QuestionWhy do people seem to care more about the suffering of animals than humans?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. We talk to sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers about the disproportionate outcry over the death of Cecil the Lion.
Cecil—the 13-year-old male Southwest African lion named after Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia (known as Zimbabwe since 1980)—was a fixture at Hwange National Park, the country’s largest game reserve and the park’s biggest tourist attraction. He was accustomed to having his picture taken and reportedly trusting of humans. Scientists at Oxford University studied Cecil for an ongoing project about conservation. Last month, Cecil was shot with an arrow and, it is believed, lured out of the protected zone of the sanctuary.
Forty hours later, he was killed with a rifle, skinned, and decapitated. His headless body was missing the GPS tracking collar that he had been fitted with by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). Walter Palmer, an American dentist and big-game hunter, paid over $50,000 to stalk and kill Cecil. The despised Minnesotan has since closed down his practice after becoming the target of widespread backlash from celebrities, activists and the public (trending on Twitter under #CecilTheLion).
But there’s another kind of backlash taking place over the killing, namely, expressing the troubling nature of such outspoken support over the death of a single animal, when mounting incidents of unarmed black men and women being brutalized and killed by police in the US, largely, with little to no recourse, don’t seem to inspire the same outpouring of mainstream attention and anger.
Hoping to gain some insights from sociological, behavioral, and ethical perspectives, we reached out to several experts whose professional focus included issues of human-animal relations, race, politics, and gender. We wanted to find out if people respond differently to images of animal versus human suffering—and, given the aforementioned cases and claims, why some people seem more moved by accounts of animal abuse and murder than those endured by fellow human beings.
Walter Palmer expressed “regret” in a statement, saying he “relied on the expertise of [his] local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” Zimbabwean officials are hoping to extradite Palmer from the United States to face charges. But the BBC also reported that, “the lion’s death has not registered much with the locals.” (Palmer has a felony conviction in the United States for lying to federal agents about where he illegally killed a bear in 2006.)
celebrities have taken to social media expressing outrage, in concert with various animal rights groups. Comedian and late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel raised more than $150,000 in donations in less than 24 hours for the WildCRU. Petitions are being inked left and right, debates about the banning of bills related to big-game hunting abound, and Cecil fans are speaking out on Twitter via #CecilTheLion.
The trending of #IfCecilWasBlack riffs on the prejudice that people like the late Eric Garner and Mike Brown still face, even in death. Meanwhile, the parody hashtag #AllLionsMatter (referencing the #BlackLivesMatter movement) was also created to highlight the sense of disproportionate attention given to Cecil.
Elizabeth Cherry, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Manhattanville College
It’s much easier to vilify faraway evils that are rare in occurrence and seem to have an individual at fault than it is to blame an entire system. This is especially true when people play a role in and benefit from those systems. It’s easier to see one sole person as evil than it is to comprehend social structures such as institutionalized racism.
Of course, caring for animals and caring for humans are not mutually exclusive, and surely no one criticizing the focus on Cecil’s death wishes ill upon the lion. The criticisms, rather, are of our collective blindness towards the entrenched social, political, and cultural systems that create social problems like institutionalized racism in the first place. In this sense, if we paid more attention to the systemic roots of Cecil the Lion’s death, rather than viewing the dentist’s actions in a vacuum, we would see it exemplifies many social problems attacked by human rights activists: that those with wealth have the power to get what they want, that our society equates masculinity with violence, and that, on local, national, and global levels, there exists an unequal relationship between privileged whites and people of color.
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, California State University, Dominguez Hills
The nostalgic pursuit to capture wilderness and wildlife before they disappear—and even the attempt to keep them from disappearing—deflects white society’s attention away from its own brutality.
There are a number of understandings operating simultaneously, and some of these are quite apparent to those who possess them—others are not, though they are still at play. The distress that mainstream US society feels about Cecil the Lion is linked to the immediate and conscious concern for the senseless killing of animals that are on the verge of extinction. Witness, for example, images of what is purportedly Donald Trump’s adult children killing animals associated with Africa circulating on social media. Witness, also, the recent killings of other African wildlife by European royalty and American civilians, which also went viral. From my perspective, public shaming of the culprits who commit these absurdities is in order.
