Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

An inconvenient truth…animal cruelty is forever

By Steven Hussey

There are few topics as emotive as animal abuse. The daily evidence I can see of this is no farther than on my Facebook wall, with people calling for the senseless nuclear obliteration of China in support of some powerless petition to stop animal cruelty in rural areas there, of dogs in particular. I loathe animal cruelty, but when I place it in a context outside our human bubble, I come to a stark realisation.

Put bluntly, the cruelty of the natural world far surpasses anything of human invention. Anyone familiar with the BBC series The Blue Planet will understand my disgust in watching sadistic killer whales pluck newborn seals off the beach and viciously thrash them about, apparently for “fun”. The innocent pups are dragged out to sea, quite alive, where they get tossed like ragdolls for hours on the ocean, their pod of bullies gradually exsanguinating them as they try to swim to safety. The cetaceans enjoy their badminton well after the pup is dead, its entrails devoured by happy scavengers. There are countless examples of frivolous, excruciating death scenes in nature, yet this one in particular always works me up.

But there’s far more to this. For more than 550 million years, trillions of animals — perhaps many more — have been preyed upon and parasitized, have had their offspring torn to shreds, and been abused and tortured by rapacious predators. And it is not all about nutrition, as I have just discussed.

Evolution, a natural force of mutation and selection that is a powerful creative agent of design, is blind to any sense of right or wrong. Evolution is amoral. It is apathetic to a species’ quality of life, and callous towards the suffering of the life forms that it moulds. The fact that what I watch on The Blue Planet is a result of this amoral, inanimate process gives me comfort not because I find it praiseworthy, but because it simply is. Inanimate natural processes cannot be the scapegoat for our reservations; they can only be accepted. Getting upset about them is as useless as condemning gravity for its many aeronautical murders.

Against this dim backdrop, then, doesn’t it seem futile that while we cry and protest about the suffering of livestock during traditional slaughters, lionesses are ripping off the limbs of screaming gazelles out on the savannahs? While we protest at dogs having their throats slit and left to bleed to death for a Chinese delicacy, we forget that their ilk, wolves, are some of the cruellest predators on earth, often eating their prey alive or leaving them disembowelled to die. It seems almost fitting that a small number of these canines should pay the price for their species’ own transgressions. Why do we care if in the greater scheme of things the atrocities of nature overwhelm the malevolence of our own hands? I guess it’s all about making a difference for that one beached starfish, as many have adapted from Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower. Preventing pain and suffering for one animal in our care, although pain is ubiquitous in nature, is somehow worth it.

Don’t mistake me for being apathetic. Nobody would be able to soothe my rage if anyone harmed my own dog, a pup that has become like a child. I hold strong values about animal rights. I’m just not sure why those values exist. Some say they come from God, but if God is ultimately behind the evolution of life, God could be charged with more than 300 trillion minutes of torture and death, of extinction and natural disasters, all for the eventual evolution of a fallible Homo sapiens. A purely rational argument for why we should worry about the suffering of animals might not make sense either, since we come from a long tradition of inflicting pain and death to survive: if that is what we have to thank for getting us here, why do we have a responsibility to act against it?

The way I see it humans, being the only evolutionary process that gained consciousness and intelligence, can take control of their destinies rather than follow the blind course of natural selection, blissfully unaware of it. No species has ever managed to do this. We have the unique power to rebel from aspects of natural selection that we simply don’t like (I have written about this before). We value equality, where evolution embraces inequality. We tend to the weak and sickly, where natural selection leaves them to die. A simple, rational principle of treating others as you’d like to be treated yourself, slightly complicated in the case of animals because some of them are so damn tasty, is clearly in conflict with the evolutionary process. I say let’s continue our fight against animal suffering, as insignificant as it is in the greater scheme of things, because it is a trademark of the kind of society we’ve created. Because it makes us feel good about our species.

The question is, where do we draw the line? Are we compelled to intervene in nature too and curb suffering altogether? Or do we leave Mother Nature to its ever-cruel devices, which shall undoubtedly continue for billions of years to come?

Steven is completing a PhD in genetics at the University of Pretoria.

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    • Stephen Browne

      Love this so much … I’ve always been puzzled about the spitting rage that animal abuse seems to invoke in people, whereas the abuse of their own species goes relatively unchallenged.

