Our relationships with animals are frustrating, challenging, paradoxical and range all over the place. We love animals and harm them in a myriad of ways and many people wonder not only why we continue to do this but also what we can do to give animals the respect, compassion, and love they deserve.
It's rarely a lack of knowledge and concrete data that result in animal abuse and unprecedented losses of biodiversity in what is called the "anthropocene," a latter part of the "sixth extinction" -- to which we are the major contributors. Massive losses of biodiversity are a form of animal abuse, but few people cash it out this way. Animal abuse and losses in biodiversity are bad for the animals and bad for us.
We know that animals have rich and deep emotional lives and some may be moral beings. Abuse is typically due to the inadequate protection of animals and social and cultural factors. Therefore, we must address the important psychological and social/cultural issues that support our poor stewardship of animals (and their habitats) and learn about the psychological barriers that prevent people from facing and addressing the complex, frustrating, and urgent issues that allow animal abuse to continue in laboratories, classrooms, various forms of entertainment, and in slaughterhouses, the clothing industry, and in their natural habitats. It's here that the social sciences can help us along (the importance of the social sciences in dealing with climate change can serve as a nice model).
A relatively new and rapidly emerging field called conservation psychology can help us improve our relationships with other animals. Conservation psychology is defined as "the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world. … This applied field uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to human aspects of conservation." A recent book by Susan Clayton and Gene Myers called Conservation Psychology provides an excellent review of the field.
Some important questions and areas that need to be addressed include:
--Why do we ignore animal suffering and what nature is telling us?
--What allows us to override innate feelings of biophila and our love of living systems?
--How do people think about and make personal connections to the natural environment? (see for example the work of Susan Clayton)
--What can we do to improve the attitudes of children toward animals and conservation? Children? (see for example the research of Gene Myers) It's clear we need to teach the children well.
--What is the relationship between biodiversity and human well-being? (see for example the work of Amara Brooks)
--How can we use psychology to save biodiversity? (see the research of Carol Saunders)
--How can humane education be a precursor to attitude change in conservation behavior? (see for example the work of Sarah Bexell and her Chinese colleagues)
Denver University's Institute for Human-Animal Connection headed by Frank Ascione is a model program that can help to answer these and other questions and the first program of its kind within a human services academic setting.
Part of recognizing that change in how we treat animals is part of a social movement and doesn't only depend on scientific data is to get scientists to act as concerned citizens. (see an excellent essay on this topic in New Scientist in March 2009 concerning the importance of getting scientists to speak as concerned citizens - "We need another kind of scientist to save the world") We also must get citizens to act as responsible stewards.
People who care about animals and nature do not have to be apologists for their views and should not be considered "the radicals" or "bad guys" who are trying to impede "human progress." In fact, they could be seen as heroes who are not only fighting for animals, but also for humanity.
Biodiversity enables human life; it is imperative that all of humanity reconnects with what sustains the ability of our species to persist. In turn, we should hope that as a species we can act as a collective and fight for our own survival. When animals die, we die too. Animals are needed for our own psychological well-being and we can learn a lot from them. We are that connected to other beings and that's why we seek them out when times are tough. Conservation psychology and humane education will surely help figure out the best ways to move forward and to give animals the respect, compassion, and love that they deserve.