Animal Welfare Debate Depends on Human Health Connection

By Kinanti Kusumawardani on 10:45 am Aug 20, 2013
(JG Graphic)

(JG Graphic)

Throughout the past two years, animal cruelty issues have been gaining attention from the Indonesian public. Instances of orangutan slaughter at palm oil plantations, dolphin exploitation at circuses, deliberate cruelty inflicted at slaughterhouses, brutal deaths of wild elephants in Sumatra and Aceh and inhabitable conditions at zoos have led activists Aulia Ferizal and Dian Paramita, among others, to create online petitions demanding justice for these voiceless creatures — and the public has responded.

On change.org, Aulia’s petition demanding a thorough investigation to the fatal mutilation of wild elephant Papa Genk garnered nearly 100,000 signatures, while Dian’s call to save animals at the Surabaya Zoo received more than 58,000 supporters. In fact, more than 150,000 people have supported similar petitions to close the facility after photos of a starving tiger at the zoo emerged in the media.

Despite public outcry, the response from Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has been disappointing. Zulkifli refuses to take action to detain suspects of an elephant slaughter in Aceh out of fear of provoking conflict, as the alleged killers are former combatants of the separatist Free Aceh Movement.

“Our team, the forest rangers and the police need to be really careful, as we are dealing with the whole village. We cannot risk any human lives even though we want to resolve the case,” Zulkifli said.

From his statement, it is plain to see that the policy is not to risk any human lives to seek justice for animals.

In response to Dian’s request that the minister urge President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to form a national commission for the protection animals, Zulkifli said a new team was unnecessary, as Indonesia already has conservation laws and animal protection regulations in place.

Now with tens of thousands of people behind their cause, Aulia and Dian have stepped up their campaign by launching a joint petition directly to President Yudhoyono to establish a national body to ensure animal rights. Much like its human counterpart, the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM), Aulia and Dian call for the founding of an independent agency to oversee and coordinate efforts to end cruelty and promote animal welfare standards in Indonesia. They believe a petition to the president is a start to providing justice for ill-treated animals in Indonesia, after their failed efforts in getting the forestry minister to act.

However, the Surabaya Zoo and Papa Genk petitions taught us that it is one thing to bring animal welfare issues to the government’s attention, and a different story when it comes to getting officials to act. Heart-wrenching photographs of animal cruelty can win public sympathy and get people to sign online petitions, but there is still a great tendency to push animal welfare off the political agenda for a few reasons.

First, it is inevitable that the issues of feeding 240 million people, curbing climate change and cleaning up natural disasters take precedence over the needs of nonhuman others. For example, with the nation now importing rice, the government is faced with immediate challenges in building a self-sufficient food system. Animal welfare is pushed to the sidelines, often seen as a luxury issue that can only be afforded by those who already have enough to eat.

Second, there is debate about the consciousness of nonhuman creatures. What is animal consciousness, and to what extent are they sentient? Do all animals feel pain? Should ants be allotted the same protection as elephants? The answers to these questions are inconclusive. Emphasizing anthropomorphism, such as feelings of suffering and love, that has yet to be proven by scientists, actually works against the animal welfare movement, as it creates ambiguity and eliminates coherency in arguments.

[quote author=]Heart-wrenching photographs of animal cruelty can win public sympathy and get people to sign online petitions, but there is still a great tendency to push animal welfare off the political agenda for a few reasons[/quote]

The above statement is by no means an effort to reduce the importance of other sentient beings. However, consciousness-free arguments have a higher chance of earning the issue of animal rights political consideration. After all, our politicians are only accountable to their constituents — humans. So to talk to people for whom human welfare takes precedence over animal welfare, activists must move away from the ambiguity of anthropomorphism and frame a more rational argument. This means placing animal welfare within the context of other urgent issues facing humanity, including eliminating hunger, boosting the quality of our environment and improving human health.

For activists to successfully change society’s attitude, they must explain how animal health directly impacts human health. It is indisputable that animal health directly affects human health. Also, despite the many different definitions of animal welfare, most models include good health as a requirement, thus uniting many degrees of activists. This is the foundation of the argument, the intersection where animal welfare is tied to human welfare.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 60 percent of the new diseases that have affected humans over the past 10 years have been caused by pathogens originating from animals or animal products. Such diseases (zoonotic diseases) are a group of infections transmitted between animals and humans, and include Escherichia coli, salmonella, anthrax, leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, avian influenza, rabies and ebola, just to mention a few. Zoonoses are an immediate public health threat, particularly in developing countries, which need to be prioritized through ensuring better national health measures for humans and animals.

Furthermore, what needs to be emphasized is how animal health directly affects human health through the food we eat. While animal welfare might not be something everyone is prepared to pay for, the healthiness of the food we consume should be. If you tell someone that the meat they are buying was slaughtered in a cruel manner, they may still buy it, particularly if the price is low. But tell them that the meat is contaminated and most would shun it. As more and more people turn to healthier foods, such as organic produce, putting forth an argument that cleaner, less cruel slaughterhouses are actually healthier could be a win for animal welfare. The links between animal health and human health in Indonesia need to be systematically investigated and emphasized to strengthen animal rights campaigns in the country.

Although we applaud Dian and Aulia’s petition for a national commission for the protection of animals, we must move beyond anthropomorphism and quickly tie the plight of animals to the well-being of the planet and ourselves. This might be the only way to push animal welfare on the political agenda and find justice for voiceless creatures.

Kinanti Kusumawardani is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations at the University of Indonesia and a member of the Indonesian Society for Animal Welfare.