Opinion |

We Need to Stop Treating Animals Like Humans

Our enlightened era displays enormous sensitivity toward animal rights, but there’s also a big danger in our attempts to strip the animal world of its animality

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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A puppy.
A puppy.
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

A note at the entrance to a Tel Aviv apartment building caught my eye recently: “Hey dog, even though our entry gate is the favorite spot for you and your friends to urinate, please don’t do it because it makes us sad. Your neighbors thank you.”

The request, appealing to the dog’s goodwill, sounded like nothing more than an urban joke concocted by the building’s occupants, their creative way of protesting the pee stains on the sidewalk. But the next day, in a different part of town, I came across another such request, this one complete with vowel signs and addressed to both genders: “Dear male and female dogs, please do not pee here.”

I quickly realized that the appeal to dogs’ sensibilities is a significant trend, and symptomatic of a much deeper change – an attempt to make animals part of the human community. Even if the notes’ authors don’t really expect dogs to read what they’ve written, they still imagine the dogs as four-legged people.

An examination of contemporary culture shows this to be quite a widespread phenomenon. One striking example is the prominent representation of the animal kingdom in popular culture. Until about a decade ago, films and images of animals generally focused on the savagery and otherness of the animal world. A typical movie would show a cheetah pursuing an antelope on the Serengeti plain in Tanzania, catching its prey and devouring it. But the tendency now is to portray nature very differently. Often, attempts are made to depict animals as “more human than humans.”

Popular YouTube clips show an odd harmony between species, like in end-of-days prophecies: True friendship between a kitten and an owl; a polar bear and a dog frolicking together; a lioness feeding a tiger cub.

And if nature doesn’t provide these saccharine images itself, they will be created artificially. A much-viewed video on social media, for example, showing a pack of wolves being led by its older and weaker members, turned out to be fake – like many clips from the “human animals” genre.

On the face of it, the contemporary era is characterized by greater sensitivity for animal rights, reflected in the spread of veganism and the enactment of legislation to protect animals. But it’s also becoming increasingly clear that an effort is being made to strip the animal world of its animality. Nature is being portrayed as non-beastly and, therefore, human.

This shows a lack of respect for the foreignness of nature to the human world. It demonstrates an inability to tolerate the existence of a creature that does not share the values of liberal society; that in fact does not share values of any sort, because animals do not have values.

It’s easy to predict the next stage of the process: an attempt to impose human laws on the animal kingdom. It’s likely that the extension of universal rights to animals will lead to a demand to reduce the immense suffering and distress that animals endure in the wild. Already today, there are calls for animals to be protected from the diseases, hunger and violence to which they’re exposed in nature – in part from other animals.

Recent years have seen the publication of numerous books and articles calling for the introduction of a policy of “wildlife welfare.” There are also practical suggestions. British “transhumanist” philosopher David Pearce urges the elimination of suffering from the world through genetic and chemical means, as “Aversive experience is a sinister anachronism in the age of post-genomic medicine.” This would end physical pain in the world for humans and animals alike.

A demonstrator wears a dog face mask prior a march against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 31, 2017.Credit: Ariana Cubillos / AP

Obviously, such efforts are doomed to fail. Indeed, it’s clear that, in contrast to other publics that suffer from an attitude of symbolic erasure, animals are not offended by having humanity imposed upon them, in the perception of humans.

In any event, the discussion about animal rights is a one-sided affair. It’s not superfluous to note that animals don’t read Facebook posts or attend academic conferences. The realm in which animals exist is completely different from the human sphere. Though animals possess emotions and feelings, the absolute majority of them lack any self-comprehension, still less concepts about people. It’s only in movies like “The Jungle Book” that animals address each other by name and have views about the proper attitude to be taken toward mankind.

Return of the big bad wolf

In fact, it’s humanity itself that is being hurt by the humanization of animals. There is a danger in attempting to annul the animal and assimilate it into the human. “A dog’s life is short and has to suffice for many experiences and much pampering,” the opening of a report on Channel 10 News asserted recently. According to the reporter, then, it is seemingly impossible to imagine a life that is not consumerist – including a demand for self-realization and a self-indulgent leisure culture. Similarly, reports about the Israeli army’s canine unit, Oketz, depicted the dogs as ambitious, patriotic, reconnaissance soldiers, interested in meaningful combat service.

We educate children who do not recognize the possibility of a radically different existence from their own self-experience. Ultimately, this is an extreme extension of narcissism – imperialism of “the absolute ego,” which leaves no room for anything external to it.

From this perspective, there was something refreshing in recent reports that wolves in the Judean Desert have been trying to prey on the children of hikers in the area. Precisely after wild animals were wholly subdued – to the point where they exist, in the human consciousness, only as a decoration, as a reflection of the bourgeois self or an object of saccharine compassion – the big bad wolf of fairy tales has suddenly lurched out from the darkness. This is a wild dog that does not need experiences and pampering, does not respond to requests to behave nicely and has no qualms about “saddening” humans or snatching their babies.

But you do not need a vivid imagination to guess what happens next: The wolves will be destroyed. After all, they are not behaving the way they should in terms of what’s acceptable in a progressive society. Because if animals have rights, they also have obligations. The same logic that seeks to foist humanization on animals will lead to the physical destruction of the animals whose behavior doesn’t live up to expectations. This time, though, it will not be symbolically, but with the help of a bullet to the head.



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