Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to introduce our newest writer, Isabella Cooper! I hope you’ll enjoy this heartfelt, nuanced look at our feelings toward animals–and how we can avoid letting our sympathy become a “zero sum game.”
I am a strong proponent of the idea that the things you loved most at age six are probably the things you should pursue for the rest of your life. The thing I loved at that age was animals. My first memory is of delightedly watching the sea lions at Monterey Aquarium. I can’t actually remember the fishy smell, the barking, or the antics of those particular sea lions, but I remember the feeling. And that same complex feeling—a mix of awe and joy and something I can only describe as love–that I felt watching those sea lions returns to me whenever I see an animal happy or in its natural habitat, living its wild animal life.
All children are fascinated by animals, even if not with the same intense, protective attachment I felt for them. The first time it occurred to me to feel guilty about caring so much for animals occurred after going to see the 1994 live-action version of The Jungle Book with my grandparents. My grandfather mentioned to my parents the way I’d cried when I thought Baloo the bear had died, but had been pleased when the human “bad guys” died. I felt rebuked, as I always have when someone has suggested that my emotions are excessive or inappropriate. Beyond that, the implication was that I cared more for animals than people. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d face that charge, and feel like I was somehow a species traitor. (Let’s just say no one was surprised when I became a vegetarian at fourteen.) But that experience with my grandparents was my first realization that a core part of my being might be viewed by others as emotional self-indulgence.
In a famous passage in Middlemarch, Victorian novelist George Eliot wrote that: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity” (MM 194).
I am as well wadded with this self-protective moral stupidity as anyone else in many aspects of “ordinary human life,” despite my best efforts. But in another area, keen vision and sensitivity have always come naturally. I care for animals in a way that sometimes feels almost like hearing that squirrel’s heart beat. Seeing or hearing about animal suffering at the hands of humans evokes in me a rage and a pain that’s almost visceral. The rage has something to do with the absolute helplessness of animals—even the strongest animals—in an age of such total human dominance. The pain is something like what you feel when you hear about a grisly wound to someone else’s eye or nose, and your hand flies up involuntarily, protectively, to your own eye or nose. But it’s also deeper, sharper, more lasting.
I have to detach myself from really thinking about what I am reading or writing, sometimes, when certain subjects pertinent to my dissertation on animals in Victorian literature arise (vivisection, for one). For the same reason, I have to ignore the graphic photographs attached to many of the animal welfare petitions I sign. I fear total immersion in that “roar that lies on the other side of silence.”
I recognize that I speak from a position of privilege; sympathy for animals might seem like a luxury commodity in communities where human suffering is constantly visible. The idea of people myopically caring for animals and ignoring human suffering has a long history; one of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a prioress who spoils her little dogs while completely disregarding the poor and sick around her.
But sympathy isn’t a zero sum game. How one spends one’s finances might be, but how can we consider a single cent (or sentiment) spent on animal welfare “wasted” resources that “could have been used to help people” until we’ve attacked forms of actual waste that don’t help anyone? I’m thinking of money spent on useless or harmful products, food that is never consumed, or Transformers 12, say. As for sympathy itself, it’s not a limited resource that needs to be allocated according to strict priorities. It’s a renewable resource, too little tapped.
I also know that, in my case, the sympathy I feel instinctively for animals, rather than an being an exercise in emotional self-indulgence, has always been one of the strongest threads pulling me out of my self-absorption. Caring for or volunteering with animals has provided a much-needed reminder of how good it feels to forget about myself. It has helped me become better at sympathizing with other people, because animals make two crucial aspects of sympathy so clear. On the one hand, sympathy inevitably involves some projection—and when directed at animals, even anthropomorphism. This makes some people hesitant to talk about what animals are “feeling.” But people are in fact able to read animal feelings, to some extent, which is why we are pretty good at predicting their behavior. Scientists observing grieving in elephants or altruism in rats are surprised by evidence of what is common sense to pet-owners: that animal not only feel, but have complex emotions. I not only know that my cat likes treats, dislikes car rides, and fears air vents; I also feel pretty sure she loves me, though that love may not be identical to our human understanding of the emotion. Even with other human beings, sympathizing with another’s emotions requires something of this emotional projection, a visualizing of what you would feel in their place. Sympathy for animals teaches us to make this imaginative leap even when we might be wrong, even when we lack verbal cues.
