Editorial: Humane ecology, Asia, and us
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1998:
The pages of this edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE not used to document “Who gets
the money?” largely concern the plight of animals caught in the economic crunch now
afflicting Asia. A theme common to both topics is the widening gap between the wealthy
few and the working poor. But the parallel most striking to us is between the status of animal
protection in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and in Asia at the end of the 20th.
In either time and place, icon species were pushed toward extinction by rapid
development, driven by the hope of a fast-growing population that aggressive entrepreneurship
could bring escape from poverty. Forests were logged, mountains blasted into slag
heaps, and just about any creature who could be killed was skinned and/or eaten.
Responding to the crisis, enlightened people created a counterforce with a reach
comparable to that of religion––albeit with still just a fraction of the political clout.
It would be a mistake to push the comparison farther. As ANIMAL PEOPLE
has often pointed out, the humane traditions of Asia are rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism,
and Jainism, and may be traced back at least 3,000 years. Whether east or west is following
the other is of interest only to the extent that tactical errors can be avoided.
East or west, historically or lately, the basic issue in animal protection is perennially
competition of values. The predominant value set, around the world, has evolved
from pragmatic response to personal needs. Countering it is recognition that human
actions––which may produce far-reaching consequences––must be governed by perspective
beyond the personal, framed in ethics which often contradict immediate self-interest.
Here in North America, the pragmatic view may be traced from the 19th century
doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” popularly translated into “Westward Ho!” It is rooted in
the work ethic and the notion that the first duty of a good steward of the earth is to achieve
production for human benefit.
The idealistic view can be traced from the slightly older notion of the “Noble
Savage.” As originally expressed in 18th century French philosophy, this included the
concept of holy wilderness, as well as the idea of naturally innocent natives. The New
World, especially the west, was perceived as a Garden of Eden.
John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and many others built upon this concept in trying
to temper economic opportunism with the idea that certain particularly precious places
and species should be protected and preserved.
Out of their efforts came the modern-day conservation movement––still often perceived,
despite having long since won majority support, as essentially elitist, since it
appears to presume that we have resources sufficient that we may “waste” some by not
using them. Clearly this sentiment is counter-intuitive to the perspective of people who
may be struggling to maintain even a moderate middle-class lifestyle.
The conflicts do not just exist in consideration of public policy. They exist as well
within most of us, who are either pragmatists or idealists by turn, depending on our circumstances
and the nature of the problem we are confronting.
But in most circumstances we don’t just choose the practical over the ideal, the
short-term over the long-term, or the converse.
Rather, we both individually and collectively search for reconciliation: ways we
can have our cake or our wilderness, and eat it too. If the possibilities are seen only as
“either/or,” with no “in between,” we tend to seek compromise, doing some of this and
some of that, often cancelling the intent of one action or policy with another.
In this manner, as Earth First! founder Dave Foreman pointed out nearly 20 years
ago, major environmental organizations have compromised away much of the wilderness
they have ostensibly been defending.
Often overlooked, underestimated, and underdeveloped, yet persisting as tenaciously
as alley cats, humane values offer an “in between” independent of compromise,
which when given full expression tend to encourage preservation where preservation is possible,
mitigate exploitation where exploitation is inevitable, and increase tolerance and
appreciation of wildlife and habitat wherever found––in yards as well as wilderness.
To most Americans, unfortunately, the word “humane” evokes only images of
caged dogs and cats. A mention of the ecological role of humane societies, even to their
directors and staff educators, might bring no more than a puzzled mention of their part in
reducing the numbers of homeless dogs and cats who might otherwise prey on wildlife.
Within the word “humane,” however, is the word “human.” The humane movement
originated in hopes of bettering humanity through extending the notion of doing to
others as one would be done by into addressing the practical problems of collective life.
The first humane cause was the abolition of slavery. Other early concerns of
humane societies included remedying the plight of impoverished widows and orphans,
achieving universal suffrage, preventing alcohol abuse, increasing literacy, abolishing
child labor, improving public safety, building hospitals, abolishing vivisection (which was
then commonly practiced on slaves, the mentally handicapped, and prisoners, as well as
upon animals), doing away with all forms of cruel and unusual punishment, and establishing
rehabilitation as the goal of penal systems.
Humane work until almost halfway through this century was inextricably intertwined
with social missionary work, primarily on behalf of human subjects. Animal abuse
was addressed initially as a symptom of human failing.
