Can we win?

I was in Turkey recently to speak at a workshop called by the Dutch Party for Animals. The purpose of it was to get together all the animal-centric political parties and compare experiences. The Dutch Party for Animals has several members of Parliament and members of the state assemblies.


The mood was optimistic. If people could vote for animal welfare, then the world was surely going towards goodness. But the most interesting and true statement came from a major philosopher of animal rights, the Canadian Will Kymlicka, who replied to the statement that we were winning because people were learning how to make alternatives to animal use in every field – alternative fur, meat or, experimentation models. He said “let us not forget that there are thousands of young, inventive minds that are working at newer and newer ways to use animals as well. And they are far ahead of us because the human being is an easily bored creature and he needs newer and newer toys and types of food.”


So true. My hotel room’s only English channel was a Japanese one and I watched a programme on innovations in fish eating. Captive fish are fed lemons and strawberries so that their flesh, when eaten raw in sushi, tastes of fruit rather than fish. Shrimp are being cooked in a way that even after boiling they are still alive when they reach the diner’s table. On the plane back I scolded a woman who was talking loudly about her sealskin bedroom slippers. Seal babies are killed by hunters being hammered on the head with pickaxes. Her defence was that she was helping the “farmers” by buying their product.


Everyday I read about newer ways in which animals are being misused.


The United States is experimenting on cockroaches and beetles to see if they can make them spy machines. Their antennae are cut off and replaced with electrical wires to relay sounds. An antenna is a sensitive limb – imagine cutting off both your arms and having them replaced with robot arms.


There are 110 billion landmines in the ground, spread over 70 countries. India is one of these countries with thousands of landmines in border areas. They block access to land for farmers and shepherds and, long after the wars have ended, the mines remain. Removing them is a problem because they explode easily, killing or maiming the remover.


So what is being done to get landmines out of the ground? Traditionally, they were found using metal detectors carried by workers or machines. This method failed to detect plastic mines. The UN reports that for “every 5000 mines cleared, one worker is killed and two injured by accidental explosions. So, of course animals have now been chosen as mine finders.  The Anti-Personnel Landmine Detection Product Development of Belgium, is using African Giant Pouched Rats. Since starting the project in 2010, these animals have found 861 landmines, 1 cluster bomb and 6,216 small arms and ammunitions. The rats are taught to respond to the smell of TNT. How are they trained? By nature , when passing over a hole, these naturally curious creatures will always pause to sniff the contents. Taking advantage of this, the trainers place TNT in some holes. When the rats pause over the holes containing TNT, a clicker, is sounded and food given as a reward.  Any other pause is ignored. The result is that when the rats walk through a mine field, they pause for five seconds only when they smell TNT, making it easy for people to map out where all the mines are located. How many rats have died so far? Who cares.


Life on earth is nasty, brutish and short – for all of us. The dominant genes of the human accentuate nastiness to such an extreme that people who do good, especially for other species, are seen as idealistic oddities or crackpots, instead of as role models. From the time they are children; clever young people have respect for all other animals laughed out of them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a famous oil painting by Annibale Carracci, a 16th century Italian artist. Titled Two Children Teasing a Cat, the painting portrays a smiling boy, a young girl, and a cat. The boy holds the cat with one hand and has a large crayfish in the other.  He has provoked the crayfish into clamping one of its massive claws onto one of the cat’s ears. The little girl smiles in delight.


This glorification of wanton cruelty in children is what leads to a food specialist designing ways in which to boil animals so that they remain alive till they are eaten.  Childhood animal abuse is surprisingly common. A review of two dozen research reports finds that 35% of violent offenders had been animal abusers when they were kids – but so had 37% of non criminal men. I see perfectly normal people throw stones or shoot airgun pellets at neighbours’ dogs. Recently, a doctor in Agra set fire to 10 puppies.


A so called scientist hides his viciousness by calling his work “science”. I know one researcher who has killed hundreds of animals in order to prove that animals that are asleep are not awake.


In order to show the behaviour of “ normal” young humans and diagnose the relationship between animal abuse and personality characteristics such as narcissism, psychopathy (a trait characterized by selfishness, lack of remorse, and impulsivity) and sadism, researchers at the University of British Columbia constructed an insect crunching machine. The bug-cruncher was a modified coffee grinder with a tube attached to the top where you could drop live insects. When it was dumped into the machine, the device would make a gruesome crunching sound. The animals used in the study were three pill bugs named Muffin, Tootsie, and Ike. Pill bugs are coffee bean sized and more related to lobsters than true insects. Sometimes called roly-polis, they are cute and sometimes even kept as pets. To enhance their likability, each bug was placed in a individual cup labelled with its name. (In reality the animals were not killed because they went into a holding area just above the blades – but the students did not know that)


After being told the researchers were studying “personality and tolerance for challenging jobs,” the college student participants completed questionnaires. They were then told they had to conduct one of four noxious tasks. They either could kill live bugs by dropping them into the crunching machine, or help the experimenter kill bugs, clean a dirty toilet, or place their hand in ice cold water. If a subject chose to kill bugs, they had to actually drop at least one of the bugs into the cruncher. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to rate how much pleasure they got from participating in the study.


27% of these “normal” people chose to kill Muffin, Tootsie, or Ike by personally dropping them into the crusher. Another 27% chose to help the experimenter kill the bugs.  Further, the bug killers could either stop at Muffin, or they could also, for kicks, toss Ike and/or Tootsie into the machine. The researchers found that a large percentage chose to put in the other bugs as well. Did they like what they did? Yes, they answered.


These are the clever young people who find new ways in which to use animals every day. Can people like me win against them? I doubt it.


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*