Saturday, August 17, 2013

On the Ethics of Keeping Animals

Note: there will be no link round-up today because a couple of blog posts and news items inspired the following post:

A recent study found that humans have more empathy for beaten puppies than for human crime victims:
Jack Levin  and Arnold Arluke, sociology professors at Northeastern University, used the opinions of 240 men and women, most of whom were white and between the ages of 18-25 (college students), at a large northeastern university (guess which one) who randomly received one of four fictional news articles about; the beating of a one-year-old child, an adult in his thirties, a puppy, or a 6-year-old dog. The stories were identical except for the victim's identify. After reading their story, respondents were asked to rate their feelings of empathy towards the victim.

Survey results showed that abused adult people have it bad in our culture while dogs have it quite good.  Even the difference in empathy for human children versus puppies was statistically non-significant.
Granted, this study was done within just one part of the American public,  but it raises an important question:  Why do humans hold sentient, social animals in captivity despite our sympathy for them?

This month on the Secular Web, there's an article by Richard Schoenig on whether there can be objective ethics without a deity, and he proposes a system of "ethical rationalism."  He deliberately left aside the issue of ethical treatment of animals other than human beings.  I'm going to try to fill in that gap a little.

Schoenig's "system" includes principles that most people would not dispute regarding human-to-human interactions:
  1. The principle of respect for the life of others ...  to respect the integrity of others' lives... also that we must not cause any unwarranted pain or suffering.
  2. The principle of fairness requires that we give others their due...
  3. The principle of truth-telling says that we must not lie, mislead, or withhold the truth when the situation calls for telling the truth.
  4. The principle of respect for legitimate property ...
  5. The principle of self-support ...
  6. The principle of autonomy (for competent people)
  7. The principle of assistance (PA) states that capable people have a moral obligation under certain circumstances to help those in need who cannot help themselves...
He expands on the last point quite a bit, and to me, this one and the first one are the core values that would apply to relationships between humans and other animals.  Schoenig seems uncomfortable with the idea of rendering assistance, and he goes into detail working out his rather libertarian views on helping others.  He quotes the classic "trolley problem," which I think does apply to our treatment of animals.  In the trolley problem, the subject has to choose between diverting a trolley, thus saving five people but sacrificing one, or letting the trolley run its course, guaranteeing the death of the others further away.   Schoenig's response is rather libertarian, in my opinion, and his calculations lack the one factor that I think causes us to worry about these things in the first place:  compassion.

The trolley problem writ large is a perfect metaphor for our struggle with issues of animal ethics.  For example:

  • Should we prohibit the killing of lions in the savannah because they are endangered, even if it means the lions will eat the villagers' goats and cause them to starve?  Or to Americanize it, should we prohibit the killing of the grey wolf even by farmers who are protecting their livestock?
  • Do we protect the snail darter, a tiny fish from Tennessee Valley Authority's planned dam, which would disrupt its life cycle and destroy its habitat? (The Supreme Court decided in favor of the dam, but the fish were relocated to a different river and it is still a threatened species)
  • Should billions of acres be devoted to corn for animal feed when deforestation is one of the causes of global warming?  If we didn't eat pigs and cows many of those acres could be returned to their native state.
  • Is the human-animal bond sufficient to justify keeping parrots as pets?
  • Should food animals be raised with modern methods to maximize their potential to feed more people?
  • Should we allow the human population to continue to grow, considering how many species we are endangering?
  • Should exurbia continue to sprawl into native habitats when inner cities have vacant housing that could be restored?

Religion isn't very helpful here.  Buddhists revere all life, are strict vegetarians, and literally will not hurt a fly.  On the other extreme are cultures that have no regard for animal life whatever, and engage in what many Americans would consider atrocities.  And then American animal treatment has a long way to go.  In each of the above examples, animals are on the losing end because we consider our needs and comfort to be more important than theirs.

