Can They Suffer?

The Columbus Dispatch is reporting that 49 wild animals, including “18 tigers, nine male lions, eight female lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, one baboon and two wolves” were killed in Ohio last night and this morning. The animals were being kept on a wildlife preserve owned by Terry Thompson, who apparently opened the doors to all of the animals’ cages yesterday, and then shot himself.

Six of the 56 escaped animals were captured alive. Six.

The sheriff who granted his deputies permission to kill the animals as they encountered them, said: “Public safety was my No. 1 concern. I gave the order that if the animals looked like they were going to get out, they were going down.” He’s also quoted as saying, “Right now, we’re shooting to kill.” Why weren’t the animals just tranquilized? According to the New York Times, police reported that when a tranquilizer dart was used on one of the tigers, it failed to disable the animal, so they used assault rifles instead.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t as if these animals were being hidden. Police had been called to the property before. In fact, the owner was previously indicted on animal cruelty charges, and police pointed out that Thomspson’s property “isn’t designed to keep in wild animals.” So why on earth was he allowed to have them? Moreover, if the county knew about the existence of this animal “sanctuary,” why on earth weren’t they prepared to deal with a potential disaster?

This seems tangentially related to the issue of nuclear power. An analogy can be made on the basis of hubris: if we are not prepared to handle a potential disaster, why would we knowingly and willfully put ourselves in circumstances that could lead to such a disaster on the assumption that we simply won’t let a disaster happen? On the assumption that we have control over the world, human and non-human.

Ohio has no regulations on the sale and ownership of exotic animals, and yet they are completely unprepared to deal with the consequences of a disaster involving those kinds of animals. This poses a threat not only to the (human) public, but to the animals. From the New York Times: “Once the extent of the danger became apparent…deputies were given high-powered assault rifles and rode in the beds of pickup trucks, where throughout the night they shot the animals as they cornered them.”

If regulatory laws had been in place, this could have been avoided. Then again, maybe not; something similar happened recently on a much smaller scale in North Carolina, but this time the animals were still captive when they were killed. Oh, and they were deer, not tigers. Read about it here. 

I’ll avoid detailing my thoughts on speciesism and my current fascination with post-humanist studies, but I’d like to refer to one bit of philosophy here. In “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” Derrida quotes Jeremy Bentham (who asked the same question in a 1789 consideration of the parallels between racism and speciesism), asking, of animals, “Can they suffer?” The Humanist idea that we are entitled to special rights as a species because we are capable of higher modes of consciousness, logic, and reason (and sometimes language) than other species provides an argument for our biblical “dominion” over other animal species. Are we so much more important as a species than every other species of life on the planet? Is the answer yes because we say it is, or because we have guns and nuclear waste? Bentham writes: “But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old…The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” 

Photo from the Columbus Dispatch

Like humans, other animals have bodies and psyches capable of suffering. These were animals that were held captive outside of their native environment, and then shot to death. People tend to say things like “Thank God no human life was taken” in these situations, but I have a hard time seeing it that way.

It’s too easy to say “This was the only thing to do,” when instead one can ask, “What else could have been done,” as a sincere inquiry. Better yet to ask “Would this have been done to humans,” and then examine why the answer is what it is. I am asking myself if I would feel differently about the situation if the animals killed were all rodents, and why that answer is what it is. Where does one draw lines in determining a hierarchy of life? On what criteria? Is it more productive and sustainable to view life in a non-hierarchical framework — one not based on human subjectivity? Perhaps these questions should be asked more often.


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