentally, it is abusive. As I said before, controlling them mentally through fear or intimidation is abuse. Ignoring them is abusive. Withholding love is abusive. Any level of physical harm is abusive from a slight pulling of their ears to killing them. Even though there may be no legal consequences for what we do, it does not change the fact that it is abusive. It may be legal to use them for research, but it is still abusive. We must accept that they have feelings. We must accept that what is abusive for people is abusive for animals. We must make them equal to us in our minds so we can take the abuse of them seriously.

One of the signs of maturity of a culture is that culture's ability to treat animals humanely, to treat all species non violently and to revere it's animals as equal or sometimes superior to man. We have a long way to go. In this culture, we are beginning to see that all humans are equal and to establish laws that support that belief. Let us now transcend to animals and begin to truly see all of them as not property or something we have the right to control, but instead as our companions on this earth, with equal rights, including the right to share the earth with us in freedom.

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated" (Gandhi)

Lorraine Watson

Lorraine Watson is a licensed therapist in California with extensive experience in the areas of anger management, nonabusive relationship skills and trauma. She is the author of "Expressing Anger Nonviolently". The contents of that book can be viewed on our website at "

Lorraine Watson

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