But there’s another layer to the mainstream attention that such incidents garner, and it has to do with a kind of social and cultural nostalgia that laments the inevitable destruction of what is otherwise perceived to be distant and foreign. That African wildlife is the object of charity and outrage on social media at the same time that evidence of state-sponsored racist terror is so readily available on the same platforms is not, therefore, altogether different than late 19th-century and early 20th-century lament for the extinction of the “Western frontier” and the “noble savage.” Consider that both lowbrow and highbrow American culture at the time directed much of its gaze at representations of the “vanishing frontier.” If the remaining, endangered “other” could somehow be preserved and stored within existing social and cultural frameworks (where the elevated social status of whites was buttressed and went unquestioned), then those who might recognize their inescapable complicity within the racist and colonial tradition—against both blacks and the First Peoples—might be absolved of their guilt.
It was at this time that the US Post Office circulated imagery across the nation of state-sponsored racist torture and murder. In the end, the nostalgic impulse to preserve the “savage” before “he” disappeared was a kind of schizophrenic flimflam that deflected white society’s attention away from the brutality of its own racist projects.
This is the cultural and historical context within which contemporary outcry for vanishing African wildlife exists alongside the implicit acceptance of racial violence.
Cecil the Lion’s killing in perspective
THE NUMBER of lions left in the wild in Africa, which amounts to less than 7% of the estimated “original” population.
THE NUMBER of farms in Zimbabwe whose main purpose is to breed lions for wealthy tourists to hunt.
THE NUMBER of captive-bred lions killed legally in Zimbabwe each year.
THE NUMBER of lion trophies exported from Zimbabwe in 2013 alone.
THE NUMBER of wild lion carcasses exported from Africa each year.
THE alledged sum Walter Palmer paid to a professional hunting guide to stalk and kill Cecil.
THE approximate price of a lion hunting license in Zimbabwe.
THE estimated revenue that hunting brings in each year for the government of neighboring Tanzania.
Gail Mosby, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, West Virginia State University
Most people are moved by the suffering of animals. Animal behaviorists have informed our intellect about animal responses to various stimuli, and intuitively, we know that anything that lives experiences pain of a variety of types and degrees. Animals are no longer on the fringes of society—we have embraced them and acknowledge that they are inextricably linked to our well-being as a culture. So, when we observe instances of humans disregarding the sanctity of animal life, it evokes fear.
Why? Because there is abundant and compelling evidence from many corridors of social science that draws a causal link between animal abuse and murder and corresponding disregard for human empathy. To kill a lion, possibly only for ego-driven pleasure and bravado, is quite telling. It signals the possibility (and, more likely, the probability) that the individual who demonstrates a blatant indifference to the pain of an animal lacks the capacity to regard human suffering, even that which he may be the cause of. Rather than killing the lion because he had the resources and inclination to do so, his efforts could have been better spent changing the lives of those for whom dental care is woefully lacking!
Nicole J. Lucas, PhD
Associate Professor; Chairperson, Department of Sociology, Fayetteville State University
The discourse surrounding the killing of a beloved lion is distinctly different from the discourse regarding human suffering. In our society, negative stereotypes towards various minority groups negatively impact their experiences and chances within critical social institutions (government, the judicial system, medicine, economics, education, etc.). Discrimination based on race and other social characteristics (class, gender, age, religious affiliation, etc.) also impacts the way people relate to, that is, empathize and sympathize with one another. Humans simply do not have the same type of deep-seated prejudices about animals as they do for other people.
Kenneth Shapiro, PhD
President of the Board, Animals and Society Institute; Editor, Society and Animals; Co-Editor, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science
Of course, in general the proposition is false as a staggering amount of animal suffering is not even recognized as such. I refer to the factory-farmed animal parts on some of our plates, the testing of cosmetics and drugs on animals in laboratories, the captive animals deprived of natural behaviors and sociality.
So the public’s response to nonhuman animal suffering is highly selective and largely limited to companion animals and certain celebrated megafauna—a stranded whale, a poached lion.
One reason for those occasions when people are more moved by animal suffering than human suffering is the relative lack of ambivalence in human-animal relationships: my dog rarely talks back, although she often clearly expresses her reactions and anticipations. She is also more unquestioning in her loyalty, although the loyalty is readily transferred to other individuals.
Another explanation is that our selective breeding of companion animals has led to neoteny, or the retention of infantile or childlike features into adulthood, e.g., big eyes and forehead. As a result, companion animals elicit the caregiving responses that we have for children.
Katy M. Pinto, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, California State University, Dominguez Hills
My sociological perspective is that this issue is best understood if we see just how complicated and conflicting our views are related to animals. In our society, certain animals gain status or reverence. My favorite example is a dog. In the US, we do not view dogs as food; in other parts of the world, dogs are still food. Here, dogs sleep inside our homes, sometimes in our beds, and we feed them. Elsewhere, dogs are used for protection against other predators (including lions) and are viewed as creatures who are dirty and should not be allowed inside the house.