    • Jason

      Good article. I am always amazed by the arrogance of the homo sapien. I must disagree with you on one particular statement which is “…humans, being the only evolutionary process that gained consciousness and intelligence.” There are many YouTube videos of animals showing a level of consciousness and intelligence many homo sapiens claim is prevalent only in humans. Have a look at dolphins and the way they act towards a mirror (self-recognition), blow bubble rings, teach each other skills, fish with humans and learn sign language. A couple years ago, dolphins were labelled (by scientists who take dedicate many years of their lives to research) as non-human persons. Now, if we can’t listen to the people who are actually researching the animals, who should we listen to when it comes to making gross prehistoric generalisations about animals and their perceived lack of intelligence?


    • Gavin Storrie

      This is disturbing anthropomorphic drivel. Cruelty implies that you know you are causing suffering while continue. You make the point that humans are rational: they are able to consider their actions. They also appear to be able to choose – not to hurt, be vegetarian, avoid being a paedophile. None of the animals you mention has that capacity. They are programmed to be what they are – lions, sharks, wolves – and as such cannot be called cruel, sadistic, tortureres. In nature death is not frivoulous.
      What is obscene is when wildlife photographers lovingly photograph the death agonies of seals and gazelles and make pots of money selling the images.
      Also there is the human obscenity of fox hunting for fun, badger culling to protect the profits of dairy farmers, buzzard shooting to protect toffs’ desire to kill pheasants for fun: the list goes on.
      NOTHING on this planet compares to the cruelty of the human species
      And if you think something called God had a hand in creating this, then this God must be the most obscener force in the universe.

    • Steven Hussey

      @Jason, that’s of course a valid point. I was really referring more to intelligence in light of our ability to understand and be aware of natural processes such as natural selection in particular. I should have made that more clear. The ability to understand WHY we act the way we do, how we got here, is still I think unique to humans.

      @Gavin, yes, I partially agree with you, but we have to speak in the same terms for me to make this point, and that is necessarily anthropic for the sake of human understanding, I think. If you don’t like the terminology you could substitute it with “pain” or “suffering”, etc, but the argument still holds (i.e. we try to prevent suffering of animals despite widespread infliction of pain in nature). I don’t agree that nothing is frivolous or intentionally cruel in nature, because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some animals do in fact kill or hurt things for the fun of it. I think for too long we’ve hidden behind the apologetic argument that it’s all a matter of “practising”.

    • Gavin Storrie

      Jason, but there is no evidence that these animals reflect upon their actions, and consider the consequences of their actions.
      Life on this planet is harsh for most creatures – they kill and/or are killed.
      Humans have developed the activity of killing and associated cruelty, way beyond what other animals are capable of. Humans have bought into the idea of dolphins as cuddly creatures. They are not cruel. But they eat to survive. They do not consider the feelings of the fish they eat. But their activity is not malicious or cruel.
      Humans are the only species that has the capacity and inclination to systematically inflict suffering on other species and their own species.
      It is futile to attribute blame to other animals when the only consistently cruel animal is human.

    • Gavin Storrie

      Steven, you are right. But all it shows is that humans are not nice animals. They are unwaveringly cruel to all life on the planet. It is probably futile to complain about human cruelty because it will never stop. The cruellist people will never read your comments, let alone agree with you.
      The only hope is the humans will one day be extinct and Earth will continue rid of a pernicious incurable virus.

    • Grant

      I would argue that your whales are teaching their young to hunt and honing thier own skills. Nothing in nature is frivolous, life is too hard. Play has function that is crucial to survival.

      Why should we rally against animal cruelty? Because it is a primary indicator of how a person or nation values life. It is a little known fact that almost any famous serial killer you can name started off as a child with horrific animal abuse. Animal abusers are a person or group of people who are not able to generate empathy when they torture and kill. These are not nice people.

      Death is part of life. Nobody eats without death, not even vegetarians or vegans. They simply value animal over plant, probably because they are animals and feel a primal connection to them which they do not feel with plants. The key distinction though is that death for your survival should be respected. It should be quick and humane, as you would wish yours to be. Those who abuse for show or fun do not recognize this; they consider themselves above, lords of pain and death. If that does not indicate something we should fight against, just imagine they have you at their mercy…

    • Steven Hussey

      It is a fallacy that all killing in nature is done for the sake of survival. It is far too easy to say that a predator killed an animal without eating it for the sake of developing survival skills, but evidence is sometimes lacking, and this is especially the case with killer whales in my example.

