The recent spate of animal cruelty in Malta, in particular the case of Star, has once again brought to the surface this scar in the face of our nation. Star has gained international celebrity status. Its case was sensationalised to the extent that in Malta it became the epitome of man’s sadistic abuse of animals leading to a louder cry by animal rights groups and animal lovers for harsher penalties for animal abusers.
However, although Star has managed to gain so much media attention, its case is certainly not an isolated one. Both before and since that case was widely publicised we have heard of other sickening stories involving innocent animals. The most recent one involved the alleged drowning of a dog by a teenager. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Other stories, such as illegal dog and cock fighting, animal neglect, the many stray dogs and cats roaming our streets, dogs left on roofs without shelter in the summer heat and working dogs shot for not doing their “job” properly, are just some examples of stories that rarely make the news.
There may be a number of explanations for atrocities against animals such as the need to dominate and control, wanting to appear cool in the eyes of one’s peers, having been brought up in a culture of violence or believing that animals are people’s property.
According to the Animal Welfare Act 2002, the ill-treatment of animals means “causing the animal to suffer, by any act or omission, pain or distress, which, in its kind or degree, or in its object, or in circumstances in which it is inflicted, is excessive or unnecessary”.
As with other such definitions, much depends on the interpretation of certain concepts within a particular cultural context. For example, how do we establish the acceptable level of pain or distress suffered by an animal and what is excessive or unnecessary? Don’t animals that are taken to the abattoir to be “humanely” executed for human consumption suffer distress? Animals need not be tortured to experience pain and suffering.
We also have to distinguish between animal welfare and animal rights.
Animals may be well fed and well cared for but their rights would still be trampled on without necessarily breaking the law. Dolphins in captivity in a dolphinarium, like other animals used for human entertainment, also suffer, if only because they are denied their freedom and are removed from their natural environment.
Circuses involving animals are permitted to perform almost every year in Malta with the authorities assuring us that the animals are well cared for and, hence, are not suffering.
It is debatable whether a number of activities that involve animal suffering, such as the use of animals in entertainment, animal and bird hunting and killing animals for their fur, are at all necessary. However, such practices are so much engrained in many cultures, including ours, that they are not even questioned. They are also a lucrative source of income.
The fact is that a lot of animal suffering is legal and socially acceptable. We may think that animals suffer only when they are systematically tortured by persons with sadistic tendencies. However, even regulated activities, such as experiments on animals and animal testing, entertainment using animals, intensive factory farming, hunting, the use of working animals such as cab horses, cause undue suffering to animals that have no voice and no vote.
The government is still dragging its feet to address the problem of cab horses working in the intense summer heat with no adequate facilities even though numerous efforts have been made by animal lovers to urge the government to take action. The recent collapse of one of these horses who died from sunstroke is only one soon-forgotten incident. After all, it was just a horse.
The use and abuse of animals is, in many cultures, justified on the basis of tradition, religious beliefs and health and safety with little regard given to animal dignity. In different cultures, the fate of different animals is discriminately decided upon depending on cultural traditions or religious beliefs. Some animals may even be considered sacred while others are not shown a shred of dignity. Perhaps the most basic justification for this is that humans are superior animals and that we have the right to dominate other animals and use them for our purposes.
The sad truth is that humans have been the perpetrators of the worst brutal acts against their fellow creatures, very often because of their infinite greed. We have destroyed animal species, endangered their existence and, in general, made life on earth hell for them simply because we can.
We have designed laws and implemented practices that seek to protect and accommodate humans regardless of animal suffering. The systematic, legal abuse of animals for human purposes is largely sanctioned and unquestioned.
It is only when an animal attacks a person that the act is considered to be an act of savagery. Then the animal has to be put down to protect people. This contrasts sharply with the fines or light sentences that are often handed down to animal abusers, if prosecuted at all. Weak laws and ineffective law enforcement give more power to animal abusers and strengthen the acceptance of human domination over nature even further.
The author, a sociologist, is spokesman for social policy of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party