PAWS Magazine

Issue 43, Fall 1999

Hope For the New Millennium

by Kathy Kelly

Executive Director, Progressive Animal Welfare Society

Humans and animals. We often think of ourselves as distinct from animals, when in truth we are part of the animal kingdom.

The life-style of early humans was very similar to the other animals living "in the wild". Survival meant finding food and shelter from day to day. Living this way, a human would sometimes be predator, sometimes prey.

During the times of the Neanderthals, some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, the diet of these people included human flesh as well as other animals and plants, quite probably as a simple practical survival matter.

A major splitting off point of human culture from the life-styles of our other creatures was when we started domesticating animals and cultivating plants. While this practice gave our species stability and opportunity for growth, it correspondingly changed our relationship with the other animals.

As far as we know, dogs were the first to be domesticated, about 12,000 years ago, followed shortly by the domestication of goats, sheep, and pigs, about 10,000 years ago. Then horses and chickens four thousand years later, approximately 4,000 to 3,500 BC. Early "cattle" were domesticated in different parts of the world, bison and buffalo, yaks, llamas and camels, during the time 4,000 to 2,500 BC These animals were used by their human "masters" to help with work and for transportation, as well as for food. Cats were domesticated approximately 2,600 BC, for companionship and as spiritual icons.

Humans began to see ourselves in dominion over the other creatures and over nature, and all the universe. We built cities, observed the stars, created calendars. We made music, written language and commerce. Many of our kind began to believe that we were the reason for all of creation. The world was created for us to use and we were meant to tame, or conquer, all.

With the development of Judeo-Christian cultures, people had direct authorization for dominion over the other creatures. While the role of caretaker of the Garden of Eden was one of stewardship, it was still a role of lord and master.

Literally, we humans thought we were the center of the universe. It wasn't until 1,500 BC that Copernicus pointed out that we seemed to be revolving around the sun, not the other way around.

It's hard to say why some historical events belong on a timeline of humans' relationship to the other animals. Events which do not directly involve human to non-human relationships had profound impacts on our perception of ourselves. These led to our current self-perception as separate and superior to nature and the other creatures.

The earliest Greek philosophers were known as the natural philosophers because they spent their time observing the processes of the natural world. They began to explain the physical world in terms of the laws of nature, not relying on the stories or myths of the gods. Philosophy gradually separated itself from religion, taking the step toward scientific reasoning.

Of particular note was Rene Descartes, the French philosopher who lived in the early 1600s of this millennium. He described the universe as a machine. Studying natural phenomena by reducing everything to its parts became widespread practice. Understanding "life" became the study of anatomy and molecules, Reductionist, mechanistic thinking became a fundamental mindset in Western culture.

The intrinsic value of life itself, and the interdependence of the members of the natural world, became lost. "Man" saw nature as a resource to be used in his service and proceeded to make it so. Where individual animals had always been a source of food for humans and other animals, certain species were now subjected to full-scale exploitation as "commodities" raised in mass production.

Other species became extinct due to human activities. The human colonization of the island, Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, caused the first known human-caused extinction of another animal species, the dodo bird, in the year 1600. Many, many other species would follow and become extinct due to human activities in the four hundred years afterward, including probably thousands we didn't even notice before they disappeared.

The milestones on the timeline of human to non-human relationships then becomes one of small, though significant feats. Little has altered our way of looking at ourselves or other creatures after we started down such an unnatural, exploitative and destructive path.

In 1792, the perhaps first written declaration of animal rights was published. Ironically, the declaration was made in jest as a parody of a case made for women's rights. Entitled "A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes" it mimicked a similarly titled treatise for women, making a case for the rights of "brutes", or animals, mocking the thought that either women or animals should be worthy of consideration.

In the early 1800s, the first animal welfare law came into being in Britain, outlawing "wanton" acts of cruelty to certain domestic animals. Because there was no enforcement provided for by the government, a group of caring citizens took it upon themselves to investigate and prosecute acts of cruelty under the law. The group later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A few significant paradigm shifts occurred in the 1800s and 1900s.

Darwin's publications "The Origin of Species" and "The Descent of Man" shocked audiences with his theories of evolution and natural selection. Needless to say, humans did not welcome the theory that the primitive beasts that roamed the wilds were not just our predecessors, but our ancestors, our kin.

Then, publications by Aldo Leopold ("Sand County Almanac" in 1949), Rachel Carson ("Silent Spring" in 1962), and others, began to re-introduce a more holistic vision of the world, the ecosystem and our interdependence with the rest of the living beings.

Soon after this the United States passed the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Preservation Act. A precursor to the Endangered Species Act, the ESPA was passed in recognition that, while extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process, then current rates of extinction were 100 to 10,000 times the numbers to be expected naturally.

A profound impact on human consciousness relevant to our relationship to the other creatures was the first widely-distributed images of the Earth taken from a tiny Mercury space capsule in 1962. We saw clearly that the planet is small and fragile. Some saw the planet itself is a living being. The terms "ecology" and "ecosystem" were introduced into our common vocabulary.

Our efforts since then are modest given the pace of human growth, resource consumption, and environmental degradation. The value of all life becomes more obvious to us as we edge precariously close to ecological collapse.

As the end of the year 1999 approaches, the number of humans alive on the planet has reached 6 billion. That's 6,000,000,000! In the US alone, almost 500 non-human animals are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction due to human impacts on our shared habitat.

The evolution of life on the planet will likely continue beyond the existence of our own species. The consideration we give the other creatures will play a large part in whether humans continue to exist on the planet. Their right to live here is intrinsically just, whether or not humans survive.

Kathy Kelly is the Executive Director of the Progressive
Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood, Washington.

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