      The definition of “cruel” in light of animal cruelty varies, and usually refers to malicious intent. However, slaughter or culling of animals in a way that leads to suffering is usually deemed cruel, irrespective of whether the suffering is intended or not. By this definition, then, perhaps most predators kill their prey in a way that causes tremendous distress and unnecessary pain. Imagine a slaughterhouse using predation tactics found in nature: killing a cow by suffocation; a chicken by constriction; a pig by repeated stabbing. Such practices would be deemed diabolicallyl cruel in our hands. Whether or not cruelty is a human invention or definition, and whether or not predators inflict pain and suffering for the sake of survival, the basis with which we justify the prevention of cruelty to animals (I.e. to prevent suffering) is in vain. Suffering is ubiquitous, whether intentional or not.

      Furthermore, as the technology of slaughtering enhances to minimize pain, the bar used to define cruelty is continuously lowered. As hunter gathers, it wasn’t deemed cruel to spear one’s prey to death. These days, we call it “cruel”. Let’s not just play a game of semantics here.

    • http://thoughtleader Keith Hawthorn

      Steven, you weaken your argument by twice using the adjective ‘uncountable’.
      Surely the use of this word is subjective. To an uneducated person this could be ’20’. If you talk about ‘mosquitoes’ in Africa then ‘uncountable’ is valid.
      Do give us a hint, several thousand a day?

    • John

      Steven, humans are NOT “the only evolutionary process that gained consciousness and intelligence”. This is exactly the kind of speciesist thinking that leads to so much animal abuse in the 1st place. Many thousands of other animal species are fully sentient and therefore conscious, and certainly intelligent in their own way. It’s true, however, that humans are one of the few (but not the only) species that can deliberate on their actions.
      The appeal to evolution, although interesting to many, no doubt, is thoroughly IRRELEVANT to the issue of morality. Of course we need to be ethical in our treatment of other animals, just as we ought to be ethical in our treatment of other humans.

      You also say “A simple, rational principle of treating others as you’d like to be treated yourself … is clearly in conflict with the evolutionary process.” IS IT? What evidence is there for this? This seems blatantly wrong that I’m shocked that someone doing a PhD in genetic would even think this could be true. There may be very good evolutionary reasons for treating ourselves and others with kindness and compassion. Your view of evolution is very odd. But moreover, as noted above, all this talk of evolution is IRRELEVANT to ethical consideration – you wouldn’t justify rape for example if you could show it had some evolutionary advantage 1000 years ago? So this argument is so full of fallacies it doesn’t really say anything important about human behaviour.

    • Grant

      I do not agree. If your hypothesis held weight you would see countless examples of senseless murder in nature and you simply do not. Why? Not because animals are noble creatures but because they live at the grinding edge of survival where excess energy spent on pointless killing would take a huge toll on most. For animals in the wild, every interaction is a careful calculation of risk and reward, driven by the rigours of natural selection. There are a few that can play with excess, lions in a season of plenty, killer whales during seal pup season maybe and us. We should be able to agree that animals kill vastly more for food than fun. They must. The remaining killing must include killing to teach young, killing out of pure reaction, killing for territory, killing for leadership etc. I would not argue that fun might feature but it ranks way down the list and is rare. It certainly can’t form the basis for a hypothesis equating animal and human cruelty since most human killing of both animal and each other is not for fun either.

      I would also argue that a wolf has little option but to rip its prey apart with claws and teeth and to suffocate it. It has no tools, no machines. A hungry wolf has no reason at all in the economy of nature to engage in unnecessary cruelty. It may seem cruel to us but the wolf does simply what it must and no more.

