| Humans that harm animals should be held accountable|
|Unfortunately, we are all too used to news of drive-by shootings in America. But last week, one incident drew particular attention because the victim was an elephant.|
Elvis Presley's hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, was the scene of another performer's injury when an elephant traveling with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus was shot. PETA has offered a reward for the perpetrators' apprehension, and the police are investigating.
Once the perpetrators of this crime are apprehended, they should be held accountable on the same terms that we would apply if they had shot a human being. When an animal performer injures a human being, we are quick to blame and punish that animal. We don't give animal performers equal recognition as victims of violence.
Thomas Edison electrocuted the elephant Topsy in 1903 because she had squashed three handlers, one of whom had tried to feed her a lit cigarette. Edison electrocuted other animals as well, but filmed Topsy's execution for promotional purposes, to demonstrate the superior power of the electric current he had developed. Even in death, Topsy performed in an advertisement. Although this incident took place a century ago, similar rushes to judgment and calls for an animal's death accompanied the spectacular mauling in 2003 of Roy Horn by tiger Montecore during his Las Vegas performance. Shows such as Fox's "When Animals Attack!" had aired in the years before the incident.
In cases where animal performers commit violence, we are quick to attribute agency to them, but when animal performers are victims, we dismiss them. That needs to change because our own humanity is at stake in how we treat animals. For too long, the discussion about humans and animals has revolved around essential differences. We have tried to define what makes a human a human and what makes an animal an animal. We have tried to determine the "nature" of each, without recognizing their shared culture.
Descartes cut open his wife's living poodle to prove that animals were soulless machines. His celebrated insight, "I think, therefore I am," came at a terrible cost to animals: the flip side of his dictum was that animals think not, therefore they are not of any consequence. Descartes' attitudes are still with us.
Animal welfare groups and animal rights activists have long opposed those attitudes. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued in 1789 that we were asking the wrong questions about animals: "The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?" Bentham's query gave rise to the contemporary animal movement inaugurated by Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation" and represented by PETA. They have argued that animals do suffer, and that their suffering matters.
People who cut open poodles and people who want to protect them against such suffering are very different in their actions, but they both base their actions on animals' nature, making animals' ability or inability to suffer the measure for what they see as being right or wrong. Definitions of human-animal difference or of animals' "nature" insufficiently address the reason these specific violent incidents occur in the first place: circus elephants remind us that human beings and animals participate in the same culture. When it comes to incidents like these, we need to stop focusing on natural differences, and shift our attention to human-animal relationships.
Elephants are not native to Tupelo, Mississippi, nor is their natural habitat the big top. The elephant injured in the shooting was a performer. As all actors on late-night television are quick to remind us, performing is hard work. The animal's shooting is not only a crime, but also a workplace injury. Once we recognize that the elephant is a performer and a worker, we will need to consider the rights his labor bestows on him, and the obligations it places on us. We will also come to recognize that, in the contexts of labor and performance, human beings and animals are not separate from each other.
Donna Haraway has taken up this issue in her recent work. Drawing on the example of sheep dog, she has argued that training creates a bond between dogs and people that reshapes both. She has coined the term "companion species" to explain that our focus on evolutionary difference is misplaced: we are in this together. Human and non-human animals forge bonds through their shared work, and profoundly transform each other.
Clearly, such a transformation has occurred in the case of a trained circus elephant. As victims of violence, such animals should have equal rights. Those rights need not be based on judgments that we make about human and animal nature. The comparison between human beings' and animals' nature has far too long hindered us from recognizing that our relationship to one another shapes who we are, and imposes obligations on us.
We are quick to rush to judgments when animals attack, but slow to see animals as victims of the attacks they suffer. Relationships bring obligations with them. It is time we follow through on our obligations to companion animals. Our humanity depends on it.