Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Compassion for All Animals

Black-capped Chickadee
(Transcript of Friday's For the Birds)
Compassion and empathy are two qualities that human beings extend selectively. Just about everyone lavishes the most compassion and empathy on their immediate family members, a little less on their friends, less on their neighbors, and even less on members of their wider community. Compassion gets pretty watered down when we get to people of different countries, especially those who do not share the same religion or culture.  

And then we get to other species. As usual, we lavish more compassion on animals that we can relate to than other animals, and because we’re mammals, that means we feel more compassion for our fellow mammals than we do for birds. By the time we get down to frogs, even though they also are vertebrates, we don’t have much left, and there’s virtually nothing left for invertebrates such as octopuses, even though every researcher who has ever worked with them knows how aware and intelligent they are.  

The selectiveness of our compassion for different animals extends to our criminal justice system. When two young men shot a Whooping Crane in Indiana in 2009, they weren’t held in jail and after the trial received only a year of probation and a fine of one dollar plus court costs. Yes—one dollar. The Whooping Crane restoration project that this bird was part of has put millions of dollars toward trying to reintroduce a migratory population of this critically endangered species, and the individual crane killed happened to be the ONLY female who had successfully brought off a chick in Wisconsin so far, but the judge didn’t take any of that into consideration.  

Whooping Crane
Yet in 2007 when a man in Texas shot a feral cat that was stalking endangered Piping Plovers, he was instantly jailed. [At trial, the jury couldn't reach an agreement] And a woman in Washington, DC was just convicted of attempting to poison feral cats, and faces up to a $1000 fine and 6 months in jail.  

(Photo by MDF on Wikimedia Commons) 

We humans are an odd species—the very people who hunt birds and mammals for sport as well as food include some individuals who have spent their lives working on conservation of these same species, and trying to educate other hunters about what animals NOT to shoot. But even many of the most avid conservationists see birds as natural resources and not as intelligent individuals capable of suffering. Some people have done research proving intelligence, individuality, and the capacity for emotion in birds. On October 16, Psychology Today’s blog included an article, “Why the Caged Bird Does Not Sing: Captivity and Complex PTSD in parrots and people.” But most people simply do not accept that birds are on a par with mammals in these areas.  

Monk Parakeet

The Humane Society of the United States website currently has a graphic showing St. Francis of Assisi linked to a story, “Eye on the Sparrow: faith in action for animals.” The same page says, “We’re the nation’s largest and most effective animal protection organization,” and on the “About Us” link says, “We work to reduce suffering and improve the lives of all animals.” Their logo tells a different story: of the 19 species depicted, only two are birds—a pigeon and a goose or swan, both too large for most domestic cats to be able to bring down, and despite the fact that the number of bird species in the US is significantly larger than the number of mammal species. And the Humane Society not only gives feral cats preferential treatment over birds but also over small mammals. The feral domesticated cats they foist on the natural environment kill literally billions of wild mammals and birds every year. As long as the Humane Society closes their eyes to these suffering and dying creatures, they do not deserve to be called humane.  

White-breasted Nuthatch fatally wounded by cat