    • Grant

      On the slitting of dog’s throats, I think we need to review what morality is and that gets tricky. For me it has nothing to do with any god but is a code of ethics that has been etched into us over billions of years of evolution. Each action during an interaction has a result and a cost; those that are deadly or high risk eradicate that behavior and slowly we determine boundaries and areas to operate in that lower these risks. These modified behavior patterns become our morals. This is too short a forum but simply put, dogs are our protectors, friends and partners and exist in this role in every country on the planet from hot to cold. Any human that can break this trust with a dog, make it suffer for frivolous cultural reasons and show it cruelty when a kinder option was available loses my trust and the trust of billions like me. I would expect such a human, who can betray the loyalty and trust of a dog, a partner to humans, to have less value for my life. This diminishes the chances of both of our survival by his action and thus I term it cruel and contra my code. It is not explicable by cruelty in the natural world, it displays a lower empathy for life taken by one who is equipped to reason a better way. It illuminates a man and a culture that uses power to exercise absolute control by showing that they may take life slowly and painfully at will when they have no need to do so. I just know it is wrong and so do you; our genes recognize the threat to our own survival.

    • Steven Hussey

      @John, I clarified the your first concern in my response to Jason’s comment.

      Your comment about the irrelevance of evolution is in fact exactly one of the points I make – it doesn’t seem to me that you even read the article properly. We don’t need evolutionary justification for actions humans perform that aren’t adaptive. Caring about (and physically investing resources into) the welfare of animals in a rural part of China isn’t clearly adaptive, but we do it anyway, and I’m saying it doesn’t matter that there’s this disjunction. I’m merely pointing out that our efforts to prevent pain and suffering are outweighed by what occurs in nature.

    • Steven Hussey

      @John. About your last point, which like a true charlatan you arrogantly dismiss with ad hominem attacks rather than providing a detailed explanation, the act of caring for others completely unrelated to you to the same degree that you’d like to be cared for is in conflict with the classical selfish gene view of evolution. Kin selection accounts for altruism only as far as relatedness is concerned, which isn’t really altruism at all. At one point group selection – selection for the “good of the species” – was proposed to allow altruism to evolve. However, this has largely been rejected by the works such as those of Smith, Williams and Dawkins, and today group selection remains a controversial explanation for the evolution of altruism. The main problem is that those individuals that “cheat” by not being altruistic, while benefiting themselves from the altruism of others, get the upper hand, and that cheating behaviour will increase in the population, leading to the extinction of altruism. Newer theories of group selection have been proposed, but have been shown to be forms of kin selection which is not true altruism. For a good academic discussion, I recommend this source.

      Now, John, if your “shock” that someone who is clearly more qualified than you on the topic could write something that you disagree with, perhaps you can provide an actual rebuttal next time…

    • Steven Hussey

      @ Grant, I would not say that is the hypothesis I present. I need to precis my article: animal anti-cruelty movements are broadly devoted to eradicating animal suffering at our hands. This goes both for intentional cruelty, as well as general suffering during slaughter. It is because of animal rights activism that we have such strict slaughtering codes. Although I point to what could be described as intentional cruelty in nature, which my example illustrates in my view, I extend this to the suffering of animals in nature in general predation, and how evolution has been apathetic to how animals die. But suffering is everywhere in nature. The valiant efforts, then, of animal rights activism are futile, for obvious reason. They are also irreconcilable with adaptation, because caring about how a sheep is slaughtered is not clearly adaptive. Arguably our instinct to maim and kill is an evolutionary relic from our hunter-gatherer days. Does that matter? No, because morality is a human construction, it needs no evolutionary justification, and if it helps us strengthen our values, then by all means let’s continue our efforts as futile as they are in the broader picture.

      I have used “killing for fun” too much in the article because it has detracted from the rest of my argument. But why should intention disqualify my point? In effect people are saying here that inflicting suffering is fine provided it is a characteristic of a species. But perhaps cruelty is a characteristic of ours?

    • suntosh

      An interesting debate, especially in light of the new year’s ever party at uShaka Marine World in Durban next week, which has apparently drawn 7000 signatures of protest because animal rights activists feel the sound of the music will endanger the dolphins and marine life.

      Seems like the party’s going ahead anyway, with assurances from all.

    • Stephen

      550 million years of animals being torn to shreds. Ergo, god does not exist.

      @ Stephen Browne. Good point. We are also quite happy tearing other homo sapiens to shreds. Ergo, god does not exist.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I really don’t think we should be encouraging wanton cruelty just because an orca plays with a seal. I’d imagine that humans should have slightly higher standards than that of wild animals.

