Monday, March 12, 2018

In defense of pigeons

Many people will tell you that they love and/or respect animals, but there are usually exceptions to this love. Sometimes the exceptions outnumber the animals loved, such as in the case of people who only love their pets, and don’t really care about many (or even any) other animals. Pigeons, on the other hand, seem to be hated, or at least disliked, by nearly everyone. I've even heard people who are otherwise super empathetic to other sentient beings proclaim their lack of love for these birds. The reasons that are most often given are that pigeons are dirty animals, that they spread disease, and that they pollute our cars, balconies, and the the city in general with their droppings. But how much truth is there to our view of pigeons, and if some of this perception is true, what are the ethical ways of dealing with the issue?

Let's start with pigeons' bad reputation for being “dirty” and for carrying all kinds of diseases. I’m not sure what being “dirty” actually implies in this case, but like most animals, pigeons groom themselves regularly, so they don't stand out in this respect. As for diseases, pigeons do in fact carry diseases that may be harmful to humans, including chiamdiosis, psittacosis, histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and a couple of others. Before passing judgment, we should remember that not only pigeons, but all animals, including our beloved cats and dogs, carry diseases which may be harmful to humans. In fact, cats and dogs carry more of these diseases than pigeons do. The vast majority of us do not get sick from our pets (or from pigeons) because it's generally not easy to catch a zoonotic disease (a disease contracted from an animal). Other humans are much more of a health risk to us than pigeons, dogs, or any other animals. Unless we have a heightened sense of hypochondria, we usually don’t get paranoid about this, so, logically, we should be even less paranoid about zoonotic diseases. This is not to say that we shouldn't try to minimize contact with pigeon droppings. Contact with any fecal matter, animal or human, is best avoided. The occasional bird dropping on our balcony or our car is just part of life, but if we want to prevent pigeons from congregating (and pooping) in certain areas en masse, there are more and less ethical ways of doing this. Poisoning them is both cruel and unethical. Apart from the fact that it is completely unnecessary to kill these birds, ingesting the poison makes them suffer greatly before they die. The humane way to solve the problem is to simply stop feeding them where we don't want them to gather. This will result in a win-win situation for both us and the pigeons. The birds will not congregate in an area where they know they won't find food, so we won't have to deal with their droppings, and, in the long run, the pigeons will benefit from having to seek food for themselves. After all, a lot of the food that we feed them with (bread for example) is not very good for them. Some people think that this inappropriate diet might be one of the reasons that 10 species of pigeon have become extinct since the 1600s, and that close to 60 surviving species are currently threatened with extinction.

In my opinion, we don’t give pigeons enough credit. They are actually pretty fascinating animals. First of all, like other birds, they are much smarter than we might think. Studies have shown that they can, in fact, remember and recognize human faces, and even have the ability to distinguish letters of the alphabet. Another interesting fact about them is that they are monogamous, usually for life. They’re also really good parents, and take care of their children until they are almost fully grown (which is why we rarely see baby pigeons). Pigeons get a bad rap, partly because they're so prevalent, and partly because we've been taught to believe a lot of negative things about them that are not necessarily true. A little bit of research does a lot to break stereotypes, and while you don’t have to suddenly start to love pigeons, I hope you use the information in this post to at least gain some insight and to try to coexist with them in a more positive way.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Things to consider if you claim to love animals

"I love animals." We’ve all seen and heard this many times. It is heartwarming to hear that someone has love for the beautiful creatures with whom we share the planet. It is important, however, to make sure that there is consistency in this love, that this love is honest and informed, and that the ethical “disconnect” between this statement and one’s reality is minimized.

One of the biggest disconnects is saying that you love animals, while you continue to eat them. There are several reasons that people do this. The first is that they love only certain kinds of animals: cats, dogs, guinea pigs… in short: pets. They have made the distinction in their mind that pets are to be loved, while farm animals are to be eaten. The thing to remember here is that there is less of a difference between the animals that we consider pets and the animals we eat than we might think. Pigs, for example, are very smart animals, smarter than most animals we consider pets. Many farm animals not only have the capacity to feel as much as a dog or a cat does, but they exhibit the same type of behavior as the animals we share our homes with. This is not to say that we should all adopt a cow or a pig, and bring him or her into our house. What it does mean is that we should be conscious of the fact that other animals are, in many ways, just like our pets, and respect their right to live. The idea that it’s OK to eat certain animals stems from a very unenlightened time and has been reinforced over centuries. The growth of vegetarianism and veganism in many parts of the world is an active negation of this archaic belief, a new, empathetic approach that recognizes that we should respect all sentient life. While humans, dogs, pigs, and fish are all very different creatures, the fact that we are all sentient beings is the most important factor here, and we should strive to minimize the suffering of such beings, not add to it.

