Published in TheNewsBlog on January 31, 2012. http://blogs.thenews.com.pk/blogs/2012/01/31/painfully-humane/
A couple of days ago I met a neighbour outside the house, walking her two cute cocker spaniels. We exchanged New Year Greetings and as a ritual I asked: “So how did you spend your new years eve?”
“Oh I spent my evening feasting with my girls.” she replied
“Lovely, so they all came over to be with you.”
Her face changed color, “Oh no, these girls Sasha and Mori pointing at the two cocker spaniels, picking up the little ones in her arms.
Embarrassed I replied: “Yeah couldn’t be a better new years eve than with one’s pets. I did it too, when the rest of my family went to see the fireworks at midnight, I sat with my cats on the sofa watching TV.”
This triggered off the talk on how we undermine animals and use terms like ‘animal’ or ‘beast’ with a derogatory hint while using words like ‘humane’ as a symbol of compassion.
“I see those TV anchors calling suicide bombs that go off in Pakistan as ‘inhumane’ acts, when in reality they’ve been done by humans themselves, especially those who aspire to be superhuman so that they get a special place in Paradise.”
I could just nod in agreement.
She went on, “Isn’t this all very ‘human’ to kill, for no rhyme or reason?”
Her words echoed for hours. Don’t we use the same terms ‘insaniyat’ for compassion while ‘janwar’ or ‘haiwaaniyat’ for cruelty in Urdu too.
Although, it is common knowledge that even the most dangerous of animals do not harm unless they are hungry or provoked.
Perhaps our ‘hunger’ has gone beyond filling our stomachs. We ‘attack’ others to fill our egos, the egos which never get filled, because there is no bottom. Yes no bottom, because, we do not have any limit to how low we can stoop to gratify our egos.
Often we see and hear of stories where two pets that could have naturally been predator-prey, coexist as friends and in fact the predator acts as a protector of its erstwhile prey.
I saw this live for years in my own home between our cat Nelson and the grey parrot Shakespeare. Shakespeare learnt to mimic the mewing and growl of Nelson. And Nelson would come running to him. They would simply mew, looking into each other’s eyes. No t even once did the cat attempt to attack or touch the grey parrot. The day Nelson passed away and went missing from home, Shakespeare mewed for hours, as if calling out for him, adding to the gloom and shedding tears like a bereaved kid.
It is a bigoted myth that empathy is a higher cognitive function that only apes and humans are blessed with. Perhaps we are more loaded with narcissism than with empathy. Studies on whales show they are extremely emotional. Whale brains have specialised spindle cells which are important for empathy, and rapid gut reactions. Previously, only humans and apes were considered to possess them. An interesting practical example of this is when a 50-foot, 50-ton humpback whale was caught in a net off California’s coast. After rescuers untangled it, the whale swam up to each one of the rescuers, and winked before swimming off. The researchers confirmed this was a gesture of gratitude from the whale.
To study empathy, neuroscientists in McGill University injected acetic acid in the paws of mice causing them pain. The mice who watched their friend writhing in pain became more sensitive and reacted more violently to pain, when injected with the same chemical.
Studies on animals called ‘humans’ show that children who are cruel to animals, are likely to turn to violence later in life. 75% of prison inmates are known to have past history of animal cruelty, says a study.
We need to revisit or swap the meanings of ‘humane’ and ‘beastial’, or ‘insaniyat’ and ‘haiwaniyat’.
It is a saving grace that we do not understand animal language, otherwise it would be very embarrassing to know that every time a suicide bomb, target killing or even animal poaching occurs we would have heard animals scream “What a painfully humane act!”