"Why Is It Wrong to Not Want to Kill Animals?"
An email from a youngster raises many important issues.
Posted November 28, 2018
I recently reread Dr. Jessica Pierce's Psychology Today post called "Pets Are Not Trash" as I was writing another piece. This essay began as a response to it because I wanted to follow up on the last comment she received arguing there should be no more breeding pets because there are so many companion animals who need homes right now. I totally agree, and I encourage readers to read or reread Dr. Pierce's thought provoking piece. (See also "A Matter of Breeding: How We've Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs" and "How Many Dog Breeders Do We Really Need?" The arguments are pretty much laid out in these essays and the links therein.) Dr. Pierce also writes about cognitive dissonance, a topic to which I turn below.
As I was writing about Dr. Pierce's piece I received an email from a New Zealand nine-year old (I'll call him Lee) asking me (via a parent), "Why is it wrong to not want to kill animals?" In his note, I could feel his concern and pain -- how could anyone think it's wrong to try to save lives but okay to kill animals because some people don't like them.
It turns out that Lee and his parents had read "Violence Toward Animals: 'Can You Please Help My Daughter?'" in which a New Zealand mother wrote, "I have seen your recent essays on what is happening in schools throughout my country and I am appalled. Thank you for spreading the word. Can you please help my daughter tell her teachers that she does not want to participate in these types of events and contests?" She also mentioned that other parents agreed with her and were at wit's end because people in power were telling the kids it was perfectly okay to harm and to kill the animals and to parade around with corpses of the animals they slaughtered.
Kids care and want to know why actions don't follow words of caring, empathy, and compassion
Lee's note reminded me of an essay I wrote in August 2017 called "How Come People Say They Love Animals and Kill Them?" about a question 6-year old Jean asked, namely, "How come people say they love animals and kill them?" after which some other youngsters piped right in asking the same basic question. Jean and others were really serious and clearly wanted to talk about this. This led to a general discussion of kids and animals and we got into talking about how youngsters in New Zealand are being encouraged to kill animals as part of formal sanctioned school programs, and then use them to make puppets and to demean them in other ways. Some New Zealand schools are promoting a horrific model.
In an email exchange with Lee and his parents the word "garbage" came up when they mentioned that the invasive "pests" kids are being asked to kill and taught to kill are being treated as if they're garbage. (See "New Zealand Kids Get Into Killing Animals and Love Doing It" and links therein for a review of New Zealand's horrific war on wildlife.) This reminded me of Dr. Pierce's use of the word "trash." Of course, neither the so-called "pests" nor other nonhuman animals (animals) are trash, although the actions of far too many humans who say they love animals then allow them to be harmed and killed, belie this obvious fact. Concerning the situation in New Zealand, every single kid in Jean's class was shocked and disturbed when they heard about school programs centering on killing possums and other animals. When I asked if any one of them would partake, not a single hand went up. A few kids said they wouldn't do it even if it meant getting kicked out of school. I applaud them and their positive attitudes toward other animals, and could only hope that their teachers and parents would agree with them.
Lee's confusion and cognitive dissonance
Lee clearly was confused. I talked with them about the topic of cognitive dissonance and how many people have inconsistent thoughts and actions for a number of different reasons. I mentioned to them that there are some people who say things such as, "I know they suffer but I love my burger" or "I love deer, and that's why I hunt them." (See "'Oh, I know animals suffer, but I love my steak': The self-serving resolution of the 'meat paradox'") This wasn't enough, and they kept pressing me and I eventually said I just don't know how people do it, because I would find it very difficult to say one thing about the importance of the life of each and every animal and then harm or kill them or allow them to be harmed of killed. I also mentioned that many people just don't like to talk about their inconsistencies between what they say or say they feel and what they do. The just don't want to talk about it.
Some of the students also asked about how people who say they love their dog or other companion animal can then go out and intentionally harm and kill other animals who are "just like their dog." Once again, I said that I have little to no idea how they do this -- how they're able to easily not walk their talk -- but it's clear they don't have any problem harming some sentient beings but not those with whom they choose to share their homes. This didn't really answer their questions and I saw some youngsters trying to figure out this clear inconsistency between words and action.
When people say they love other animals and harm them, I say I'm glad they don't love me
I often do kid's events that focus on how we interact with other animals and their homes. At the end of one group discussion, one boy blurted out, "Why can't we just leave them alone" and another commented, "The word love means that you really like someone, right?" and one girl offered, "I love my dog and would never hurt her and I would get really mad if someone else tried to." All of the kids agreed with these sentiments. Many clearly were confused about just what love is, and I thought, so too are many adults, but that's another topic about which there are many Psychology Today and other essays and reams of books. Nonetheless, it's easy to see how comments like saying one loves animals and then harms and kills them can be confusing for youngsters, as it is for adults.
I thought about how to answer Jean's question briefly before we had to end the discussion, and decided that I could comfortably answer it as if I were talking with adults. So, I said that I, too, am very confused by this sort of contradictory statement. And then I told them what I usually say when I hear something like it, namely, "I'm glad they don't love me." Some of the kids laughed, but I could see that they were pondering what I said. One student said, "Yeah, love is a messy thing." I wish I had time to follow up on this but time was running out and, in many ways, I was glad it was. This isn't a topic for a quick discussion, and I left the class thinking deeply about what this kid said.
Working with youngsters is a gift
Working with youngsters is a gift, and I find myself thinking about our stimulating and wide-ranging discussions long after they happened. Their keen interest in the lives of other animals and the ease with which they ask questions, including those centering on difficult topics, is incredibly refreshing.
I hope that many of you have the opportunity to learn about what kids are thinking and feeling about our relationships with other animals and nature in general, and are able to have discussions about these and other topics. Stand by for more. And, please keep in mind Lee and Jean's comments. They're surely not alone. They really got to me. I keep wondering how do you tell a youngster it's okay to kill other animals -- to take their life when they've really done nothing to deserve being killed other than to be who they are -- while at the same time saying we need a more compassionate and empathic world?
We owe it to youngsters, who will inherit our planet and live as a part of it long after many of us are gone, to do the best we can for them so they get to enjoy a world filled with awe-inspiring and fascinating nonhumans and thriving ecosystems. We must understand that they are very passionate about the harms, pains, and death to which we humans subject millions upon million of other animals.
Today's youngsters are ambassadors for the future and we can only hope they get to enjoy a healthy and vibrant planet overflowing with respect, compassion, empathy, justice, and love for all beings. This is the least we can do for them. They should not have to apologize for not wanting to kill other animals, and they have nothing to defend.
A great beginning is to pay very careful attention to the difficult questions youngsters ask when it might be easier to say something like, "Oh, don't worry about it. We know what we're doing and you'll agree when you grow up." Clearly, we don't, and very few, if any of the youngsters with whom I work, would accept such a "know-it-all" brush-off. I'm glad they don't accept such uninformed arrogance and I'm pleased they ask difficult questions and challenge us when we try to push aside their heartfelt curiosity and concerns about where we're heading and the world they will inherit after we've moved on.