The curious place of animals

Posted October 09 2016

Walt Disney said, “around here however we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things; because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”.

I was just seven years old when curiosity lead me down a path that was to take me into my parents’ bedroom and behind my mother’s dresser to where she had carefully stashed the Christmas presents intended for my sister and me. My mum’s words of “Don’t go behind my dresser” was enough to tell this intrepid young and curious sleuth where to look.

Carefully unwrapping each little curio, my heart beat faster over the animal figurines I came upon, as I knew their future and mine would be soon intertwined, come December 25th. I wished to linger longer, but knew if I did, the chances of that shared future not happening would be exponentially heightened. So I rewrapped the paper, retracing the original folds and sticky tape lines perfectly—well, as perfectly as any overexcited seven-year-old could. Curiosity sated, I made my way back to the kitchen and trusted no-one had become curious over my absence as I resumed playing with my toy animal farm set.

Indeed, it is that childlike curiosity that I and all our species has carried over into adulthood that continues to lead us down many paths.

Weaving, twisting and turning, our curiosity has guided humankind to colonise every corner of the globe, transformed vast open spaces into thriving metropolises, taken us to far reaches of the universe and into the deepest depths of the oceans. Closer to home, our curiosity fuels the world around us, causing us to get up each morning, peer through the curtains and see what the day has in store for us. Flicking on the TV, turning on the radio or logging on to our computers, we are curious to see what others are doing. But for me, there can be no greater path of curiosity than the one that still leads me to animals—although my plastic toy farm animal set has now been replaced with a real farm, full of real animals.

Now at the helm of Edgar’s Mission I ponder daily just why we as a society show so little curiosity towards the largest number of animals in human care, those we farm for food and fibre. Indeed, I truly believe it is this lack of curiosity that has led to the unquestioning acceptance of much of the treatment of farmed animals, treatment that we would otherwise never tolerate. The more I delve into the treatment of these animals, the more I am met with practices and beliefs that were totally at odds with anything I, and no doubt others, considered morally justifiable.

Whilst acknowledging that not everyone is a card-carrying animal-loving devotee, I do not believe one needs to be in order to have an interest in what happens to animals. Our society too agrees, and has already signed off on the fact animals matter: it is called the “Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act”.

Sadly, though, when it comes to animals in human care, we really have been guilty of playing favorites, and treating animals not on their ability to suffer, or their capacity for pleasure and pain or considered their rich emotional worlds. Rather, our use of them, our familiarity with them and the form they have taken dictates our treatment of animals.

This says so much more about who we are as human beings than it does about animals.

So how had we come to this? Whilst animals are not humans covered in fur, fleece, feathers or fins, as Henry Beston puts it, “they are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth”. Yet they remain creatures who we can overpower in so many ways, creatures who we have come to consider lesser species than ourselves, species who generations have considered at our disposal to do with as we wish.

By placing labels on animals according to our use of them, we have stifled much curiosity about them, created a huge divide that says “us” and “them”, and moreover allowed this to justify unquestioningly our treatment of animals. In light of this, it would be fair to say our animal protection laws have been put in place more to placate our sensibilities than to protect animals from acts of cruelty and indifference. This is no more apparent than in our treatment of farmed animals.

Held up to the cold, hard light of justice, science, common sense and compassion, our current treatment of animals is anything but just. So at this point, I ask: Aren’t you, too, now just a little bit curious as to how this has happened?

Today, animal-based agriculture is not only deeply entrenched in our society, it is also profitable, and greatly enabled by government subsidies and support. Around 77 billion farmed animals worldwide are killed a year and this doesn’t even take in to account the death of trillions of sea creatures (both caught and as by-catch), and animal-based agriculture has been cited as a major contributor to environmental degradation, human disease and human rights violations.

However, the majority of people who eat animals are unaware of the death, destruction, suffering and harm they are causing—they are not even curious to know how a cute lamb is transformed into a lamb chop, how much a mother cow loves her calf, about the incredible sense of fun shown by intelligent pigs, and how each and every farmed animal is an individual who wants to live and will desperately try to protect their life when threatened.

How has it happened that we, as a nation, are so opposed to violence, that we cherish justice and freedom, shower millions upon millions of dollars on the animals who share our hearts and homes, yet allow such atrocities be committed to innocent, vulnerable and defenseless animals on a daily basis?

It’s called “cognitive dissonance”, and it makes this possible. Cognitive dissonance is described as “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes, especially relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change”. Cognitive dissonance quells our curious nature, dulls our compassion and enables us to do things we would otherwise never accept.

But this is not a story without hope. Right now, we are witnessing an awakening of curiosity for the world around us and all of her inhabitants. Moreover, our creativity is coming to the fore to heal the wounds caused by so many of our destructive habits, and through our actions we are developing kinder ways of living. People are making connections, taking actions and becoming more curious because they are empowered by the knowledge that life is a choice, not a done deal.

It’s time now to take a new path.

A path guided by our curiosity, led by our sense of justice, shaped by our creativity and shepherded by our kindness. Because we are curious by nature and so too are the animals with whom we share this planet.

Throughout the ages, generations are marked by a progression of thought, much of this wiser, more informed and kinder than what went before. There is no doubt we are a curiously evolving species. I truly believe the time has come for we humans to continue our evolution, and to look into the eyes of each animal and see the curious individual peering back, a creature who too ponders their future, but one who knows that future is in our hands.

Whilst we remain the more powerful species, and animals remain at our mercy, they have the power to bring out the best in our humanity; evoke the most noble of human traits, those of kindness, compassion and justice; and daily they allow us to be better version of ourselves.

The simple fact is this—the world in which we live is made up of the choices we make, for when we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another. So my question for you today is this: Which path will you choose? I’m curious to know your answer.

Footnote: Throughout this piece I have referred to “animals”, but note a more correct terminology would be “non-human animals”, given we are all part of the animal kingdom. But I’ve referred to those non-human animals as “animals” for ease of reading, and in line with the general application of the word.