A growing movement recognizes the link between violence against people and
violence against animals.
By Dr. Hope
Ferdowsian / Psychology Today
March 19, 2016
Earlier this week, SeaWorld
finally caved to public criticism and ended its orca (killer whale) breeding
program. This will be the last generation of orcas held captive by SeaWorld. The
announcement follows international efforts to
acknowledge the rights of whales and dolphins.
News from SeaWorld came almost exactly one year after Ringling Brothers first
publicly conceded that it would stop using elephants in circuses.
Both advancements show how more and more people believe that (nonhuman) animals
fit within a framework of social justice. Growing concern for animals is
reflected in the large number of books, magazine articles, and films about the
plight of animals. Worldwide enthusiastic responses to documentaries like
Nim, and Cowspiracy illustrate
the high level of public interest in animal issues.
These trends are supported by public opinion surveys. Of six causes tracked in a
2014 Humane Research Council survey of
1,000 American adults, animal protection was ranked most favorably in
importance, followed by environmental protection and civil liberties. The number
of strong supporters for animal protection approximately doubled between 2005
A 2015 Gallup poll even
showed that at least one-third of Americans believe "animals deserve the exact
same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation."
Take a minute to think about the gravity of that assertion -- and its potential
implications. I count myself among the one-third of Americans who agree with the
Gallup poll statement about animals.
Orphaned elephant and caregiver at
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (credit:
As an internist, preventive medicine and public health physician who works in
human rights, I have spent the last decade trying to prevent human diseases and
disorders before they occur, treating difficult health conditions, evaluating
asylum seekers for indications of torture, caring for sexual violence survivors,
and trying to dismantle social determinants of health. Before that, I spent four
years in college, four years in medical school, one year as an intern working
more than 100 hours per week, and four years completing two residency programs.
Today, all of my work as a doctor is driven by my quest for social justice.
You might be surprised that I believe that justice for animals is the social
movement of our time. But, more than anything, I believe it. Here’s why. Like
us, animals are deeply vulnerable beings. In fact, much of our own vulnerability
stems from the fact that we are animals. There is no longer dispute among serious
scientists that humans aren’t the only animals who have the capacity to suffer
physically and mentally.
Elephants, great apes, orcas, dogs, cats, and many other animals can
experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and
compulsive disorders. In
a study first published in 2011, my colleagues and I showed how chimpanzees
used in the biomedical and entertainment industries suffered from PTSD and other
mental disorders -- much like the psychiatric conditions I’ve documented in human
torture survivors (see "Psychological
Disorders in Animals: A Review of What We Know").
Suffering among other animals is no less than ours. It’s possible they suffer
even more than many of us do, simply because of their inability to understand
what is happening to them, make sense of their plight, escape from it, or alter
their conditions (for more on this please see "Do
'Smarter' Dogs Really Suffer More than 'Dumber' Mice?").
Currently, all of our legal, economic, and cultural paradigms render animals
even more vulnerable than they already are. Like many of the patients I have
cared for, animals have no political power. But they are also considered
property. They can be bought and sold -- not unlike many of the girls and women
around the world whom my colleagues and I advocate on behalf of.
Historically, as early as the nineteenth century, cruelty against vulnerable
people -- such as children -- and animals were treated as a united cause. Members
of the public recognized that violence against people and animals shared common
origins, requiring similar solutions. Abuses against animals were seen as a
slippery slope toward human abuses. Respecting animals was viewed as a critical
first step toward justice and progress.
A cage typically used to hold chimpanzees (credit: Hope Ferdowsian)
Today, however, the human and animal rights movements now miss an important
opportunity by working in different silos. Fortunately, there is a growing
modern movement that recognizes the link between
violence against people and animals.
Some people worry about what would happen to humans if we were to take the lives
of animals more seriously. But, fortunately, recognizing the needs of animals
does not minimize who we are as people. On the contrary, future advancements for
animals could help enlighten and benefit us, similar to how recognizing the
rights of women and girls has also helped men and boys -- as we have seen in the
fight against sexual violence and in other areas of society.
While further progress needs to be made on behalf of vulnerable human
populations, the rights of people and animals are not mutually exclusive. This
is not a zero-sum game. On the contrary, there is common ground occupied by
those working on behalf of people and animals -- both because of the shared
potential for suffering and because many solutions to successfully combat
domination, violence, and abuse are universal.
At the heart of every human rights resolution is a conviction that we, as
humans, should not be unjustly imprisoned or suffer torture and other
trespasses. There is no sound reason this conviction shouldn’t also apply to
animals like the orcas at SeaWorld or the Ringling Brothers elephants. Animals
have qualities we find important to the legal rights of humans -- like
self-awareness, the need for sovereignty, and the capacity for suffering, love,
and empathy. We will never fully dismantle the injustices humans suffer without
deconstructing the same problems that lead to animal suffering.
Ultimately, we are left with the question of "How we will treat those who are
most vulnerable to us -- human and otherwise. How will we answer? And what if we
don’t answer adequately or soon enough?
As we’ve seen with SeaWorld, an impassioned public response can make all the
difference in the world. The time is now for accepting that justice for animals
Is the social movement of our time and we all need to do something to make this
a reality right now.
Editor's note: This article was reprinted with permission and was originally
Psychology Today by Dr. Mark Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and
evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The original was
prefaced with this note from Dr. Bekoff: "It is my pleasure to post this guest
essay by Dr. Hope Ferdowsian.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. I thank Lybi Ma for allowing me to share
this essay with you."