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From the Editor

Keiko Ohnuma

'Animal-lovers' not created equal

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Photo by Mary Mann

AS A SALAD EATER, I tend to judge restaurants by the quality of their salads. Since salads are secondary to the rest of the menu, it’s easy for restaurants to overlook them without repercussions. Devoting thought and care to the salad, however, says something about the quality of the chef.

    The same is true of the way people treat animals. There are few repercussions for failing to be kind to them, compared with humans. In very stratified societies, the same applies to lower-caste people. That’s why films and books often use a nobleman’s treatment of servants, beggars, or slaves as an important indicator of his character. The more elevated the individual, the less we expect him to care about the most degraded, so we have learned to read heavily into the CEO who dines with a beggar—or the politician who straps the family dog to the car roof.
    All love is not created equal, as we know. It is perfectly natural to love your own family, your tribe, your pets; there is nothing particularly praiseworthy about that. In most religions, a person is a saint because she goes above and beyond, loving strangers, even enemies. This love is not only not necessary, it’s extraordinarily difficult, and suggests that the person puts love itself—regardless of object—above self-interest.
    There are people who claim to love animals because they pamper their own, while overlooking their cruelty to other animals that get in the way. I don’t mean people who are compelled to kill, like setting mousetraps or eating meat; killing is a law of nature. I’m talking about cruelty—the kind of sadistic satisfaction that comes with denying other creatures their sentience, like enjoying the sight of a coyote caught in a trap. People exhibit this mean streak because it makes them feels good. For a moment, they feel elevated, victorious in vengeance. Yelling at a waitress shows that you’re the customer and you’re always right.
    It’s one thing to be indifferent to animals because you have little experience with them. It’s quite another to treat them with contempt because you can, because they are labeled as pests or vermin. Likewise, it’s a good hunter who kills clean and respects his quarry; it takes a murderer to gleefully enter killing contests to feel powerful, or make sport of watching his hounds tear a fox to shreds. He is as ruthless as the Mafia boss who adores his family but has no problem destroying others. Whatever love these people claim to feel, inside is a heart of steel.
    Researching social attitudes toward wolves for this issue, it soon became clear to me that opinions about them are purely political, since wolves have no impact on our daily lives. They reveal one’s attitude toward all outsiders and “others.” Loving one’s own by hating others is what we call chauvinism, and is basically self-love—or rather, love of one’s image. Loving others regardless of their impact on you is what Christians call unconditional love, and Buddhists call non-attachment, the kind of love that makes equal. What really matters, it says, is that we are both of this Earth and born of the same Creator.
    To be an animal-lover, in other words, isn’t about what kind of animals they are. It’s about what kind of person you are—and whether you can feel love for that little animal, or only its mighty human appearance.