      Until such time as animals have a voice of their own, it really is up to us to speak up for them. I doubt that a call line would be of assistance (unless we can find Dr Doolittle) so preventing some monster from taking a chainsaw to his dog is up to us – unless of course, we are somehow saying that psychopathic behaviour is now socially acceptable?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      All cultures have their respected Totem animals, and their food animals, and treat them differently.

      The French eat horses and frog, Europeans eat cows but not dogs.Dogs are food to Asians, and the Bantu migrated to Africa from Asia

      Dogs were revered and Gods to the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Google Sirius, the Dog Star, and the Greek God Set who had a canine body.

      But most interesting of all is the African tribe the Dogon and their knowledge of Sirius, the Dog Star, and its invisible white star shadow, which should not have been known without a telescope. (Ref: Wikipedia)

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      If the Black American Kwanzaa Cult Mythology was real; the Bantu would worship dogs not cows, like the Egyptians; because the Kwanzaa Cult says all civilization came from Egypt and the Bantu are Ancient Egyptians.

      If the American Kwanzaa Cult Myth was real; the Bantu would worship a Trinity
      Because according to the Kwanzaa Cultists the Christians stole the Trinity from the Black African Culture of a Trinity of ONE Man, ONE Woman and ONE Child.
      BUT the Bantu worship ONE Creator God who intercedes through the ancestors.

      If the American Kwanzaa Cult Myths were real, the North Star would be seen in the Southern Hemisphere,because their whole cosmology revolves around the North Star – which can’t be seen South of the Equator at all, where navigation has to be by the Southern Cross.

      If the American Kwanzaa Cult were real, the Bantu would make wine and brandy
      From the same fruits used in the First Fruits Festival. NO settled farming community ANYWHERE in the world does NOT make alcohol from the crops they grow – but the Bantu only made beer from the annual sorghum crop.

      If the American Kwanzaa Cult were true, the Bantu would have more Bulls; to have a stock of Bulls for the “Killing of the Bull” ceremony like the Portugese and Spanish have for their bullfights. But the Bantu kill all their bullocks when young and only keep one Bull for every kraal.

    • Gillian Schutte

      Credo Mutwa speaks on the African relationship to dogs.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      There was NO contact between Ancient Egypt and Sub Saharan Africa
      They were separated by the Sahara Desert and the 300 mile impenetrable swamps of the Sudd on the Nile which even Julius Caesar’s troops could not penetrate.

      The ONLY contact was through Ethiopia, from where the Queen of Sheba came, and which still has one of the oldest, pre -Roman, versions of Judeo-Christianity.

      BUT the result of this American Mythical Africa, also called Pan Africanism or African Renaissance, whose cultists insist on open borders to recreate the Mythical One Africa, has been the collapse, one after each other, of every independent African State.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Kwanzaa Cult Myth is the Most Successful Indoctrination Campaign in History!
      Even more successful than King Leopold’s indoctrination of the World that he was sending missionaries to the Congo.

      Both the brutal genocidal colonising of America, and the 1000 year Arab Slave Trade and Arab colonising of Africa, are written out of history and the blame for Africa’s woes placed on Britain and France who colonised Africa in the 19th century to STOP the Arab Americas slave trade. Britain had 3 fleets of the British navy in Africa to stop the Brazilian, American and Arab slavers, one of those fleets in SA.

      This myth is even continually repeated in Wikipedia, who reflects for “Lloyd’s of London” as follows:

      “during the formative years of Lloyd’s (between 1688 and 1807), one of the sources of Lloyd’s business was the insurance of ships engaged in slave trading,[3] as Britain rapidly established itself as the chief trading power in the Atlantic. British shipping carried more than 3.25 million people into slavery, meaning that by the end of the eighteenth century, insuring slave ships had become a significant component of Lloyd’s marine business.”

      What Lloyd’s insured was MERCHANT SHIPS going East for spices, but who bought slaves from the Arabs and filled their holds on the way because the Arabs had no spices to sell and the holds were empty of cargo. These ships did not have holds designed only for slaves.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Both Romans and Arabs altered religious texts to justify both slavery and patriarchy

      Because both Roman and Arab cultures were patriarchial, and both Arab and Roman Empires ran on Slave Labour.

      If you have seen the film Ben Hur, you will know that Roman White Slaves were chained to the oars of the Roman Galleys, and drowned if the ships went down.

      How were the American, Brazilian and Arab Slave Ships any worse?