Excerpts from keynote address

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2001:

Excerpts from keynote address to the Asia for Animals conference,
May 14, 2001, in Manila, the Philippines, by Senator Orlando S. Mercado, Ph.D.
Today is Election Day in the Philippines. We have been through a frenzy of political activity in the past three months, culminating in the casting of ballots by more than 31 million Filipinos. It has not been easy. In politics there are many opportunities to lose faith and be disillusioned. This is why the conventional wisdom in Washington D.C. is, “If you want a friend, get a dog”.

Four years ago we did get a dog. At first, it seemed difficult to imagine keeping a dog in a small condominium unit in the city. My wife and I were concerned about litter, falling hair, and feeding schedules, but my 12-year-old step-daughter insisted, so somewhat reluctantly we gave in.

Today, our pug Pongo is a source of pure joy. Even after a long hectic day, then as Secretary of National Defense and recently during the election campaign, I have found great satisfaction in talking to and stroking this little animal, whose needs are so simple and whose love seems so unconditional.
These are traits that many human beings seem to have lost: simplicity and the ability to love unconditionally. They say that we “domesticate” our animals and teach them. But there is much that they teach us, if we are willing to learn. There is something about having a pet that gives the pet owner perspective and a sense of “grounding.”

Pets teach us to appreciate what we might call the simple joys of being alive. Pets teach us to live in the moment. Pongo is the only creature who can prod me to stand up during a meal to get him a treat just by giving me a soul-wrenching look with round eyes that seem to beg for mercy.
And yet, as I speak, dogs in Asia are slaughtered by the million. Despite laws against eating dogs, deeply ingrained cultural beliefs allow this to continue unabated. Dogs are also slaughtered for fur-trimmed fashion items. The same is true of cats and bears.

Apart from the killing of animals for commercial purposes, millions of animals are endangered from the destruction of habitat. Among mammals in the Philippines, there are a total of 153 species, of whom 49–a third–are threatened with extinction. Since 1999 the Philippines has been considered a Global Biodiversity Hotspot. But in the past 50 years we have lost most of our forests.

In the early 1990s, as a Senator, I fought for legislation to enforce a total ban on commericial logging. But unfortunately this was blocked in our House of Representatives, and today, less than 15% of total forest cover is left. Meanwhile we are all helpless victims and witnesses of flooding at the slightest drizzle, landslides, soil erosion, crop loss, coral reef destruction, and a host of other problems that began with the destruction of our forests.

People and politics

All this has come about because of our inability to protect the interests of the many against the interests of the powerful few. While we appreciate animals and the environment at a personal level and a community level, this bettle must be waged on many fronts. Much can be done at the political and social level to decisively arrest further degradation of the environment, further loss of habitat and further threats to animals.

The struggles for environmental conservation and animal protection cannot occur in a vacuum. Each is a struggle brought about by what the powerful do to the powerless. Hence it is essential that this cause not be separated from our general effort to strengthen our democratic institutions.

There has been a tendency for activists to try to by-pass political systems and bring about change through popular movements alone. Do not get me wrong on this point. While popular movments have their value, this should be seen only as part of a process, the end-point of which should be governments which are able to make hard decisions that will benefit the majority in the long run. This cannot happen if we allow our democratic institutions to stay weak, and where we allow “interest groups” of any kind to control and
dictate the political agenda of the nation.Throughout the developing world, habitat loss comes from the same social problems that spawn widespread poverty and huge gaps between the rich and the poor.

Where do we start in our quest for an Asia that can be a haven for all creatures? Complex problems demand complex solutions. Hence it is important for us to understand that there are various opportunities for intervention and various strategies that must be used.

At the level of home and the family, much can be done by setting an example, by exposing children to pets, teaching them to be gentle and to care for all forms of life. At school, much more is needed than just providing young people with information about the environment. Adding environmental protection to the curriculum may not be the only way to address this
problem. Much more can be learned from actually participating in reforestation projects, raising small animals, and observing the actual progression of species and habitat.

Communities and local governments have a great role to play as well, in promoting responsible pet-ownership. Programs for immunization against rabies are a must. Local ordinances that help prevent the slaughter of dogs and cats are in order. Protection of
local areas that are rich in biodiversity could generate community income. Coral reef protection and replacement would help coastal areas.

Religious institutions must also do their share in promoting the principles of stewardship and promoting environmental protection as a social responsbility. National agencies and national leaders must relize the tremendous responsibility that they must take in making decisions that affect not only their own political futures, but the lives and well-being of future generations.

Democratic institutions must be strengthened so that they can truly represent the will of the majority. Regionally and internationally, much can be achieved through meetings and exchanges like this one, as many animal issues cross borders and cultures.

In closing, I think that everyone should have a pet, if Asia is to become a haven for animals. Well, what about people who can’t afford pets? People who cannot even afford to feed themselves or their families? People who do not even have shelter or safe water?Perhaps this is the point.

If we strive to improve the quality of human life, part of that effort should be to improve our ability to relate to other species not just as sources of food but as companions who share the planet. We should work for an Asia where everyone can afford to have a pet. Maraming Salamat at Mabuhay!

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