Life, in many ways, cannot be seen. Like love, freedom, and happiness, we cannot hold life in our hands. But all the while, there are signs of it. The bleating of a newborn lamb, the kick of a baby inside the womb, the soft hum of a beehive – all are recognizable indications of living beings. We know life is among us without ever feeling the rush of blood as it shoots through our bodies, as it powers our minds and stimulates the low thump-thump of our hearts. It is this very stream of life that connects animals to humans. Though not of the same species, we are of the same life source. We share feelings of pain and pleasure, understand the necessity of family, and are aware of the world around us. Both animals and humans are inhabitants of this earth, both brothers of life. Why should animals be treated as anything less?
It is not uncommon for humans to believe that those who we think are not like us are not capable of feeling like us. Humans may be the only beings to experience the jarring head trauma associated with car crashes – the head-splitting burst of pain, the sudden jerk of the neck as it is propelled in an unnaturally backward direction. However, a pig or dog may receive the same blow to the head from a butcher or rough owner beating it within an inch of its life. The same scalding pain and smell of singed hair can be experienced not only by a human whose straightening iron was accidentally touched to the head for far too long, but also by a cow who was just burned with a hot, metal brand. The very same nerves that send pain-messages from the body to the brain that reside in humans also reside in animals. Similarly, this pain is expressed by both man and creature alike with a screech or a removal from the unpleasant situation.
The idea of pain leads to an awareness of surroundings. If an animal or human ever comes in contact with this unpleasant stimulus again, it knows to avoid it. To be conscious, in essence, is to have an awareness of one’s environment and be able to interact with it. Do not both animals and humans interact with their environments? If they didn’t, would they not be like rocks sitting on the ground, able to be manipulated…just there? The ability to distinguish between stimuli in the environment, learn from experiences with these stimuli, and respond, are all characteristics of conscious beings. Granted, to be conscious and to have a conscience are not the same thing. One deals with a more basic instinct to survive and the other involves a higher level of reasoning and thought based on moral rights and wrongs. But just because humans have consciences does not mean that every human is able to draw the line between right and wrong properly; therefore, having a conscience is not necessarily means for determining authority.
The ability to think is not the only trait we humans pride ourselves on, though. The capacity for emotion and ability to feel is also something humans believe is a dividing line between themselves and animals. When a fellow member of our species has cancer, we rally together to raise money for surgery. When a member of our family is caught in a burning building, many of us would run back inside to save him or her. We believe that our ability to love is our most highly praised quality. We tend not to recognize the noticeable similarities in how animals deal with grief and support their own kind. For example, it is common practice in certain Asian countries to hunt dolphin. This is done by stabbing one dolphin with a harpoon until it bleeds profusely out into the water. When this happens, the other dolphins nearby will come to the rescue of the injured dolphin every time. This enables the hunters to catch more dolphins at once. Dolphins never abandon a wounded family member, and the hunters know this. In Africa, when a lioness’s cub falls down the side of a ravine, she will risk her own life to climb down the precariously steep slope to rescue her baby. It is a mother’s instinct, human or not.
However, there are some of us, and possibly some animals, who would not run into that burning building. As humans, we struggle with the choice of doing what benefits us most and what benefits others. With a conscience comes a price, as we must choose between what is wrong and what is right. It is both our gift and our burden to bear.
As children, we were always taught that bringing pain and suffering to others was wrong, that we should act how we wish to be treated. We were scolded, reprimanded for hitting our younger sibling or for getting into fights at school. In this unique family system comprised of all that is living and all that is sentient, humans have become the gifted older children and animals, the younger and more naïve. We are hitting our younger siblings. We are hitting them, pulling their hair, calling them names, and picking on them. We think we are better, more able, and smarter than they are. For this, we need to be chastised. We need to be slapped on the hand, the same hand we slapped our siblings with.
It is here that our conscience burdens us. We choose to hit our siblings because it is the easiest choice. It is the most convenient choice. We believe it right to hit our siblings because it is the most beneficial for us. It is here that we have erred. What we have believed to be right for so many years is, in fact, wrong. Animals do not deserve to be treated as lower beings. They are aware of the world, feel pain, have emotions; so much of them is exactly like us, yet we continue to abuse them. Never as children did we learn that it was okay to bring suffering to others, so why should it be okay now?
Like life, we cannot hold right and wrong in our hands. But, we know they are there. We know the difference. As humans, our ability to distinguish between the two and act on them is our only upperhand. Animals and humans live in the same world, hearts beating as one. It is not right to abuse our brothers, yet that is what we have been doing. It is this wrong that we must right.