By Rondi Adamson
From The Ottawa Citizen, 07.27.2001
The great writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once told talk-show host Dick Cavett that he would not kill even a mosquito. “Are you saying,” asked the incredulous Cavett, “that you think the life of a mosquito has the same worth as the life of a man?” Singer replied, “I have seen no evidence to the contrary.”
Nor have I.
Earlier this month, a boy was attacked by a shark off the coast of Florida — while he was swimming in the shark’s habitat — and had his arm bitten off. I hope the boy continues his recovery, but I was dismayed when the shark was taken out of the water and shot, in order to get the boy’s arm back, and bystanders applauded.
How would humans feel if every animal we killed/maimed/ mutilated came chasing after us to get back their missing body parts — often their skin and coats? And what if they brought along a gaggle of their own kind to cheer them on? We would be outraged, because, you know, they’re just animals and who, exactly, do they think they are? We can do as we please to them. We can walk into their ever-dwindling territories and if one of them — bear, cougar, shark — should dare object, he had better watch out.
On Monday, I saw an advance screening of Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes. The 1968 original, directed by Franklin J. Shaffner, was a powerful indictment against the way people treat animals. From the harrowing sequence in which Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts are first hunted down by the apes, to the way the humans are treated like criminals — or used for scientific research — the message is clear. We are barbaric in our disregard for the feelings of other living creatures, creatures that experience fear and pain and love just as we do. If the tables were turned, we would be plenty unhappy.
Ultimately, Heston discovers they are not on an alien planet, but back on Earth. Man destroyed the world he knew, and brought about the simian world in which he now finds himself trapped. The new Planet of the Apes offers criticism of man’s fundamental inhumanity, but provides humans a far more comforting explanation for the existence of an ape-world.
However, one scene stands out. An assortment of chimps, orangs and gorillas is seated around a table, enjoying dinner as human servants mill about. An enlightened chimp (played by Helena Bonham Carter) says she believes humans have souls, to the shocked gasps of those around her.
Sound familiar? Those of us with Christian friends know full well the arrogant attitudes of some members of that society. Only humans have souls, and an embryo in a petri dish is more important than a living, breathing animal already roaming the planet. I wonder what Jesus would say about that? I wonder what he would think about six billion of us taking more and more habitat away from animals, and then being astonished when the animals occasionally make a foray onto our turf. Ottawa police recently shot and killed a moose in the city. Though the moose apparently took a nap, authorities said they couldn’t get close enough to it to use a tranquilizer gun, so the cops ended up shooting it dead. Hey, why make any special effort? It’s an animal.
We humans are insensitive to animals’ welfare or comfort, unless somehow it affects us. We eat them, wear them, use them for research and entertainment, hunt them for sport and hang parts of them on our walls — without any of it being necessary.
We are free to inflict torture on many of them without fear of legal reprisal. Things are changing in that area, but far too slowly. A man in California was recently sentenced to three years in prison for killing a dog, a ridiculously short sentence, and yet this was nothing short of a breakthrough. In Canada, Bill C-17, which would have been a step forward towards criminalizing animal abuse, died on the table last year. Efforts are being made to ensure that its successor, Bill C-15, is more successful in passing through Parliament. I’m not holding my breath. There is, I fear, no end to our lack of compassion.
And why not? Animals don’t vote, they have no money, and — don’t forget — they have no souls. I am not suggesting that we should give animals free reign. I am simply suggesting that we shouldn’t have it either, and that we ought to seriously rethink how we treat living beings who don’t happen to be human. Gandhi made the high and mighty wait to speak with him while he fed goats and tended to other animals. Like Singer, he saw no difference in their relative worth.
I’m afraid I sometimes do, and it’s usually people who come up short. Last week, out for dinner with a friend, I looked around the restaurant and saw a lot of slobbering, overweight jaws wolfing down big slabs of dead animals and all I could think was, “Damn you all to hell!”