There’s a long way to a world where humans and animals are treated at par. This is why the AWBI’s move to think about the welfare of animals amid COVID-19 threat is praiseworthy

The chairman, Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), Dr OP Chaudhary, has acted commendably in issuing a circular, dated March 11, 2020, to the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories about pet animals at a time of Coronavirus. Stating that it was being brought to the board’s notice that animal owners were “leaving their animals to stray without proper food, water or shelter” due to the spread of COVID-19, the circular added, “In this regard, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has clarified that dogs and cats are not involved in spreading infection in the current episode of Coronavirus infection.” Further, the circular reminded that cruelty to animals was an offence under Sections 3 and 11(1) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and the rules thereunder, as well as violative of the Supreme Court’s directives in this regard.

The circular stated that AWBI had already advised the Governments of States and Union Territories to see that stray animals were looked after by local bodies, which were responsible for the matter. It requested Chief Secretaries to issue circulars to all concerned to create awareness among the public about not leaving the animals they were taking care of to stray or not inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on animals because of the spread of COVID-19 and directing the law enforcement authorities to ensure the same. A copy of the circulars, it ended by saying, might be forwarded to the board.

Here is a kind of pro-active action on the part of authorities one does not ordinarily see. Irrespective of the results that follow in its immediate aftermath, it will add to the pressure, building up over time, on the authorities and the public, to treat animals humanely and according to law. It is going to be a long haul. Cruelty to animals is part of a wider proneness to hatred and cruelty that is as integral a component of the human psyche as love and compassion. Humans enjoy being cruel, whether to other humans or animals. As Erich Fromm points out in his seminal work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, animals “do not enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on other animals, nor to ‘they kill for nothing.’ Sometimes an animal seems to display sadistic behaviour — for instance, a cat playing with a mouse; but it is an anthropomorphic interpretation to assume that the cat enjoys the suffering of the mouse; any fast-moving object can serve as a plaything whether it is a mouse or a ball of wool.”

“Man,” Fromm points out, “is the only mammal who is a large-scale killer and a sadist.” He holds that indulgence in destruction and cruelty can always cause a man to feel “intense satisfaction; masses of men can suddenly be seized by lust for blood. Individuals and groups may have a character structure that makes them eagerly wait for — or create — situations that permit expressions of destructiveness.”

Animals have been a special target of human savagery because the dominant global discourse arising in the background of the European Renaissance and the  18th century Enlightenment have excluded them from the moral universe of the humans. The two principal grounds for doing so is that they, unlike people, lacked rationality and were created to serve humans. Neither ground survives scrutiny. Irrationality is as much a part of the human psyche as rationality. Otherwise so many people would not have cheered Hitler and Mussolini or clung to countless superstitious beliefs. Elizabeth Costello, the main protagonist in JM Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, puts things in perspective when she says, “Both reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of G  God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency of human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum in human thinking.”

Reason, the cutting edge of rationality, is an instrument for analysing and assessing information and integrating it into the consciousness. Equally, it is an instrument for solving problems and coping with the world through the establishment of causal relationships based on thought process like induction, the drawing of conclusions from empirical observation and deduction, the drawing of conclusions from premises derived through induction. The conclusions it has yielded have, however, often proved wrong, especially when the process of reasoning has been based on incorrect premises. As important, reason is value neutral. It can equally serve moral and immoral causes.

Second, reason has not been the only instrument for coping with and modifying the world. Sometimes instinct has worked where reason has failed or instinctive responses have triggered rational speculation widening the frontiers of knowledge and technology and changing the world materially, philosophically and morally. Animals have far sharper instincts — or the sixth sense if you will — than human beings. More, they have far stronger and sharper faculties like that of hearing and smell, can often see in the dark and have far stronger survival capacities than men and women. Coetzee further makes Elizabeth Costello say, “scientific experimentation that leads you to conclude that animals are imbeciles is profoundly anthropocentric. It values your ability to find your way out of a sterile maze, ignoring the fact that if the researcher who designed the maze were to be parachuted into the jungles of Borneo, he or she would be dead of starvation in a week. If I as a human being were told that the standards by which animals are measured are human standards, I would be insulted. It is experiments themselves that are imbecile.”

Finally, animals may not be rational in the manner humans are but they can reach conclusions by weighing options and map courses of action to be followed. They feel emotions such as grief and joy exactly the same way that humans do. They are as entitled to free and joyous lives as humans. Most of them do not do so because they have either been enslaved and mercilessly exploited or savagely hunted as sport. Things have improved. Many countries have legislated against cruelty to animals, banned or limited animal experimentation and banned or restricted hunting. It is, however, still a long way to a world in which humans and animals are treated legally and morally at par. Time was when people thought that human slavery could not be abolished. It was. There will also be a time when animal slavery will cease to exist.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)