A stock reaction from a section of people reading about the tragedy befalling a non-human animal is to say: “why are you grieving over this cat/dog/donkey when there are people dying of hunger and are getting killed in war zones?” But comparing individual or mass human tragedies and those affecting non-humans is odious to anyone with a modicum of genuine compassion.
The term speciesism is still rarely used, especially in India. But the need to eschew hierarchies when it comes to dealing with misery will be recognized by the sensitive and the sensible.
An evidently sweet and charming cat, who had apparently been a long-term companion to at least one human being and precious friend of many others, died an unnatural death late in March. From an evocative and highly reliable account of the death and life of that dear feline being (http://wildatheartdelhi.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/obituary-for-james-and-open-letter-to-jet-airways-and-the-delhi-we-love/), it seems clear that the tragedy was avoidable. A company into whose care that precious little living bundle was given is alleged to have blundered, with its allegedly ill-trained staff adding to the misery of the grieving human companion of the deceased through shocking and callous insensitivity.
If that company thinks we’ll all have forgotten after a few days or weeks, it can think again. Some of us refuse to forget.
Cats. Most humans who use languages in which the neuter gender exists prefer it when referring to non-human living beings in the singular: “It”. Although substantial sections of humans around the globe have institutional or cultural practices of respect for nature – for all fauna and flora – unfortunately the average human today cares little for the welfare of other species. Far be it from their conception to respect non-human living beings (assuming they respect even human ones).
The late James Dean, the feline, is now known to many tens of thousands of people around the world, because of Tara Chowdhry’s account flagged above, which has deservedly been read and shared by countless numbers. A petition has done the rounds: http://www.change.org/en-IN/petitions/jet-airways-make-your-airline-safe-for-animals-in-your-care.
The company concerned first issued a brief, 200-word statement via Facebook in effect denying responsibility for the tragic death at its hands, which it dismissed as “accidental demise” and “unfortunate incident” (https://www.facebook.com/notes/jet-airways/jet-airways-sincerely-regrets-the-accidental-demise-of-a-pet-cat/518862838151912).
Such was the furious reaction it sparked that the company came back two days later with a 1,000-word note, obviously another PR-cum-company-lawyer job, full of passive sentences signifying little (https://www.facebook.com/notes/jet-airways/jet-airways-statement-on-james-dean-the-pet-cat/519587208079475).
The overwhelming number of responses to these two statements – perhaps upwards of the 95% range – is by people expressing dismay and disgust and not buying the company’s version. A tiny percentage – in fact, tinier than might have been expected – voice cynical objection to the indignation and condemnation of the way little James Dean was handled. Their objections are mainly three-fold – why are you agitated about this cat when humans are dying, don’t you eat meat (in other words don’t you cause the death of other non-human animals, so why object to this cat’s death) and an underlying assumption that cats shouldn’t be allowed the luxury of international flight (dump this one and get another at your destination, was one breathtakingly insensitive suggestion).
It would be interesting to know how many of those who ask “why don’t you talk about human misery” do so themselves except while objecting to the discussion of a non-human’s fate. These are akin to the people who object to reports about human rights abuses in Kashmir by saying why don’t you talk about Kashmiri Pandits. And the ones who say why don’t you talk about the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom by Congress Party goons when one raises the issue of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Or when the harassment of Muslims in India is discussed, pat comes their question: why don’t you talk about Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh? As if one instance of cruelty either cancels the other out or justifies the other.
The existence and persistence of human misery does not preclude the need to reduce cruelty towards animals. Most of the passionate advocates of human rights are also wedded to the idea of humane treatment of non-human animals. Because, the bottomline is compassion, which brooks no exceptions. A compassionate attitude on the part of a human has necessarily to extend to non-humans.
As for meat consumption, of course, from a vegan/vegetarian viewpoint as well as an ecological one, the ideal world would be one in which human beings reduced or eliminated dependence on animal protein. But that is not going to happen overnight. There are movements of people working for such an eventuality. But they have decades of work cut out. However, the persistence of animal-protein consumption should not in any way mean that human beings should be cruel to living non-humans. Or that they should be inconsiderate towards animals in their care.
Why fly a cat (even if only in the hold)? This is classic speciesism. It’s pretty rich for humans to be robbing milk from cows, eggs from chickens and putting millions of animals to death to extract meat (which is transported by air too in massive quantities) and then object to efforts at easing the pain non-human animals endure or efforts at ensuring that a given human and non-human team can stay together after one of them moves to another place.
Why fly cats, why make prosthetics for dogs and other disabled non-humans? Why not let them die? Such queries need really not be dignified with an answer. Fortunately, there are enough sensitive and level headed humans who ignore such inanities and carry on with their humane care for the non-humans.
Moreover, those who raise such objections fail to read the responses. Such was the experience with two articles I wrote recently on the issue of non-human animals and their right to exist: “An Indian Would Be Vegan’s Defence of Beef-eating” (http://www.countercurrents.org/jayaram011012.htm) and “Let Independent Dogs Be” (http://www.countercurrents.org/jayaram201212.htm. The latter was reproduced in a Bangalore-based website and drew some bizarre comments: http://bangalore.citizenmatters.in/articles/view/4753-the-issue-of-stray-dogs).
But let us talk business. Airlines are paid to carry the remains of humans, for burial in their home countries or climes. The flesh of non-humans – all sorts of mammals, birds, fish and others – is transported in refrigerated containers. So why this level of apathy for a paying – living – non-human passenger, companion of a human? Moreover there are dogs in the service of security forces, customs, drug enforcement authorities and so forth present in many airports. Should there not be properly trained veterinary carers in the airports to cater to them and others?
Had the company which was paid a tidy sum to transport James Dean been compassionate and its employees been trained to be too, the tiny cat would have lived. It is this compassion deficit that led to the tragedy and that continues to prevent the company from issuing a sincere public apology. It is not too late to make amends while ensuring that such a tragedy is repeated never again.