Our current collective outrage and disgust stems from the positive view of lions. Lions are respected here; they are mythical creatures that we see in a zoo, a circus, or in Las Vegas. We all collectively agree they are not food and that they should not be hunted. Lions are essentially protected, though, some would argue that they are also exploited for human entertainment. Lions are not in their natural habitat in America, and when they are on view, it is for human enjoyment. But as you can see from protests against circuses, we haven’t collectively agreed that using lions for human enjoyment is wrong. So this remains a grey area, and one that we see come up with regard to other animals (e.g. dolphins, whales, elephants).
The privileging of one animal over another also points to our complex views on the treatment of animals. For example, a deer or cow might not get the same reaction as a lion because some people say they are food while others disagree.
I should probably also clarify what I mean when I use the term collective. In all societies, we have unspoken rules. Some of these rules are crystal clear, like how much space you should give people when they stand in front of you at the ATM or the market. Some rules are more nebulous, like whether or not to call someone right away after your first date. We know what the rules are through years of socialization by family, friends, and the media. Although we can’t always define or articulate them precisely, when someone breaks a rule, we know it.
Some of our views on animals are simple: we do not eat pets or have sex with them (and preferably all animals). But, some are less straightforward. Should we use animals for entertainment? Should we eat animals? If so, which animals should we eat, and how should we kill? Should we hunt animals? Which animals can we hunt, and why is hunting one animal versus another better or worse? We live with a lot of competing points of view.
So why do images of animals create more outrage than images of people? We seem to collectively think that certain animals are innocent creatures that should be protected. We don’t attribute the same innocence to people. We collectively still hold victims accountable when they are mistreated. Implicitly, we question, “What did they do to bring that on themselves?” We recognize that animals don’t “ask” to be killed, but we don’t give people the same benefit of the doubt. And our reactions are “tainted” by our views about the “victim,” their race, gender, and class all shape our views about their plight.
Police misconduct in the United States by the numbers
THE approximate NUMBER of “justifiable” police homicides reported by the FBI each year.
THE NUMBER of police homicides reported by the Killed by Police Facebook page since its launch on May 1, 2013.
THE estimated NUMBER of deaths caused by law enforcement officers acting in “the line of duty” annually.
THE number of officers accused of misconduct according to a 2010 study by researcher David Packman.
THE percentage of officers convicted on misconduct charges.
THE PERCENTAGE of defendants from the general population convicted on felony charges.
THE PERCENTAGE of officers incarcerated for misconduct charges.
THE PERCENTAGE of defendants from the general population incarcerated for felony charges.
Earl Wright II, PhD
Professor, Department of Africana Studies; Affiliate Faculty, Department of Sociology, University of Cincinnati
Many people respond differently to images of human suffering than to animal suffering. Moreover, people respond differently to suffering according to their ability, or lack thereof, to relate or connect to the entity being harmed. We have long been told that dogs (and animals in general) are man’s best friend. With that notion in mind, for a majority of Americans, most of whom have had some sort of relationship with an animal in their lifetime, any harm to an animal brings sorrow because it reminds them of their favorite or memorable pet.
As it pertains to race, because we live in a society that continues to struggle with issues of race while experiencing relatively high levels of segregation, some whites, for example, are unable to summon the same type of emotional connection to the suffering of non-whites as they can about the suffering of animals. For blacks, who are not animal lovers at the same rate as whites, the idea that outrage over the death of an animal trumps outrage over the death of a non-white person is abhorrent.
Arieahn Matamonasa, PhD
Licensed psychologist; Assistant Professor, DePaul University; Researcher in human-animal bond and the prevention of violence
Animals may make us more human.
There is research to support that some people may feel more empathy and increased reactivity to media reports of violence against animals than to reports of human violence. Sociologists Arnold Arluke and Jack Levin of Northeastern University did a study of this recently. They suggest that we may be desensitized to stories of human violence, but more specifically that in media reports the focus is on perpetrators rather than the narratives of victims as individuals, and this may also be a factor in why people tend to respond more strongly to media reports of animal victims, such as the killing of Marius, the 18-month-old giraffe, at the Copenhagen Zoo or, most recently, the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. Whether human or animal, humans tend to feel greater empathy when they are relating to an individual rather than to a group.