But animals also exemplify the flip side of sympathy: the need to respect difference and alterity. This involves the recognition that others’ needs or motives or experiences are not the same as yours. With animals, it’s easy for me to embrace that otherness, and not just with pets. Even looking at a shark (provided a safe barrier), one can feel the exhilaration of wondering at their sheer alien-ness, at brains that have evolved so differently than our own. There is no such radical gulf separating humans from each other, but there are differences that matter. Both aspects of sympathy—fellow-feeling and respect for difference—are necessary to recognizing the full reality of others.
There’s a reason we try to teach our children this kind of sympathy. Lack of sympathy, or outright cruelty, to animals, stems from the same mindset that, more egregiously, can deny humanity to other people by denying their capacity to think or feel. The Victorians considered women less rational than men, and regarded other races and the lower classes as less sensitive to pain, thus denying these groups full humanity and consequently full legal rights. Given these attitudes toward members of our own species, it is unsurprising that many Victorians felt panicked when Darwin suggested our kinship with other creatures.
Even now, it’s a controversial notion that animals are more than machines, more than property, more than things to be used as humans please. While corporations have been dubbed “legal people” in our culture, animals are still “legal things.” A historic legal decision back in April that would have implicitly granted two chimpanzees “legal personhood” was swiftly amended.[i] Animal advocates like the Nonhuman Personhood Project fight to grant chimpanzees, dolphins, and other highly intelligent creatures legal protections—protections that would keep them from being held captive for entertainment or medical testing. Implicit in their efforts is a knowledge gained from our own species’ experience: that abuses flourish when we view living beings as things.
This brings me to Cecil the lion, a black-maned lion killed in Zimbabwe in July by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. According to news reports, he lured the lion from a protected habitat, wounded him with an arrow, tracked him and shot him 48 hours later. The dentist disputed some of these facts, and this October news emerged that he would not face charges. The uproar of protest in July took the internet by storm. But before long, voices began to emerge on social media expressing an understandable disgust at this concern and mourning for a single animal life, in the face of the recent spate of police killings of black men. The evident public indifference toward—and devaluation of—the lives of people of color seemed especially glaring when juxtaposed with the virulent demands that Cecil find justice. On July 29th, Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist and one of the most vital voices of contemporary intersectional feminism, tweeted: “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.”
I have no desire to argue with Gay’s point— her irony is not flippant, but incisive and deserves to be well-taken. It shouldn’t be dismissed with a lazy response of “All lives matter.” But what I take from it, and from the whole Cecil furor, is not how silly or hypocritical people—including myself—were to make such a fuss about an animal. What’s out of proportion isn’t people’s outrage on behalf of Cecil. What’s grotesquely out of proportion is the blind apathy towards black and brown lives in many of those with the power to effect change. The outrage on Cecil’s behalf does indeed highlight how glaring that other apathy is, but does not cause it. What’s needed isn’t more apathy towards the suffering of non-human creatures. What’s needed isn’t to redirect x amount of sympathy from animals to humans. What’s needed is a broader awakening of sympathy, a refusal to limit it to x amount, or to dismiss others as merely ‘Other.’ What’s needed is a little less of the moral stupidity that draws the lines of sympathy around oneself, one’s own family, one’s own gender, one’s own nationality, one’s own race, one’s own species, and says, ‘Here sympathy can end. Beyond this line, suffering doesn’t matter.’
I am not apologetic for using the hashtag #justiceforcecil or signing a petition on his behalf. I would like to think that I did those things as part of a larger habit of speaking up for those without a voice. My father once told me that it is the most defenseless that most need our defense, and I have never forgotten it. But I also need to guard myself from demonizing the perpetrators of cruelty without a corresponding self-awareness of the places where I myself fall short of empathy.
We cannot wait until all human suffering is ended to address animal suffering, because they are deeply connected: what harms animals, the planet, and the equilibrium of ecosystems inevitably harms people, particularly those most economically vulnerable. More broadly, we cannot address one without the other because racism, sexism, and species-ism all have roots in the same ugly soil. There are countless calls on our sympathy, countless causes, countless battles to be fought, and while we cannot address them all individually, we can call out injustice whenever we see it. We can do our part not to perpetuate it. We can hold our leaders accountable and use our votes wisely. We are responsible for that much. But we are also responsible for not silencing the voice in our brain that calls us to one particular battle, whatever that may be. For not letting anyone diminish it. We owe it to our six-year old selves.
[i] The Manhattan Supreme Court judge’s order originally required that Stony Brook University, which was using the chimpanzees Hercules and Leo for biomedical testing, show cause of detention, but it also involved a writ of habeas corpus, which the Nonhuman Rights Project was to serve to Stony Brook. The next day, the judge struck the habeas corpus writ from the order.