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Animal Empathy

By Kirby Browne, Permaculture student, National Environment centre, Thurgoona.

Recently I was confronted with a situation of animal neglect, where a pet was being locked all day in a small storage unit. After being largely ignored by the real estate agent managing the property, I was informed by an animal welfare officer and an exasperated landlord (I had not been the first to pursue the issue) that in this case all legal requirements, as far as they were concerned, were being met.  The animal was being supplied with food, water and shelter. Undeniably three basic necessities, but I couldn’t help wondering that perhaps these ‘legal’ requirements needed to be reviewed, to reflect more modern ideologies. The addition of space, sunlight and companionship to the list may be a good start.

Surely in a time when our pets wear clothes, sleep on our beds and have Face book accounts our legal standards of what is fair and humane animal treatment should have evolved beyond such a simplistic model, a model which denies the complexity and capacity of non-human animals and reduces their many instincts and functions to only those which hold special benefit to us. Perhaps driving the common acceptance of neglectful and even cruel practices is the human notion of separateness from other animal species’. It has become easy to trivialize the suffering of ‘lesser’ mammals because many of our regular habits and activities depend on our ability to do so.

Our empathy may be pushed to new boundaries if we understood fully, just how connected we are.  If we understood, for example, that our differences are outweighed by our similarities, that we diverged from other animals only because our thinking and reasoning capabilities increased, that our nervous systems are virtually identical and that most mammals have well developed centres for impulse, emotion and feeling.  I would argue that just because a being is not capable of abstract thought or conversation about its suffering does not mean that it suffers any less.

If we are striving to live lightly on this earth, I believe we should certainly take a long, hard look at the level of respect we extend to those other species we share it with, domestic and wild. I would make an appeal to all humans to remember that intrinsic to our ability to reason and speak, is a great obligation to those who cannot.

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