Social constructs are keys to understanding all types of violence and reactions to violence, whether it is interpersonal or social violence—against humans or animals. Perceptions of vulnerability or innocence are important factors in these reactions. We know from psychological and social research that the more we identify an “individual” with a name, face, and life story, the more likely we are able to empathize with them and not perpetrate or tolerate violence against them.
Alternately, when violence is perpetrated against groups of “others,” we tend to psychologically distance ourselves from empathy. This is called “homogenization.” Psychologically, when violence is directed at “Jews” or “gays” or elephants or seals—not to individuals—this tends to make it harder to empathize. I’ve read some of the media reports that if Cecil was “just another lion” and not a prominent individual, there would not be such an outcry. Given what we know about empathy and the importance of our perception of the victim as an individual, this is probably true. In addition, had the killer known the lion he was attempting to kill was an “individual,” perhaps he would not have killed him —unless he had psychopathic tendencies, in which case typical frames of mind do not apply.
If we begin to accept biases against a particular group and make them “less than,” we take even more steps away from empathy, toward “dehumanization.” The final cognitive leap for violence is demonization. I can see this happening in this in the media, where the man responsible for Cecil’s death is now vilified as a “public enemy.” This is dangerous in that people are attacking the abstract symbol he represents and no longer identifying him as an individual.
On the surface this story has a clear victim and killer, and it seems fairly black and white. Most people would agree that trophy hunting is a terrible practice, along with many other things that humans do to cause suffering to others and harm our planet, however, even this story on closer examination would unearth many complex issues of race, class, poverty, human and animal suffering, and many other factors.
Psychologists and sociologists are learning much about empathy and human-animal connections. We are learning that humans who have difficulty with bonding and relationships due to the pain and suffering other humans have caused them can heal and learn about empathy through the love of an animal. Recognizing our fellow creatures as sentient beings and raising awareness of suffering makes us more human.
Leslie Irvine, PhD
Professor, Gender, Qualitative and Interpretive Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder
The short answer is that it depends on which animals and which people. The sympathy people feel depends on their perceived innocence of the victim. In a paper forthcoming in the journal Society & Animals, Arnold Arluke, Jack Levin, and I examine the assumption that people are more concerned about the suffering of animals than of people. Arnie and Jack conducted research on this at Northeastern University. They had 240 students read one of four hypothetical stories, allegedly from the Boston Globe. The accounts were the same, but the victims were either a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant, or a human adult. After reading the fictitious article, students rated the degree of sympathy they felt on a 15-point scale. They were most upset by the stories about the infant, followed by the puppy, then the adult dog, and, finally, the adult human.
← The study attracted national attention after Arluke and Levin presented the results at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association two years ago. Levin’s quote in the Huffington Post sums the results:
“Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering. Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component.”
Margo DeMello, PhD
Human-Animal Studies Program Director, Animals and Society Institute
It’s easy to look at the recent media coverage of and public outrage over Cecil the Lion’s death, and compare it to, say, the death of Sandra Bland (or the other four black women who died in jail in the last month in the U.S.), and to suggest that people do not care about human suffering. However, I think that does not get at what’s actually going on here.
While it’s true that individual cases of animal atrocities (Cecil’s death; Caitlyn, the pit bull who was found with her mouth taped shut; the nameless kitten who was violently thrown against a wall; Allan, the rabbit who was killed live on a Danish radio program, etc.) generate massive media attention and public anger, this does not actually mean that people care more about animals than people.
It’s far easier to be outraged at the individual cases of cruelty than at the vast numbers of animal lives lost each year to human greed, vanity, or personal taste.
Psychologists have demonstrated that as the number of people (or animals) in distress increases, our compassion for them decreases; we bring our attention to individual cases of suffering because they are easier for us to process. But it’s more than just numbers at work here.
When we focus on individual stories of animal cruelty (or the more positive accounts of rehabilitation tales), we excuse ourselves from looking at the systematic horrors that ensnare animals in this country. In fact, I would argue that the coverage of each individual case actually obfuscates the institutionalized cruelty that not only occurs each day in our society, but that we ourselves participate in. It’s far easier to be outraged at the individual cases of cruelty than at the vast numbers of animal lives lost each year to human greed, vanity, or personal taste.
