A valid plea for the rights of animals

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 19, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

You know that you have tapped the deepest, most profound well of prejudice when people resort to ridicule.

The next step after ridicule is silence -- people ignore the issue in the hopes that you and it will go away.

Then comes anger.

Then half-hearted attempts at compromise.

Then, finally, perhaps, if you're lucky, a grudging acceptance that maybe you were right all along.

By this scale, American Indians have an awfully long road to travel. So do animal rights activists. Both groups must endure an unseemly degree of public scorn and ridicule.

Let's start with the ridicule of Indians, since their cause seems to get the least sympathy from their fellow humans.

For decades sports teams have "honored" the noble fighting spirit of Indians by adopting them as their mascots.

And for decades, Indians have said they do not feel particularly honored. In fact, given the context of the way our society has treated them, many Indians find their use as mascots out and out offensive.

Some commentators have found Indians' feelings on this matter hilarious and have made it their particular business to poke fun at anyone who supports them.

Recently, a newspaper in Oregon and a radio station in Washington, D.C., have said they will no longer use the especially offensive nickname of the professional football team in Washington. A handful of schools have changed their mascots. A smattering of celebrities have gone on record as sympathizing with Indians.

For this, all of them have been mocked and derided, caricatured and razzed. They have been laughed at, sneered at, burlesqued and ridiculed.

You have to wonder what's going on here. You have to wonder what deep wells of anger and contempt toward Indians still lurk in the depths of the American psyche. You have to wonder how long individuals in this country will continue fighting the Indian Wars, although those wars have been over for some 100 years now.

Honor the Indians? They would be happier by far if we honored our treaties with them.

When people aren't ridiculing Indians and their supporters, they are bashing the "nuts" who lobby for animal rights.

But trickling through the japery is a grudging admittance that those wild-eyed activists who rant about respecting the rights and sensibilities of animals are not completely crazy.

In fact, the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums on Tuesday held a panel on the ethics of displaying animals and concluded that they have more in common than not with their traditional adversaries in the animal rights community.

The association now promotes zoos and aquariums as the "new Noah's Arks" whose primary mission is the preservation of endangered species and to educate the public on the interconnection of human life and wildlife.

"The separation of man from wildlife and the wild lands is the single-most important thing that endangers us," declared Brian Rutledge, executive director of the Baltimore Zoo. "We must consider animal life at least as important as our own lives. The animal rights groups are not the enemy."

"We really are all on a continuum," agreed John Prescott, executive director of the New England Aquarium. "There is a lot of agreement between us, a lot of areas of mutual concern, mutual desires.

"I confess to an inability to distinguish between those individuals [animals] that suffer pain and are cognizant and those that do not," continued Prescott. "Therefore, our policy is to extend to all individuals the benefit of the doubt."

Do animals have feelings? Can they suffer? Do they think? Do they speak to each other in ways that are analogous to humans?

When animal welfare supporters raise such questions they are subjected to a great deal of scorn. But most scientists now take the questions seriously.

"The issue today is not whether animals think but what they think," said Roger Caras, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

And if animals think and feel, it is legitimate to ask to what degree humans are bound to respect those feelings.

At what point does the unhappiness of a caged animal in a zoo outweigh the educational benefits derived from his captivity? At what point do our nutritional needs outweigh an animal's right not to suffer?

The issue, despite the jokes, is not cut and dried.

Rutledge said organizations concerned about the preservation of species are so busy fighting against groups concerned about the rights of individual animals within those species that they ignore the true enemy.

The true enemy of both groups are those who believe man can do what he wants, when he wants, to the environment and to the creatures that inhabit it, without penalty.

Association members, for instance, spent part of yesterday in Washington testifying against business groups who want to see an end to the Endangered Species Act.

All of these issues -- the way we treat Indians and other minorities, the environment and animals-- are, of course, connected. It is part of what a participant at the zoological parks conference called a "growth process" in the way we perceive each other and the world we live in.

In a sense, it is the ultimate rights question: Is man an organic member of an interrelated ecosystem, or have humans been ordained Masters of the Universe, with a free hand to treat the world and all "lesser" creatures anyway they choose?

In fact, a running joke these days is that white men are the most beleaguered group in America. They are no longer allowed to sneer at ethnic minorities; they cannot molest women; they cannot kick their dogs or beat their children when they are in a bad mood; they can't rape and pillage the environment.

Well, all of that is true.

But I fail to see the humor.

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