In 1969 I was taken to the cinema to see the movie ‘Ring of Bright Water’. If you’ve never seen it, it tells the story of a London dwelling man called Graham (played by Bill Travers) who sees an otter in a pet store, takes pity on it, buys it and ends up leaving his job to move to the wilds of Scotland where the otter (which he names Mij) can live freely. The viewer watches in moderate discomfort as the otter charmingly but effectively wrecking Graham’s life. Ultimately though, Graham recognises that Mij has saved him from the crushing mundanity of his suburban life, as much as he has saved the beautiful wild creature from cruel captivity. They form a unique intra-species bond. A happy ending looms, and in the penultimate scene, the two are walking side by side, Graham on a track, while Mij makes his way playfully along in the water filled ditch at the roadside. He joyfully romps ahead of his human companion, only to be intentionally killed by a shovel wielding ditch digger. In explanation, the hapless labourer offers that he thought it was "just an otter”. That day, I left the movie theatre in stunned horror and great distress. How could the man have killed the otter and not known what he was doing? I simply didn’t understand the phrase “just an otter”. What did “just” mean in this context? Years later, I know precisely what this means. Let me illustrate. A little while ago, I saw an advertisement on the Internet showing this precise picture, captioned exactly as it is here.
I regularly see adverts featuring photos of multiple piglets, with the description ‘bacon seeds’ attached to them. Or animals described as “freezer fillers” or “for your barbecue” without photos. But never before had I come across something quite like this advert.
I sat stunned. Here was a beautiful, living breathing creature, with an obvious character and personality, being described as... (I struggle for words) as... nothing. It’s not naivety on my part. It’s just I had realised quite the depths of callousness people are capable of when commoditising living breathing creatures that have a right to their own lives. Then that same day, I found this picture (also captioned as shown). Of course, ‘mutton’ is defined as "the flesh of sheep, especially mature sheep, used as food". Again, the individuality of this wonderful being leapt out at me. Yet even though it was still alive, it was being described as if it were dead.
I was shocked by the implications. The posters of these two advertisements utterly failed to recognise the unique soul within the body. Or if they did, they had chosen to accord it no respect or worth, as if it were something inconsequential.
This suggests a mindset that believes non-human creatures are “just animals”, which by implication this means:
They don't matter.
They are not important.
They have no rights.
They are irrelevant.They are nothing.
They have no identity.
They are depersonalised chattels.
They have no worth other than a fiscal value.
They have no purpose or reason for existence other than to be a source of profit.
I struggled to comprehend this, until the following parallel was suggested to me. If an alien race came to visit our planet, they would have to be immensely sophisticated in all aspects of their existence, capable of undertakings far beyond anything we humans can currently aspire to. It is likely that whilst we would certainly make an effort to communicate with them, but to them, our efforts would seem beyond primitive and indecipherable, so much so that they would be unable to tell that we were attempting a dialogue, or understand that we were trying influence them in any way. And if they did recognise our efforts or even common frames of reference with them, they may simply choose to ignore what they saw. From their perspective, humans may appear to have very little intelligence.
Perhaps they might treat us with a certain degree of benign decency; at least that is, until they got hungry. Then they would randomly take specimens of humanity and consume them, probably in vast numbers. And because of their all-round superiority, we would be utterly powerless to do anything about it. So how would we react?
We would be mortified that another species could have so little regard for our right to life.
We would be angered that these beings could rip apart families to consume our children, or relatives.
We would grieve terribly for the loss of friends and loved ones.
We would live in constant fear of the knowledge that it could be our turn next.
We would expect such a sophisticated life form to realise the error of their ways and recognise us for what we are: distinct individual beings with personalities, intelligence, emotions and souls!
Nonetheless, to them their treatment of us would be nothing incorrect, because from their perspective, every last one of us would be of no consequence or worth. After all, we would be ‘just a human’. If you consider yourself to be anything more than “just a human”, is it really such a huge step to realise that there’s no such thing as “just an animal”? Do you fully understand that until you are able to identify the sentient spirit in other beings, accord them respect and not deny them their right to their existence, there can be no progress? Time to wise up.