After all, Americans cause the deaths of far more animals than anyone else on the planet, thanks to our hyper-consumerist society. We love to eat meat; we want to believe our products are safe (even though product testing and even medical experimentation do not guarantee this); we buy, breed, and sell animals without a thought to their future; and a minority of us even kill animals for sport. Expressing anger over the cruel killing of a single animal does nothing to change these circumstances. If Americans really cared more about animals than people, we would not have some of the laxest animal protection laws in the world, and we wouldn’t directly participate in the larger structural forces that allow billions of animals to suffer needlessly each year. But we do.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Americans are, in fact, outraged when some people are killed. But, because of the ways that racism—both personal and institutionalized—still operate in this country, we tend to reserve that outrage for certain kinds of people (in particular, young, middle class, white women). The suffering of people of color simply doesn’t generate the same kind of media attention or public rage. This, I think, is the question that we should be trying to answer.
Animal deaths in the United States by the numbers
The number of land animals are killed for food each year.
The number of land animals killed for research and product testing.
The number of land animals killed at animal shelters.
the number of land animals killed by hunters.
Source: Margo DeMello
Karen Houle, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph
Cecil the Lion is very particular that you can’t even really plop that case under the giant and varied category of “animal,” let alone the category of “suffering.” He was such a prominent and celebrated being. He had a distinct physical appearance, even a beauty that was peculiar to him. Cecil was a male and known to have had cubs. He was a long-time part(ner?) of a tourism-ecological industry in a very particular geographical location (Africa) at a very difficult moment in post-colonial history. And then on the flipside, I’m not even sure you can easily put that dentist git who shot him under the general category “human.” He was a wealthy, white, sport-hunting American male who flew over the ocean and paid zillions of dollars to have adrenaline adventures in Africa.
All this against the backdrop of colonialized Zimbabwe, Bob Marley and the Lion King soundtrack. It’s fascinating just how precise and weird the situation is, and I can imagine the outrage, outburst, shame, humiliation, guilt attached to this super sad incident is unrivaled, given all those factors at play.
When I think about the people I know and respect who seem to have a more impassioned reaction and lifelong activist commitment to animal deaths or poor-quality animal lives (inhumane housing in labs; poor treatment in abattoirs; whales and dolphins in fish nets; elk herd drownings; culls of wolves; emaciated horses; horses racing; circus animals; zoo animals, etc.) I do find it of deep philosophical (ethical, social, psychological) interest to wonder how those sensitivities got cranked up in those intelligent and wonderful folks to a much higher degree than they have toward their human kin (including themselves). That is not uncommon to find, but certainly not across the board.
In almost all those cases (the ones I know—the animal rights activists, the scientists, the vegans, the zoo reformers, the rescue workers, the students in my animal ethics classes), they’ve admitted to having had formative emotional experiences with animals when they were children—some kind of instant bond or recognition of an animal’s vulnerability that struck a chord. From that, these individuals have set their moral compasses to try to mitigate shitty animal lives. They don’t much seem to care about human social reform, but not out of misanthropy (unless the pain they witnessed in animals as children was clearly and directly inflicted by a human—as in Nietzsche after seeing a horse flogged by a man in Turin). It’s just that the well of intense empathy comes up out of them and goes straight toward particular animals and plights. So if these folks, “care more about animal than human suffering,” it’s simply because all of their caring is directed toward and consumed by animals. I really don’t think it is intentionally antagonistic toward humans. That would create too much cognitive dissonance, to hold those two passions—one negative and one positive—at the same time.
Many of us humans are sickened on some deep level by the current state of the world. It’s almost too much to bear, the shit we have a hand in, directly or indirectly. On any given day, one has to sublimate or ignore any number of factoids that speak volumes to the damage we’ve caused the earth: unchecked population growth; the mountains of garbage, the Pacific gyre, the geysers in the Gulf, the massacres by religious, racist or misogynist crackpots, species decimation, air quality, water quality, planes disappearing, the plane driven into the Swiss mountains by a mentally ill pilot, students killed and buried in Mexico, garment factories in Bangladesh collapsing, food shortages, homelessness, the absence of healthcare, housing foreclosures, rape in dentistry schools, the military, war zones, and everywhere; the state of Aboriginal peoples’ lives, etc. I think almost all of us are walking around with massive repression of these social, economic and ecological traumas; the repression of the unbelievable truth that we are, on one hand, party to these ills and, on the other, direct recipients of them. How to go on in the face of this? Repress it. Do a little composting. Sign a petition for a donkey sanctuary, and in doing those puny things, feel even more the gravity of reality.
Into that collective psyche comes the whacking of a bird on the windshield as you zip down the road on the way to the beach. Or, driving by roadkill. Or, witnessing someone yanking their dog on a leash. Or, you turn on the TV and hear about Cecil.
