How Humans Harm: Violations of (Non-Human) Animal Rights

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

When we hear allegations of soap made from human corpses, we shudder at the thought. The notion of repurposing something as valuable as the human body for something as ordinary as soap is quite unimaginable; somewhat degrading the worth of a living creature. To inflict harm and suffering on another human and even damage its lifeless body becomes unthinkable. However, have we ever stopped to question soap derived from the exploitation of animal milk? Since we advocate for the ethical treatment of humans, even after their death, why should we leave non-human animals out of the picture? Since they are living beings, shouldn’t they have rights as well?

The issue of animal rights has been discussed before; proclaimed in Paris on 15 October 1978 at the UNESCO Headquarters was the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights. Yes, in addition to humans, animals are also given rights that should, according to Article 14 Section 2, enjoy the protection of the law. In its preamble, the declaration acknowledges that how man treats animals is linked to respect towards fellow men. However, in reality, humans tend to forget even the most basic urge to coexist peacefully, with a pattern of lethal violence increasing over the course of mammal evolution.

Being at the (current) final branch of the biological tree of life, we homo sapiens from Kingdom Animalia are undoubtedly connected with other species. Conservationist Carl Safina in his TEDx Talk questions the human consciousness; “Why are we such narcissists? We have things going on in our minds that we tend to think are the exclusive abilities of humans.” His presentation goes on to explain that we humans are the result of inheritance and that the humble jellyfish was the first animal to grow a nerve for sending and receiving impulses. It was thanks to this non-human animal that we evolved our spinal cord. Same thing goes for the human brain; ours is just more elaborated, but its basic functions of thinking and feeling are the same as our non-human predecessors.

In 1973, jurist Jean-Marc Neumann wrote that, taking molecular genetics into consideration, all animals share a universal genetic code. “Neurophysiology and ethology have made it possible to analyze animal behaviors and establish their common bases. Humans consequently needed to profoundly change their outlook on the living world and on the place they will occupy within it.” All creatures of Kingdom Animalia are able of sentience. Being sentient is being able to perceive or feel things. However, the issue that arises is when does one know that another being is sentient? We as humans practice the slaughtering and exploitation of non-human animals every day for our food, fashion, and entertainment needs, just to name a few. However, have we ever kept in mind the non-human animals’ subjective feelings and awareness towards what we do to them on a daily basis?  

Some argue that being sentient is not a strong enough reason and question whether or not animals are also social; that us intervening with them would throw off a certain communal habit. Sentience and the ability to socialize often go hand-in-hand; being able to feel on a personal level relates to the ability of being aware of those around you and how they react. Let’s take the horse, for example; very social beings since they would naturally group into herds. On the other hand, talk to any equestrian athlete and you will find that a key aspect to the rider’s safety and success would be the emotional state of the horse they are riding. Horses are highly sensitive to danger; naturally born wild as prey animals whose instinct is to flee at the first sign of danger. They don’t come with an on-off switch; humans are aware of the horse’s ability to react based on adrenaline that was once a feature for survival. Still, in the competitive equestrian world, instinctive reaction is usually suppressed for the sake of the rider’s safety and points on the board. In other words, domestication becomes key.

Domestication basically means the process of taming an animal in order to provide for human needs. In a way, we reorganize non-human animals’ way of living (and even their genetics) to serve our interests. This reflects on how our relationship with non-human animals has gone through quite the evolution; from admiring them in their natural habitat to confining them in cages for our own pleasure and companionship. When we watch circuses, we are shown magnificent tricks such as elephants walking on their hind feet and tigers jumping through rings of fire. Our minds become captivated at the cost of animal captivity; another violation of non-human animal rights as is slavery to humans.

Subduing both wild and domesticated animals to the desires of humans means to control and further suppress their instincts. It also denies them of their natural habitat, confining them to tight spaces, which then becomes an issue for the animal’s welfare. Take orcas and dolphins, for example; famous theme park attractions. Used to swimming daily for miles across open water, they are then physically constrained and rejected the need for exercise and socialization. Sound familiar? Yes, in fact there are many similarities between the person-centric term of “slave” and how we keep and view animals as our property and commodity. So just because it’s not happening to human beings per se, is the continuance of slavery permissible? Can we look beyond the barrier that is anthropocentrism when it comes to ethical treatment and rights of living creatures?

In Indonesia’s case, macaques are often viewed as pests due to the fact that they often attack humans. However there is a very simple explanation for their behavior; the overlapping of territories. What was once a safe haven for the macaques is now teeming with human intervention and interests, usually in regards to plantations, roads, and industries. Imagine having to choose from the reality that is this; being shot because your meat considered as a delicacy or being enslaved for human entertainment. Topeng Monyet or “dancing monkeys” are forced to perform acts that mimic everyday human gestures and activities. At a glance it is amusing, but the story behind it is agonizing.

Back to the discussion of sentience. Imagine having to go through all that captive non-human animals endure (be it in factory farms, zoos, experimental labs, etc.) and having no legal standing. Carl Safina cites the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness drafted in 2012 when explaining that it’s illogical for humans to not consider the feelings of non-human animals just because they don’t display them as humans do. He believes that an animal’s experience of life is vivid; and it is we humans who have dulled due to civilization and we are unintentionally forcing non-human animals to do the same.

It is this anthropocentric view of non-human animals that makes it easier for humans to dismiss their ability to perceive and deny their rights. Comparing non-human animals against our own abilities makes us consider them as significantly of lesser importance, subduing them to our every whim. However, things are looking up. There have been movements in several industries relating to non-human animals regarding their rights and welfare. Fashion and beauty are pledging to no longer kill or hurt non-human animals due to the fact that consumers do not want to be affiliated with products of cruelty. The same thing goes for the entertainment industry, namely the circus, which used to thrive on the display of exotic animals. Yes, the reasons are still profit-based, but the struggle for ethical treatment of fellow living creatures has to start somewhere.