Human Rights or Animal Rights?

Whose side are you on?

The recent story of Pen Farthing made me think and ask an uncomfortable question. Now you may be asking just who exactly is Pen Farthing. He is a former British Marine , who after  his stint was over started a charity. The charity was based out of Afghanistan which by itself is not a bad thing. Clearly, Afghanistan could do with some charity. The charity that Pen was running was involved in rescuing stray dogs on Kabul streets and giving them a shelter. Again a good thing. Then the Taliban entered Kabul on 15th August 2021 and chaos broke out in the capital. Like most expats, Pen Farthing wanted to get out and get out fast.  On August 28th or so,  Farthing flew out of Afghanistan for Tashkent in Uzbekistan with 94 dogs and 79 cats on a private jet that was chartered specially for his unusual cargo. This by itself is fine. What made the story go viral and raise hackles globally was the fact that while evacuating himself and the rescued dogs, he did not make any provision for the exit of the Afghan employees who had served him all this while. 

Obviously they lost their jobs once the charity shut down but soon, they could lose their life or starve to dearth too. Farthing’s bland explanation that the Taliban was controlling entry to the airport and detained the Afghans did not get much traction. Sure there were barriers and obstacles but numerous Afghans have continued to leave provided they were provided necessary support. For all his own connections to be able to charter a plane for himself and the rescued animals, it appeared to many that the Afghan lives did not really matter to Farthing. The dogs did. 

Animal rights activists have become increasingly vocal in the last decade or so.  Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals(PETA) , once considered fringe groups have now become mainstream. Organisation like the Society for Protection for Animals( SPCA) were always there but the newer activist groups are more prone to use the rights platform and insist on animal rights than be an animal welfare organisation the SPCA may be classified as. The distinction is important , it is not semantics. Animal rights supporters believe that it is morally wrong to use or exploit animals in any way and that human beings should not do so. Animal welfare supporters believe that it can be morally acceptable for human beings to use or exploit animals, as long as: the suffering of the animals is either eliminated or reduced to the minimum and there is no practical way of achieving the same end without using animals.

The conversation on animal rights and human rights has surfaced in different forms in india. For instance as urbanisation keeps growing, cities expand into the surrounding countryside which was once forest land containing wildlife. Forced out of their natural habitat and bereft of food as forests get denuded, animals have to learn to adapt or possibly perish in a survival of the fittest race. It is now not uncommon for leopards to boldly walk to urban spaces that was once theirs , primarily in search of food. Not finding anything to hunt, they kill or maim any poultry or livestock they find including human infants  at times. 

The word “ Animal Rights” sometimes raises eyebrows in a world where vast numbers of people don’t have basic existential rights to survive. But at the least for pragmatic reasons if nothing else, there is a need for this topic to be brought to the table. As big chunks of the forests where leopards live have been denuded over the past five decades, the only alternative left for these big animals is to try and survive alongside humans. Unlike most other big cats, leopards are very adaptive by nature. They can prey, for example, on anything from chicken and pigs and to monkeys and dogs. They can thrive in deep forests and near human settlements.That adaptability, combined with a genius for hiding in plain sight, means leopards are capable of living alongside humans. When leopards are found outside of forests in areas with high human populations, the fact that they have strayed is a reminder of the fact is that that it’s their home too, just as much as ours. 

There hasn’t been enough discussion on the subject of animal rights in india and to many the subject looks elitist. And indeed to put animal rights on the same footing as human rights as PETA does on its website would be found disturbing to many. Broadly speaking there are four categories of stakeholders in the discussion. Those would be people concerned with “ animal welfare”, “ animal rights”, conservationists – primarily concerned with concerns of wild life conservation, poaching and hunting concerns. Conservationists would look at the dynamics from the lens of neither welfare not rights but purely from the standpoint of maintaining the ecological balance. 

There is a definitely merit in the thinking that animals are not welfare recipients or  ‘victims’ who must be protected and must not be treated cruelly. There is also merit that animals also possess rights, though like human rights they can never be absolute. But is it a zero sum game ? Some critics of animal rights do and say  that these are adversarial and competitive.  By this premise, it is a zero sum game and one has to take sides. One can’t advocate for both both human rights and animal rights because interests collide.  Others would say that the struggle  for a world free from exploitation covers both human and animal rights and the two agendas are actually  connected to each other very intimately. 

At an abstract secular level this sounds very plausible. However most religious beliefs and texts teach differently. And possibly outside of the post modern societies of the West, religion still shapes the world view of billions. In Hindu thought, in the creation hierarchy shaped by Karma, animals are way down in the ladder. In Christian thinking, all things were created by God and to be valued but He created human beings .. men and women in His image and entrusted to them the care of creation – plants, animals and the entire ecosystem. It follows implicitly that human rights comes first ; humans can only look after the environment when their own survival is assured. Taken to its logical conclusion, human rights comes out on top across the board and given the abysmal state of the human condition in the world today, will remain there for some time to come. However as small as their numbers maybe, one must give credit to animal rights activists for taking the Rights debate to frontiers where no one has gone before. It has forced people to recognise, possibly for the first time that animals too need their own “space” and it is not a exclusively human luxury. 

By Dr. Shantanu Dutta

A former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.

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