At the risk of sounding post-modern, the less we relate to another, the easier it is to disregard the "other."  The United States no longer has any states where African-Americans are considered 3/5 human, or where women are prohibited from owning property, but current political debate continues to involve the resistance of the "sames" to the "others:"   gays, immigrants, Muslims, etc.  (No debate about whether it's okay to hate atheists, yet, though)

More and more, though, we are accepting that we are not quite as unique as we would like to feel.  We are not the only species to adopt orphans.  We are not the only species to show grief at the death of a family member.  Other species have been found to use tools and to have language-like abilities.  Here are some recent news items about other animals:
As biologists continue to find commonalities with other animals, our biggest uniqueness seems to be the ability to make or break the existence of other species.   Protection of species and the environment have succeeded in part because of enlightened self-interest:  If we continue to  decimate the Brazilian rain forest we might cause the extinction of a plant that could cure cancer!  If we kill too many deer this year, there won't be enough next year for us to hunt!   We love to visit redwood forests, so lets keep some of them for our amusement!
So back to Schoenig.  His Number One rational value is: The principle of respect for the life of others ...  to respect the integrity of others' lives... also that we must not cause any unwarranted pain or suffering.  This stands alone, without respect to our own amusement or comfort.  I can't kill someone to harvest their kidney for myself, nor can I torture him for sport.

Now let's widen the circle a little - to some of the more closely-related "others."  In the 1970s and 1980s, young baboons were sacrificed for their hearts, which were transplanted into infants that died soon after.  The most famous was "Baby Fae."  How did the baboon's mother feel about this?   Nobody thought of that in the 1980s.  Studies of baboon social life indicate that females bond very closely to their female relatives.  ... and they love their offspring.  Yes, love. Parental love is due at least in part to the hormone, oxytocin, which is present in almost all placental mammals.  Let's decide to stop killing primates to harvest their organs, okay?

But what if you could save ten babies named Fae with one baboon heart?  That's the trolley problem.  Fortunately, as in the case of the snail darter, the trolley problem may have been a false dilemma.  (The ethics of keeping doomed babies "alive" is another topic for another day)

"Unwarranted" pain or suffering is the razor's edge, though.  If we hold a human baby's life in higher regard than a baboon's, then the baboon's suffering is justified.  But what if the human benefit is not life-or-death?  And what if the human's chance of survival are not greatly improved by the baboon's sacrifice?  Animal activists have been arguing against unwarranted animal destruction and have been successful in a number of areas:
What got me thinking about ethics and animals was a recent news item in which the U.S. government denied a petition to import beluga whales for public display.  Belugas, like other whales, live in pods.  Separating the individuals from their pods is cruel, and if the recent dolphin study is indicative of cetaceans (marine mammals) in general, they would recognize their pod if reunited.

The debate whether zoos are important has good points on both sides, but as much as I enjoy zoos, I'm starting to view them as being on the wrong side of history.  In the past, we had traveling circuses where people viewed animal tricks, and in general gawked at alien animals.  Then we had Sea World and Siegfried und Roy in stable locations coaching animals to do tricks.

Zoos and Sea World are becoming more humane, though, and nobody wants to follow in Siegried and Roy's dubious footsteps.  Habitat areas in zoos are more similar to the natural habitat, and keepers give the animals stimulating activities.  Sadly, though, too many social animals are still alone in their enclosures, or one of only a few when in the wild they would live in an extended family.  Even if they embrace their keepers in a human-animal bond, it's not the same.  An example is Lucy, an Asian elephant living in the cold climate of Canada, without any other elephants to socialize with.  The zoo claims she's happy.

The educational value of captive enclosures is perhaps the best argument for keeping zoos and aquaria, though I think they could still expand environments.  And we have to admit -- if we're being honest -- cute, beautiful, human-like, or scary animals are still the real attractions.  Would Sea World want those Beluga whales if they didn't look a bit like Homer Simpson?

Land animals can be "preserved" in sanctuaries or wildlife reserves, but preservation of sea animals is more of a challenge.  Their natural range is much further than land mammals, so even turning the Grand Canyon into a sea would not be enough space.

The best argument for zoos and aquaria in my opinion is the advancement of veterinary science for those animals.  We can help injured animals now, and we often do.  If the same could be accomplished by sanctuaries that would be even better.

