Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

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All animals have inherent worth — but animal rights are important for human rights and planetary health, too, Poorva Joshipura writes.

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In 1985, Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) entities worldwide, said, “When it comes to having a central nervous system and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Many were incredulous and mocked her statement.

A few decades on, the idea that all animals have physical needs and the capacity to experience suffering the way humans do is not such a wild thought. 

After all, we share a common ancestor with other vertebrates — not only mammals but amphibians and reptiles, too. We all evolved from a fish-like animal who lived in water. 

What affects animals can impact us, too

Through gradual changes, the first land vertebrates emerged. Palaeontologist Neil Shubin — author of the book “Your Inner Fish”, about our 375-million-year-old ancestors — observes how human hands bear a resemblance to fossilised amphibian fins and how our various other body parts correspond to those of ancient jellyfish and other sea animals.

Ethologists have confirmed more similarities between humans and other animals, from whales to invertebrates like bees. They describe animals as sentient, intelligent beings who express emotional states. 

Research reveals that bees appear to dream and may experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder in response to a negative experience. They can also count, learn abstract concepts, and play.

We now know that chickens are clever and cunning, pigs can be taught to play video games, and fish form friendships. 

Animal behaviourists also tell us that cows grieve and octopuses experience emotional pain. And heroic actions, sometimes caught on camera, prove that dogs will risk their own lives to save a loved one.

With so many similarities between humans and other animals, it should be no surprise that our well-being is intertwined with theirs — or that the diseases and conditions that affect them can impact us, too.

Viruses, the costliest of reminders

COVID-19, which is largely believed to have first infected humans at a live-animal market, revealed this interrelationship with jarring clarity. 

Virologists generally understand that this virus, like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), spreads to humans due to the practice of confining stressed wild animals in filthy, crowded conditions before slaughtering them.

Bird flu and swine flu also spread and mutate amid the unnatural and unsanitary conditions inherent in the factory farming of chickens and pigs. 

The 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic killed up to 575,400 people in the first year alone. 

And lately, the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu H5N1 has been decimating populations of mammals caged on fur farms, causing the World Health Organization to issue a warning that the virus might adapt to infect humans more easily. 

With a 60% mortality rate in humans, H5N1 bird flu is a major public health risk.

‘If we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us’

Recent decades have seen a global rise in factory farming — the intensive rearing of thousands of animals in crowded sheds and cages — and an increase in human encroachment into areas inhabited by wildlife, such as when forests are flattened to grow crops for animal feed or use as grazing land for animals raised for meat and leather. 

Now, new zoonotic diseases — those which are transmissible to humans from other species — are coming at us at a rate of three to four per year.

Animals’ well-being is connected to our own in other ways, too. Leather production has been linked to various types of cancer, skin diseases, and respiratory illnesses in tannery workers. 

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The US Federal Bureau of Investigation considers crimes against animals a warning sign that a perpetrator will likely be violent towards humans. 

And according to University of Oxford researchers, a global shift to vegan eating “could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings”, while also avoiding “climate-related damages of $1.5 trillion (€1.36tn)”.

All animals have inherent worth — but animal rights are important for human rights and planetary health, too. 

As Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The message we are getting is that if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”

Poorva Joshipura is Senior Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation and the author of “Survival at Stake: How Our Treatment of Animals Is Key to Human Existence”.

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