Kindness and compassion are infectious. A child who embraces the ethic of compassion for animals is typically a child who is more respectful and empathetic toward other people. We’ve long known that inculcating a concern for animals builds character and fosters a sense of responsibility. My experience in 20 years of full-time animal protection work has shown me that kindness begets more of the same.
The converse is also true. The person who abuses an animal is more likely to do harm to people. There’s abundant evidence of this propensity documented in the sociological literature, and that, too, has been validated by my experiences as president of The HSUS. Dogfighters typically don’t just break laws related to animal cruelty. Very often, they are involved in violence toward people, narcotics trafficking, and other vices. Where there is domestic violence, the victims are interchangeable for the abuser; one day it’s a spouse, the next a child or the family pet. There’s a loss of empathy, and an attitude of license and the raw use of power.
There are normalized behaviors that are not associated with aberrant, socially destructive behavior. Someone who wears fur is not someone who is more likely to cause harm to others, even if there are moral issues raised by the killing of animals for fur. The same is true for people who eat meat. Wearing fur and eating meat are social customs, and these types of conduct are not precursors of violence toward others. We ask the consumers to think about their purchases and to consider the moral costs of their consumption habits, but we do not confuse their choices with any form of social pathology.
But there are production practices that are so harsh and severe that there is a larger moral spillover effect. I couldn’t help but think about this in reading about a remarkable investigative report on the poultry industry now running in The Charlotte Observer. The series talks about the systematic exploitation of the slaughterhouse workers, at plants that are processing millions and millions of birds every week.
Plant overseers that systematically orchestrate the brutalizing of animals are generally not paragons of responsible behavior. Mistreating workers, polluting the environment, and producing unsafe food are the other by-products of their operations. And the psychological effect on people who do the killing and dismembering of animals cannot be healthy. It’s a demeaning, dehumanizing process, and the people involved must be scarred by the experience.
You cannot compartmentalize kindness. Nor can you easily compartmentalize violence or abuse. It spills over time and again.
That’s just one reason why the work of The Humane Society of the United States is so important.