When I read that a cygnet, who had been brutally kicked in a London park, had died of its injuries I felt a flicker of sadness. The photos of the still creature, thick with fluff, as grey as a pensioner though perhaps not even a year old, with its wet, squinting eyes moved me. It was clear to me that a heinous crime had occurred.
A jogger had booted the creature as it stood in his path when he went for a morning run. Struck like a football one can imagine the pain and fright it felt. No doubt in agony, it struggled for two days before its slender neck went limp.
It is not my intention here to be overly sentimental. I am fond of animals, to be sure. I find them personable, charming, lovable all in different ways. I am well aware of my privilege in this view. No doubt, when we were stalking the savannahs of prehistory, our ancestors did not spend their time cooing over cute puppies. Or perhaps they did – regardless, a huge part of their relationship with nature must have been defined by fear, the fear of the sabre-toothed cat gnawing your bones and slurping your gizzards.
Yet because I no longer need to hunt or gather to survive I have adopted a vegan lifestyle on the philosophical grounds that the unnecessary suffering of sentient creatures is universally undesirable. As seen in the case of this cygnet, it seems most people feel the same, to some extent. Except the double standards held in this regard never fail to boggle me.
As a society we shed a tear for a brutalised cygnet: the media runs stories and twitter commenters lament the callous and sadistic stripes of modern man. Yet how can we condemn such violence and in the same breath look forward to our bacon, eggs and steak? This seems like a cheap ‘gotcha’, but the question is genuinely perplexing. The treatment of chickens is perhaps the best example. Is there any creature more fluffy, more innocent or adorable than a little yellow chick? Surely in terms of cuteness it has few rivals. On top of this the spring chicken is a symbol of life itself, of the rebirth of nature which comes with the thawing of the winter snows. So why do we tolerate the fact that the global egg industry annually sends 7 billion of these creatures into the jaws of the macerator? I cannot provide an answer. Perhaps people simply don’t know that this happens; perhaps. Few wish to see the videos.
The double-standard society holds with regards to animals is constantly apparent, if you’re looking out for it. There are few people more reviled by polite society than trophy hunters. The 2015 furore over the killing of Cecil the lion provides a strong example. The killer was widely condemned, and there is no doubt that the incident was particularly brutal. The lion endured for as long as 10 hours in abject pain, wounded by an arrow and pursued by even greater predators than himself. Yet I find myself shocked and surprised that people cared so much, when they consider other equally sensitive and conscious animals as walking meals, whose nightmarish screams they never bother to confront. In a moment of sick irony Cecil’s killer was harangued by members of the public who, amongst other acts of vandalism, scattered pig feet across his driveway. How absurd it is that in an effort to protest an act of animal cruelty one would purchase the severed parts of other cruelly killed animals. This incident exposes the enormity of this double-standard, as well as the dissonance required to uphold it.
Common objections to my perspective tend to say little about morality: that lions and swans are protected species, for example, or that pigs and chickens owe their existence to us, entitling us to behave however we choose towards them. The fact that an animal may be rare or protected does not tell us much about their moral worth. In the same way that I would not consider killing a British person to be preferable to killing a member of some obscure and fading aboriginal clan, I cannot see why rarity should in itself give a thing moral worth. A pig is more intelligent than a lion, has just as strong a desire to avoid pain and entrapment, and is doubtless more amenable to human company. The fact that cygnets are protected by Her Majesty and spring chickens are not does not make it morally acceptable to abuse the latter. Moreover, if breeding a thing gives you absolute ownership over it, with no consideration of its own desires, then surely parents are justified to use their children as slaves.
People often admire sexy, marketable animals like lions and polar bears. People admire fluffy cygnets, those ugly ducklings destined to become regal swans. Why don’t they care about pigs, or chickens, or cows? If the answer is simply aesthetics, if that’s a justifiable answer, then apply it to human morality: would you feel justified in turning a blind eye to the abject suffering of a group of persons, as long as you didn’t like their appearance? There are historical parallels for that, all of which we now routinely condemn.
If you care about animals, if you love your dog or cat, the pandas on TV, the robins that hatch with joyful cheeps each spring, think on why these animals count when the ones on your plate don’t. I don’t believe such bias can be justified. If you possess only a shred of compassion for your fellow creatures, then apply that equally to all. Otherwise you are condemned to be a hypocrite, throwing pig feet at the trophy hunter’s door.
By Matthew Chalmers