There are several other, somewhat related reasons why “animal lovers” eat whom they claim to love, and these are also archaic. One is the idea that we need meat to survive. Someone might claim that he loves animals, but has no choice but to eat them in order to be healthy. This is, again, false. I have written a lot about this (see this essay, or this one), so I won’t rehash the details. To summarize as briefly as I can, you can indeed live a perfectly healthy life on a plant-based diet. The idea that meat (or dairy) is a necessary part of our diet is an outdated one. In fact, there is more and more evidence that meat consumption is worse for our health than we had thought.

Another thing to remember is that it is not all right to use and abuse animals for our benefit. While many animal lovers cringe at the idea of eating meat and dairy because they are aware of the death and suffering caused by these industries, the truth behind some of the subtler forms of exploitation of animals still eludes them. A good example is the use of animals in our sports and recreation. Some forms of animal-based recreation are considered more harmful, while others less so. Let's take horseback riding, an activity that many people consider harmless, even beneficial to a horse. Many people who ride horses love these animals so much, they would never willingly do anything to harm them. But, as this article points out, this activity can, indeed, be harmful to horses, and this is something we should consider if we care about their well-being as much as our own.

It is not necessary to love animals in order to respect their right to live. We do not love every human being that we do not harm or hurt. We simply do not engage in such behavior because it is unethical to make another person suffer and, on a base level, it just feels wrong. We do not have to love a hen that is forced to lay eggs in a dark factory farm her entire unhappy life, but we can feel empathy for her nevertheless. We can recognize this injustice, and hopefully take steps to end it. One of the best ways to do this is to stop partaking in the cycle of death and suffering by switching to a plant-based diet. Those of us who love animals should, theoretically, be able to do this even more easily. Love is a powerful force that can help us make more ethical decisions. We have been conditioned to accept things as they are, but a reality that is based on suffering and death is one that can and should be changed. If you love animals, think about the things mentioned in this essay, and examine your own choices to see if there are any obvious disconnects between this love, and the reality in which you live.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The intelligence of chickens

A while ago, I wrote about the importance of animal intelligence. While we shouldn't base our decision to kill a sentient being on how smart s/he is, it is important to know that animals that many of us had previously thought were just plain "stupid", are, in fact, more intelligent than we had imagined. Studies such as the one below, concerning the intelligence of chickens, proves this.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

"Animal empathy enlightenment" and how to attain it

A couple of months ago I wrote an entry about how when it comes to our treatment of the animals around us, it’s impossible to force someone to be more empathetic. As I stated back then, this doesn’t mean we should do nothing, but rather that we should find more effective ways to let someone know about the steps they could take to treat our animal friends more fairly.

When it comes to the right way to treat animals, there are different levels of realization. Some of us are further along in our realization, while others are lagging behind. I’ve always equated one’s awakening to the suffering of animals with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, or other similar concepts such as "moksha" in Hinduism. I like to call this specific awakening to animal suffering "animal empathy enlightenment", the attainment of which usually leads us to adopt a meat-free diet, and to want to act to improve our relationship with the rest of the animal world.

The thing to remember here is that there is a big difference between a theoretical appreciation of the concept, and a true realization thereof. I can tell you that animals should be treated more fairly, and you can agree with this, in theory, but until you begin to truly understand the scope of the unfairness, and begin to empathize with the animals experiencing it, you might still make excuses. Like many others, you might continue to live in that disconnected reality where you claim to "love animals”, but still eat them and partake in activities that make them suffer and/or die.

A true realization goes deeper. Much like true enlightenment makes it impossible to "unrealize" certain things, so the "AEE" leads to a deep-seated resolve to treat animals more fairly, to not eat meat, to help animals whenever we can.