My sense of it is that animal suffering pierces the integument we have developed between what is repressed and what we feel (but try not to feel) about what’s happening in the world. I do think animals and their plights have a special power to puncture our surface. They are both us and not us. Maybe it’s that status that enables them to have such a psychic force. What they breache, I suspect, is a kind of collective disgust for ourselves through a moment of recognition—of a fleshy, fleeting existence on earth, or, and the vulnerability of everything to everything. And fear.
Jessica Pierce, PhD
I don’t think people are necessarily more responsive to senseless violence against animals than against people. But they are rightfully outraged by the killing of Cecil.
People tend to identify with the so-called megafauna: large, magnificent animals like lions and elephants and pandas (as opposed to, say, rodents, reptiles or insects). It’s easier to respond with empathy to the killing of one “person” (human or nonhuman) than to slaughter on a mass scale. Perhaps, this seems counterintuitive, but it’s is how we’re wired.
Specifically, people tend to identify, emotionally, with an individual animal who has been named, more so than with large but “faceless” groups of animals (although there has been outrage last week over the slaughter of an entire pod of killer whales).
Another factor is that animals are seen as innocent victims of human violence. Animals exist outside of our political and social groupings, cultural prejudices, conflicts and wars.
Finally, the idea of a wealthy dentist from the U.S. paying a large sum of money just for the pleasure of killing a wild animal is obscene.
Clinton R. Sanders, PhD
Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut
It’s likely that dependence is the predominant issue surrounding the difference in people’s emotional response to animal pain and death as opposed to that of humans. Nonhuman animals typically are defined in western culture as far less “able” than humans. Of course, there’s a considerable continuum here since we routinely kill animals for food, sport, or convenience (overpopulations, danger, etc.). To the extent we see animals as “minded” or as viable social partners (i.e., “pets”), they are seen as worthy of intense emotional connection (Cecil was, in many ways, afforded this designation).
The difference between the typical emotional response to news of a child’s abuse or murder as opposed to violence committed against an adult is another example of the importance of dependence to people’s socially generated feelings of relative distress. When doing the interviews with “everyday” dog caretakers that formed part of the basis for Understanding Dogs, a number of those I talked to spoke of feeling more acute sorrow when their canine companions died than when close family members passed on.
Nik Taylor, PhD
Associate Professor, School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University
People are often moved by certain animal suffering —that of the so-called charismatic megafauna. In large part, this is because there are all kinds of cultural stories about the magnificence of these animals. They also have an assumed “purity” that comes with their “wildness”—that they are not, and should not be, touched or marred by human culture in any way. Of course, this does not reflect reality as they are impacted by humans all the time—we encroach on their spaces, damage the earth they live on, and a small minority of us hunt them for “fun,” to name but a few ways we consistently harm them.
I do not deny the magnificence of these “wild” animals, nor the horror involved in killing them for sport (or any other reason), nor do I think it should be allowed in any form, but would argue that the question should be, “Why are people not moved by the billions of animals routinely killed for food, entertainment, clothing, pet industry ‘wastage’ and so on?” In important ways they are little different—they have communities, needs and desires, and they want to live as much as any other animal does, yet we ignore their plight and choose to focus, instead, on one or two key examples of animal cruelty. My belief is that it is easier to demonize individuals who do these awful one-off acts than it is to acknowledge our own complicity in a system that ruthlessly dominates and oppresses other species.
Lori Gruen, PhD
William Griffin Professor of Philosophy; Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Professor of Environmental Studies; Chair, Department of Philosophy; Coordinator, Wesleyan Animal Studies, Wesleyan University
There is an attitude making its way across social media that people are more moved by animal suffering than by human suffering, but factually, that is just false. People are rightly outraged about the inexcusable killings of black people by police, and this has increasingly led to discussions about what needs to change. The Black Lives Matter movement is strong and support is growing. In the last year alone, greater attention is being paid to the social deaths that result from mass incarceration. Even the POTUS is talking about making changes to the prison system. And billions of non-human animals are killed every year as a matter of course, without much notice. So there really isn’t more concern for animal suffering than human suffering.
Importantly, however, I believe we should see the outcry over the illegal poaching of Cecil the Lion by a wealthy white dentist is not at odds with the horror of police violence, racism, and the state of the prison system. Indeed, they are deeply connected. These violations of life and freedom are necessary parts of a system that allow certain humans (white, male) to use weapons to destroy those they can in order to maintain their power.
ILLUSTRATION: Yulia Goldman