The Puritans in 1641 adopted one of the first humane laws intended to prevent animal
suffering because they believed––as is embodied in the language of the law––that to
subject a beast to “Tyrannie or Crueltie” was both an affront to the Creator and a waste of
resources, and that to tolerate either unkindness or bad stewardship would be to set before
children an example of unfitting conduct.
The Puritan humane law was an early attempt––by western standards––to reconcile
the tension between pragmatism and idealism by forming an ethic to accommodate both.
This notion was also central to each of the other great humane crusades, and is still
present in the ongoing discussion of “animal rights” versus “animal welfare.” The “animal
rights” perspective emphasizes not only the prohibition of “Crueltie” but also urges the abolition
of “Tyrannie,” perceived to be inherent in most uses of animals to serve human purpose.
The “animal welfare” perspective confines the emphasis to prohibiting cruelty.
The animal rights movement of today began, much as did the cry of “No compromise
in defense of Mother Earth!” from a sense of frustration among dedicated humanitarians
that essential objectives had been sacrificed by leading organizations whose focus had
shifted to emphasize the pragmatic at cost of ideals.
Overidden by roughriders
In between, out of the humane movement after the Civil War came the first U.S.
environmental movement, when former Abolitionists including American SPCA founder
Henry Bergh and Women’s Humane Society and American Anti-Vivisection Society
founder Caroline Earle White took up the cause of animals––both domestic and wild.
Bergh, White, and their peers, noting the decline of the beaver, the Carolina
parakeet, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the North American bison, and the passenger
pigeon, very actively lobbied for species and habitat conservation laws.
The draft laws they advanced, including one which fell just a few votes short of
passage in New York state, would have prohibited practices including hunting and trapping.
Following Bergh’s early death, however, ardent hunter/conservationist Theodore Roosevelt
among other New York state power brokers negotiated a deal whereby the American SPCA
was awarded the New York City animal control contract in 1895 on a semi-permanent basis
(returned to the city in 1994), and the rival American Humane Association eventually
received a contract (relinquished in 1950) to operate the New York State orphanage system,
more-or-less in exchange for withdrawing opposition to hunting and trapping, and withdrawing
as well from any activity on behalf of wildlife.
This was the turning point after which humane societies evolved into their present
form, while hunter/conservationists came to dominate policy-making pertaining to wildlife.
The humane cause, then linked closely to many concerns of women, continued
with a support base which to this day remains more than 80% female. As the animals with
whom women traditionally have most contact are those within the household, the emphasis
of humane societies on dogs and cats was almost inevitable.
Both then and now, men do more than 97% of all hunting and trapping. Thus
hunter/conservationist organizations are correspondingly reliant on male support––and as
men tend to control more wealth, to this day eight of the 10 largest animal-and/or-habitat
charities in the U.S. are hunter/conservationist; only two are humane societies.
But the chief ramification of the divorce of humane considerations from conservation
was that “Be kind to animals” came to be seen as sentimental, applicable to the domestic
sphere but not to wildlife. Species protection was promoted as a matter of creating abundance––whether
of deer and geese to be shot, or of grizzly bears and lynx to keep them off
the Endangered Species List so that more roads may be built and more trees cut.
Animal protection work is now wrongly associated with concern for the individual
as opposed to the species, while conservationists struggle with the paradox that the survival
of species cannot be achieved without protecting individuals.
The central problem in the pragmatic-vs.-practical dichotomy is that considerations
are artificially separated. Re-extending the humane ethic to wildlife resolves the problem––
and does it in a much less threatening way than can be done through impositions of law.
While anti-cruelty laws are the last resort of the humane approach, humane teaching is by
concept and design intended to be part of all teaching, beginning with mother-and-child,
and is meant to protect and enhance the home environment as much as anywhere else.
The successful humane educator does not just go into a classroom or public place
and preach. Rather, he or she sets an ongoing example of consideration toward all life, in
such a manner as to inspire emulation––whether as great teacher or simply as parent.
We hope that the new generation of Asian animal protection organizations will not
trade the concern for all species which many now espouse to achieve short-term gains, as
did their U.S. counterparts at a similar juncture. We hope as well to see humane values
regain currency within U.S. environmentalism, and to see the growing humane involvement
in wildlife issues become the dawn of a reinvigorated humane movement here, as broad as
the movement Henry Bergh and Caroline Earle White envisioned, which was nothing less
than to establish humaneness as one of the requirements of any acceptable human action.