There are sanctuaries for African animals in the United States, which is rather disturbing.  Many of the animals came from the exotic pet trade, as owners realize their cute little lion cub is not quite as cute as an adult.  A "sanctuary" implies there would be no other option for the animal, and they will be in safe keeping.  But it's still keeping.

Why do we keep animals, either in zoos or as pets?  The animals sometimes suffer terribly.  Parrots pull out their feathers.  Large mammals in small enclosures pace in circles.  Big cats attack zoo employees at their first opportunity.  I think it's because we like them and feel some empathy for them.  Only recently have we become sensitized to their suffering in captivity.

So how do we define our ethical responsibility toward other animals?  Studies of animal behavior can help us define what constitutes suffering for them, not in comparison to our suffering.  I think it comes down to the brain development of the species, and their instinctual needs.  We can assume that all animals with brains can experience pain.  I admit to a need to eat meat, so I can't go the distance to encourage vegetarianism, but farming methods and slaughter methods can be made less painful.

Social animals with brains capable of social bonding should not be separated from their family groups.  This would include other primates, elephants, giraffes, and other zoo staples. If zoos are to continue, they should create social groups and provide sufficient space to support the entire group.  With the advent of webcams, visitors can be shown video images of the animals wherever they happen to be within their space rather than forcing them into small pens.

Aquaria and Sea World shouldn't keep dolphins or whales unless they can give them large spaces to swim.  Animal tricks would not be possible without some kind of human-animal bonding, and I don't dismiss this possibility.  There are many instances in nature when an animal fosters the young of a different species.  But when you consider the large ranges of dolphins and whales, is the distraction of tricks for treats sufficient to make up for what they've lost?

India has banned the keeping of captive dolphins and Costa Rica closed its zoos.  Will Sea World and your local zoo go the way of the circus?

Animals that need to learn their survival behaviors from a family group, are kind of stuck, and they are our responsibility if we have reared them.  This brings us to the libertarian #7 of Schoenig's system: fostering an unhealthy dependence.  When it comes to humans, I don't think this is really that much of a risk.  When it comes to intelligent and social animals, it is definitely a risk. There are many of these.  We habitually rescue animals that need to learn life skills that we can't possibly teach them.  An example is a walrus that is now at the Indianapolis zoo.   Humans and other sentient animals can bond, but should they, erm, we?

Unfortunately, due to our ability to destroy the planet through deforestation, pollution, overpopulation, overfishing, and global warming, all species on the planet are now our responsibility.  They have an unnatural dependence on us whether we have contact with them or not.  In the case of domesticated animals, we created their species so we are 100% responsible for everything related to their suffering and survival.  In the case of endangered species, we have most likely caused their endangered status, so nurturing individuals in rescue/rehabilitation programs is essential.  Preserving the gene pool through zookeeping, maybe not so much.  We should definitely be banking sperm from endangered animals to the extent we can.  We should be saving ecosystems by converting golf courses (yes, golf courses!) and other unnatural spaces back to their original states.

We do indeed have a moral obligation to prevent suffering and care for those animals that depend on us directly or indirectly.

Dogs in "captivity" are also our responsibility because we created their species from wolves.  They do not have the jaw strength to hunt like wolves, and they are juvenile temperaments have been bred into them, so they can't mimic wolf packs as much as people would like to think.  Dogs can revert to "wild" but even in undeveloped areas of the world, they are rather parasitic and seemingly unable to survive away from human settlements.  Mine are happy when I come home and they sleep with me.  Would they prefer to chase squirrels all day?  Possibly.  But they were bred to be companions of humans.

So I'm keeping them.


Infidel753 said...

These are some interesting and thorny questions. I've long thought that people in future decades will look back on our treatment of animals in horror, just as we look back on things that were once considered perfectly acceptable, such as slavery.

By far the biggest number of animals held in captivity are those farmed as a human food source, and the conditions for them are often far worse than in any zoo or lab. I see no moral justification for doing that on the scale we do it, especially when a mostly or wholly vegetarian diet seems healthier for us. On the other hand, the same problem exists as you cited for dogs -- most domesticated farm animals have changed under human breeding, and couldn't survive in the wild -- certainly not in the numbers that currently exist.

