These creatures have no votes and their lovers are not sufficiently numerous to matter. To be heard, the movement for their rights and protection has to become louder
One of the main features of the campaign for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections is the deafening silence of all political parties on the issues of animal rights and justice. And this despite the fact that a vast array of non-human living beings, ranging from neighbourhood dogs and cats and stray cattle roaming the streets, to the birds seen on nearby trees, are regularly visible to us. Though less frequently seen directly, wildlife in forest and waste lands and the fish in streams and ponds, have become familiar through films, videos, print and electronic media, folklore and discursive, and fictional writings. And, of course, many consume animals as food.
One reason for this silence is that we see non-human living beings without integrating them into our moral, emotional and intellectual consciousness. We view them like the lamp post, hydrants, two-wheelers, cars and buses we encounter on the roads, avoiding running into — or being run over by — them as we go our own ways. The nature of our lives is partly to blame for this. The rat races we run by choice or under compulsion, the consumption dreams and ideals we pursue and the amusements and pleasures we seek to compensate for the emotional void within us, leave little time for, and interest in, with anything that does not directly concern us.
Also to blame is the nature of the happiness we seek. As Erich Fromm points out in The Art of Loving, “Our whole culture is based on the appetite for buying. Modern man’s happiness consists in the thrill of looking at the shop windows, and in buying all that he can afford to buy, on the idea of mutually favourable exchange. He (or she) looks at people in a similar way. For the man an attractive girl — and for the woman an attractive man — are the prizes they are after. ‘Attractive’ usually means a nice package of qualities which are popular and sought after on the personality market.”
Fromm was perhaps over-generalising. There are in our time people who do not behave like the “modern man” he mentioned, but a majority — if not an overwhelming majority — do, and the culture to which they belong is increasingly defined by the market. To a very great extent, the happiness of a person steeped in this culture consists of shop-window voyeurism, possessing, consuming, and fair exchange in romantic relationships in terms of desirable attributes. There is no element of giving and emotional connect.
This is seen in a major way in the sphere of people’s attitude to “man’s best friend”, the dog. The majority — if not the overwhelming majority — of those, who claim to be dog lovers, prefer to keep as pets pedigreed dogs against Indian street mongrels who, according to many who know, perhaps constitute the most intelligent, loving and brave breed of canines in the world. Anyone, who has had them as friends or family members, would vouch for this.
Things are changing. In December 2008, four stray dogs graduated from a nine-month Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) detection course from the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College (CTJWC) in Kanker district, Chhattisgarh. These were found capable of detecting explosives up to six inches below the surface and to be tougher, harder, sharper and more active than pedigreed dogs — generally Labradors and Alsatians — during the training period.
In Barrackpore, near Kolkata in West Bengal, Asha, rescued by the staff of the West Bengal Police Training Academy when she was a three-month-old, harassed and ill-treated by local residents, began to be trained as a sniffer dog. She, too, turned out to be as good, if not better, than the foreign pedigreed breeds, including Dobermanns, invariably chosen for training. Turning out to be an expert sniffer, she was far faster and more agile than the other canines under training and capable of clearing hurdles about six feet high, that most other groupmates could not.
They, however, are exceptions that may or may not become the rule. Besides, their eminence has not prevented other animals, including stray dogs, from being ignored. This is not just because of our self-absorbed, consumption-oriented life but also of our conscious and sub-conscious awareness that our entire existence rests on the kind of exploitation and abuse of animals that has no parallel even in the history of perhaps the most inhuman colonisers.
Besides consuming them, we subject them to incredible pain and suffering for medical — and even cosmetics — testing. This is an utter shame, particularly since alternatives are available. Computer models are used in Britain in physical sciences education to show the biophysical properties of normal and diseased mammalian cells. They use these single-cell models to manufacture anatomically-precise three-dimensional organ models, which can accurately predict the effect of drug therapies for a variety of diseases. The United States has banned the use of live animals for medical training. More than half of the medical schools in that country, including those at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale and Duke, have adopted more humane and superior methods. Harvard Medical School, for example, brings students directly into human operation theatres to learn by watching surgeons, anaesthetists and others performing actual cardio-vascular bypass surgeries. Devices have been found that enable students to navigate through respiratory cardio-vascular and renal physiology and experiments into different major parameters in a truly interactive programme. Medical education in the West uses many alternatives like interactive videos and computer simulations, in-vitro cell cultures, slaughter-house material and dead animals from humane/ethical sources.
Things have improved in India but not sufficiently. The shocking use of animals in unnecessary experiments continues. People often treat animals with horrendous savagery. Jallikattu, which causes intense suffering to bulls and leads to injury, and even deaths, among animals and people, continues to be staged. Draught animals are poorly fed and looked after and made to carry unconscionably heavy loads. The constant encroachment into wildlife habitats by roads and other infrastructural projects and illegal human settlements has led to rapidly-growing man-animal conflicts that can only lead to the extermination of most species of the latter.
Those, who do not want this to happen, must remember that elections are, in the last analysis, about numbers. Animals have no votes; animal lovers are not sufficiently numerous to matter. To be heard, they must ensure a rapid growth in their numbers, which can only be done by launching and sustaining a powerful movement for animal rights and justice.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)