But how does someone go about attaining this state of mind? There are three things we can do to help make this happen. First, think about the suffering that animals have to endure every day. Really think about it. If you meditate, meditate on it. Think about the fear, confusion, and suffering that millions of animals all around the world are subjected to daily. Sometimes it helps to visualize this suffering by viewing videos that depict the suffering of animals. There is a lot of injustice out there – a lot of times animals are treated in ways that range from unfair to downright barbaric. If the videos that you watch make you feel sorry for the animals, or they cause a "this is just wrong" reaction in you, you're on your way to tapping into a higher state of consciousness.

Second, help animals any way you can. Whenever you take in a stray dog or cat, buy a bag of food for an animal rescue organization, or donate your time to an animal rights related charity, you are helping animals to survive. This is a very positive thing to do. Thinking about the good that you are doing will, in many cases, make you feel better. If you get involved directly, you will most likely begin to feel some empathy and compassion for the animals that you're helping. Afterwards, the fulfillment that comes with seeing how the suffering and sadness is minimized when someone cares enough to make a difference can help grow your bond with animals as well. Think about how the things that you are doing are making the animals happy, and how even though they can’t always communicate this to you, they are grateful.

Third, adopt a plant-based diet. Eating meat (as well as dairy and eggs) pulls us into a vicious cycle which requires more and more killing. Apart from the most important benefit -- not taking the lives of sentient beings -- breaking free from the meat-machine is positive on several levels: it’s good for your health, it’s good for the environment, and we no longer have to deal with the negative consequences of partaking in a very negative action. Even if you haven't attained "animal empathy enlightenment", a plant-based diet can really help you get there.

So there you have it, three simple steps you can take today to improve how you treat animals, and to create a better world both for them and yourself. Why not take the first one today?

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.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lab meat - how ethical is it?

In the past year or so, I've come across several articles about an incredible new discovery - the ability to cultivate meat in a laboratory. Instead of killing an animal to get meat, this new process "grows" the meat in a laboratory, so no killing is involved. Many have applauded this new breakthrough, and many of the same people have claimed that we have finally developed an ethical way of providing/eating meat. You no longer have to go vegetarian or vegan, people, you can now eat meat guilt-free. But is this really true?

First of all, there is something sinister about cloning. Whether it's a fruit, a live sheep (remember that one?), or a slab of meat, creating living things (or parts thereof) in the lab is generally disquieting. But let's say, for argument's sake, that we attribute this reaction to paranoia. Let's ignore the fact that this might be very hard to sustain (much harder than growing natural plant-based alternatives to meat). Let's ignore the fact that this is simply genetic modification (which itself is rightfully getting a lot of slack) taken to scary new levels. This still leaves us with my second (and more important) point: The fact that meat is created in a lab doesn't make it completely ethical. Sure, no killing is involved, but you are still eating the flesh of an animal, even though the animal never existed. Let me put it this way: would you eat the flesh of a dog if it were cultivated in the same way? Or a cat? A person like myself would never go back to eating meat for this exact reason. Why would I want to remind myself of the dead flesh of an animal, when I have so many natural plant-based products I can eat? Let's not forget the fact that this meat isn't created from scratch. The culture used to make it comes from the necks of living cows, and is then covered with the blood of dead calves... Yum. In my opinion, this simply reinforces bad habits, especially one of our worst habits - our addiction to meat. It reinforces (albeit semi-subversively) the idea that eating meat is OK or even necessary. This is contrary to what many people like myself believe - that transitioning to a plant-based diet represents progress for the individual and for the world in general. It'll be hard to progress if you still crave the flesh of animals. If you really want to change yourself and the world around you, focus instead on transitioning to a diet that is truly cruelty-free - a plant-based one.

So, no, I won't be trying the lab meat. Having said that, I do see some value in developing it. I believe that this could be effective as part of a greater strategy to get to all those hopeless cases that claim that they'll never even try a veggie burger as long as they live. While you can't force "ethical Neanderthals" to eat plant-based food, you can ban the killing of animals and then ONLY provide lab meat (at very high prices) to them. Sure, they'll complain a whole lot, but at least they'll have their "meat", and no animals will be killed in the process. This is something I would get behind.