The trolley problem, by the way, is part of a study of morality which has given interesting results. Most people agree that switching the path of the trolley so it runs over one person rather than five is acceptable. But when given an alternate scenario in which they could drop one person into the trolley's path, jamming its movement and thus also saving the five people at the price of killing one, most people agree that this would not be moral. The difference seems to be that we can accept the idea of collateral damage, but we can't accept using a person as a mere utensil to accomplish a task at his own expense. This has obvious implications for our use of animals in many situations, at least for those we come to think of as persons.

Infidel753 said...

(cont'd) Unfortunately, for some species the choice is not between zoos/sanctuaries and the wild, but zoos/sanctuaries and extinction. The environment and animal conservation are improving in rich countries because they can afford to spend resources on such things, but deteriorating in poor countries because they have limited money and many other priorities. (Imagine you're on the budget commission in Zambia and you have to divide up a small national budget among problems like child malnutrition, a huge HIV problem, and adequate pay for wardens to protect animals from poachers. It's a legitimate dilemma.) Most of Latin America and a lot of Asia will probably catch up with the West economically in 20 years or so, and be able to afford the same kind of conservation we have, but how many species will be lost in that 20 years? And there's not much sign of Subsaharan Africa catching up in the foreseeable future. Conservation projects in rich countries may be the only hope of, say, gorillas and chimpanzees to survive at all.

Good post.

Infidel753 said...

Buddhists revere all life, are strict vegetarians, and literally will not hurt a fly.

The treatment of animals in China certainly doesn't reflect this. Are you sure you're not thinking of Hindus?

L.Long said...

Buddhist dogma says they do and they do not permit tormenting animals, but then there are Buddhists and buddhists.

Being specie-ist again.
Why does everyone get all doe eyed over a puppy but not a carrot???
Why? Cuz you can't hear them scream when you kill them?
Life is life after all.

Why is shipping 1000 bananas in a cramped box in a dark ship OK, but 20cats in a box pissin & schiting over each other is awful? Again you can't hear their screams?

But I always find these discussions interesting as to where people draw the line. Some at babies, some at fetuses, some at furry critters, some at insects, some at ?????

I draw my line at needless suffering without permission. Cock fights are disgusting, adult male humans beating the crap out each other is fine with me. I don't like pets but cats, dogs, and gold fish are domesticated and so no problem.

Seaworld? OK for most part but I have reservations about dolphins and Octopus.

Zoos are OK for the most part but rather like the large uncaged types

Infidel753 said...

L Long: Mammals are mentally sophisticated in similar ways to ourselves and are clearly capable of suffering. These things are clearly not the case with plants, which have no nervous system at all. In the case of animals with less-sophisticated nervous systems, such as insects, we still don't really know what degree of self-awareness (if any) they have. But the difference between chimpanzees and ants (or bananas) is clearly far greater than the difference between chimpanzees and humans.

LadyAtheist said...

The capacity to feel physical pain seems to be a way-back feature in animal evolution compared to psychological pain. And how long does the psychological pain last? If you separate a dolphin from its pod and introduce it to a new pod in an aquarium, will it get over the separation?

L.Long said...

Like I said 753 it is interesting how and where the line is drawn, and most importantly, there must be a line.

IF dolphins are as sophisticated as some believe then there is a good likelihood that pod replacement just like family replacement is a comfort.

Loren said...

This reminds me that I once saw some performing dolphins and orcas, and I felt very ill over the orcas being confined to pools not much greater than their sizes. The dolphins had it easier, since they were smaller.

But I think that it's possible to be creative with animals that wander over large distances in the wild. I remember an aquarium of pelagic (open-water) fish. It was a circular aquarium, and the fish swam round and round and round it. Could something similar be done with big land animals?

As to domestic animals, many of them have been bred for features that would be very troublesome in the wild. But some domestic animals do go feral, and sometimes successfully enough to be a nuisance.

Captivity can indeed be bad for animals, but on the plus side, they can be well-fed and cared for and live long lives.

Loren said...

You posted "Buddhists revere all life, are strict vegetarians, and literally will not hurt a fly." It's the more fervent Jains who are like that. Some of them sweep the ground ahead of them as they walk, to avoid stepping on bugs.