It used to be accepted amongst those who study the mind, that one of the defining elements of a psychopath is the inability to experience empathy. Psychopathy is, of course, an imbalance of the mind, regarded as a mental illness and a highly dangerous one. Today, psychologists have amended their views and determined that psychopaths can feel empathy; they just choose not to.
Yesterday, I made a journey that was at one point interrupted by heavy machinery clearing a blockage caused by an avalanche. To my horror, I found myself waiting behind a ‘Death Wagon’, one of the vile semis used for transporting helpless animals to their terrifying deaths. I often encounter them upon my travels, and when I do, they are usually empty. The shippers, perhaps in response to public distaste, prefer not expose the delicate consumers to the terror being experienced by poor distressed creatures being ferried to their doom. After all, thinking of them only as slabs of pre-packaged flesh in supermarket chiller cabinets is so much easier than being exposed to the truth of their slaughter, isn’t it? I couldn’t tell if the semi, from a company called ‘Cattle Drive’ (I imagine they thought it was a witty play upon words) was full since I was behind the vehicle and not to the side, and unable to see any potential occupants. Their were no airholes at the back to betray contents, and the only opening was a small hole on the upper of the semi’s two tiers, measuring approximately 36” x 24”, at the top of unloading ramp. But as my eyes wandered over the Death Wagon, a nose appeared at the opening, and I realised to my horror that it was full of cows on their way to die. It will come as no surprise to the regular reader that I find the experience of seeing these poor wretched creatures immensely stressful. Suffice it to say that I found it a very upsetting position to be in, made all the worse by the certain knowledge but my personal agonies were nothing in comparison to those of the unfortunate occupants of the Death Wagon. I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from the single cow that was close enough to the hole to breathe fresh air, and after a few moments it pushed its head out so that it could see the scene behind the semi, and I could clearly see it. For what seemed like a long time our eyes met. It had the beautiful, gentle and fathomless eyes possessed by all their species, and it watched me with a tragic expressiveness few other creatures can convey. It was a devastating experience, because it took no anthropomorphising on my part for me to feel overwhelmed by the emotions that it, and all of the bovines imprisoned within must have been experiencing. They knew their dreadful fate, but were powerless to do anything. It was a pitiful situation of utter helplessness, made all the worse for me by the knowledge that their experience was being repeated a millionfold, at that very moment, elsewhere. At that precise moment I suddenly became aware of the lyrics of the song I was listening to. It was Annie Lennox’s ‘Legend In My Living Room’ and she had arrived at the point where she repeatedly says: “Have mercy on me”. The irony was as inescapable as the cow’s terrifying end. But then my attention was caught by movement my peripheral vision picked up in my car’s wingmirrors. The doors of the vehicle behind were opening and a man emerged smoking a cigarette. On the passenger side a younger female got out, and the man pointed towards the projecting head of the wild eyed cow. Then they both starting laughing. After a few seconds, the man did what was clearly meant to be an imitation of the cow, and they both seemed to find this hilarious. I looked on aghast. Clearly, the cows were being transported for one reason, and one reason alone. Obviously, they were uncomfortable and deeply distressed. Only a moron could have missed the plaintiff appeal on the cow’s face and its anguished expression. What kind of a person could not empathise with another living creature? What manner of monster would mock their suffering and find humour in their torment? How was it possible to find any aspect of the circumstances even vaguely amusing? I felt suddenly cold and miserable. The scene played out for another 10 minutes before the snow was finally cleared away and our respective journey’s continued. I lost sight of the Death Wagon after overtaking it. For me at least, there was some merciful escape and I did not have to face the evidence of another creature’s misery any longer. Who knows how long theirs continued. It is absolutely certain that as you are reading this, those sentient, harmless, loving creatures have met an unspeakable fate.
Despite changes to thinking about what defines a psychopath, it is still widely accepted that cruelty towards animals, when evidenced in a child’s development, is a significant indicator of developing psychopathy, since it demonstrated lack of empathy for a living creature.
How far away from being a full-blown and dangerous psychopath is an individual who either cannot, or chooses not to empathise with the feelings of another being?