The last few months have produced a horrible stream of grim and scarring news stories about hate-inspired killing sprees in our supermarkets, sanctuaries of worship and schools, and murderous threats and attacks targeting elected officials in public and at their homes. They continue to shock, of course, but they carry the still more horrifying shock of familiarity now.
What happened in Pittsburgh and Louisville in the past week, in particular, have rekindled an old question, one that’s always with me, but one that takes special hold in the aftermath of such tragedies. What is the value of our work in helping animals in a world so troubled by hate, racism, mental illness, and violence?
I was fortunate to have been raised by a mother who understood, as I have come to understand over many years, that this world is in need—deep need—of humane values, and that our work in helping animals has tremendous meaning for the problem of interpersonal violence. The kindness we seek to practice, the compassion we seek to instill in our young, and the protection for animals we seek to enshrine in our institutions and in our laws, speak directly to the kind of world we hope to create. And it is emphatically a nonviolent world, one in which we recognize the inherent value of others, be they human or nonhuman, and treat them with respect and consideration. In that world, there is no room for the violence and hate we’ve seen expressed in the terrifying scenarios of the last several weeks.
Many have noted the close association between cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence, in connection with the pathological personality of the serial killer, or the deviance of the domestic abuser, but the lesson is much broader than this. It reminds me of the words of the 19th century reformer George T. Angell of the Massachusetts SPCA: “I am sometimes asked, ‘Why do you spend so much of your time and money talking about kindness to animals when there is so much cruelty to men?’ I answer: ‘I am working at the roots.’ ”
A few years ago the Harvard scientist Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that violence has actually been declining in the world as part of global modernization, the expansion of literacy, journalism, science, commerce, trade, and feminism, among other factors. It’s a hopeful vision, and I hope that Pinker is right.
I noted that one of the few areas that troubled Pinker in regard to his own thesis was the juggernaut of factory farming, whose miseries he seemed to understand. And I couldn’t help but think of his work when I saw the recent news concerning the decimation of the world’s wildlife. We’ve come a long way in our work but we’ve got a long way to go, and it’s good that Pinker and other observers can see and frame our cruelty to animals raised for food and our wholesale destruction of wild animals and their habit in the 21st century as critical problems that contribute to the perpetuation of violence and need to be addressed.
In a moment like the present, it’s all the more reason for us to continue to strive for compassion and kindness. Our message to the world and our mission are as vitally needed as ever.