Monday, June 13, 2016

The treatment of animals in the Balkans

I recently got back from a trip to the Balkans. The region is a diverse one, both visually (beautiful beaches, breathtaking mountains, rolling hills), and culturally. Most tourists are rightfully impressed by what is one of Europe’s most interesting areas. There is also a much more negative word associated with the region, - violence. The Balkans have seen major wars and genocides as recently as 20 years ago. Even now, there is still a lot of tension (and hatred) between ethnic groups, and one can’t help but fear that another conflict could happen at some point in the future. I’ve always believed that violence begets violence. Eliminating violence and showing compassion will help us to create a more harmonious society. Not showing compassion and engaging in violent behavior will lead to a more cruel, less harmonious society. The way we treat animals also falls under this rule. An uncaring/violent treatment of animals will result in a society that is uncaring/violent. There are two measuring sticks for this treatment. The first is how we treat our homeless animals (usually dogs and cats), and the second is how many people have progressed to vegetarianism or veganism in a given society. Not surprisingly, most countries in the Balkans would receive a low grade on both accounts.

In regards to the first measuring stick, many of the Balkan countries lag behind in the ethical treatment of stray animals. Countries such as Romania, Serbia, and Albania (among others) have a horrible reputation when it comes to the treatment of stray dogs, and in some cases cats as well. Abandonment rates are relatively high, and because the animals that roam the streets are often seen as a nuisance, they are either poisoned or killed in a variety of other barbaric ways. Catch and release spay and neuter programs do exist, but on a relatively small scale, and not everywhere. Animal protection laws are few and far between, as are laws penalizing animal abusers. Some countries in the region (Slovenia and Croatia come to mind) have taken steps in the right direction, but most others have not done enough. Many people will blame poverty for this phenomenon, but I beg to differ. It’s all about priorities. Many of the same city governments that complain about having no money for such programs end up building lavish new buildings, monuments and stadiums that serve no altruistic purpose whatsoever. Look at all the new buildings and monuments being constructed in Skopje, Macedonia, for example. The money from one of these buildings could have been used to rid Skopje of its stray dog problem in a modern, ethical way. All this stems from one fact: The lives of these animals are not as respected as they are in countries where a more ethical treatment is the norm. To change this, one would have to implement a wide-ranging education campaign to change the way people see these animals, programs encouraging adoption, as well as laws to make sure abusers get punished. Since the government isn’t doing anything, you’d think that private organizations would step up (like they do in other countries). Although there are more animal protection and animal rescue organizations these days in the region than there were before, many of these are rather ineffective. Unfortunately, from what my sources in these countries tell me, a good number of these organizations are corrupt themselves.

As for the second measuring stick of empathy, things aren’t much better. Vegetarianism and veganism are not very popular in the Balkans. Many countries can be described as having a “meat-centric” diet, but this is doubly true there. Look at any menu board outside pretty much any restaurant in the region and all you’ll see is meat, meat, and more meat. For someone with a strong sense of empathy, this is a very sad phenomenon. The typical unethical, carnivorous tourist will praise the hearty local food, but what are they really praising? Tolstoy once said that “while there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields”. The more meat-centric a society is, the more suffering there will be in that society. Like I mentioned above, violence begets violence, so there will be some kind of repayment required for the suffering we cause these sentient beings. By engaging in cruel, violent, or even simply uncaring behavior towards other sentient beings, we are planting a very negative seed, one which will inevitably grow into a negative effect. People in the Balkans, like everywhere else, are proud of their traditions. But any tradition that involves causing others to suffer and die should be left behind for us to progress as humans and to build a more peaceful society. Showing kindness to animals is as important as showing kindness to other humans. An easy way to show kindness is to stop killing them for food.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying that all the people in the Balkans hate and/or abuse animals. There are plenty of people I’ve personally met there who truly love animals, and many who love them so much that (like me) they no longer eat them. Still, there is a lot to be done in that region to minimize animal suffering, more so than in many other places I’ve visited. Ultimately, how we treat other animals is a good measuring stick of how advanced we are as a society. The first step to a more civilized, compassionate society is to take care of our homeless animals; to lower their numbers in a humane way, and to implement a strategy to prevent the problem from resurfacing in the future. The next step in the evolutionary process is to come to the realization that, ultimately, we don’t need meat to survive. This is harder for most people, but it is a step that we should consider taking, one that we should be strong enough to take, both for our own benefit, and for the benefit of the animals with whom we share the planet.