By David Irving
Programs like Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel, in which Bear Grylls set fire to a cave filled with bats to smoke them out and then gleefully beat them to the earth with a club before stomping them to death, must be brought to an end. They can only perpetuate the unwelcome idea that any non-human creature is some foreign object to be treated in any way people wish, no matter how cruelly. Grylls’ actions differ little from some of his Medieval counterparts who for entertainment used to tie cats to their heads and run full speed against a concrete wall smashing the cats to death against the wall. In fact, the indiscriminate killing of cats in the 14th century during the period of the plague, like throwing them from belfry towers to kill the evil spirits they were thought to possess, also had the effect of increasing the incidence of the disease. With fewer cats to control the rat population that carried the fleas responsible for transmitting the plague, it was easier for the disease to spread. Superstition and ignorance can kill, and cruelty to animals will always have consequences.
I have personally witnessed the gleeful, sadistic killing of an animal on only one occasion. That happened when I was a boy and observed a schoolmate wire the feet of a live frog to an electric transformer, pour gasoline over the frog, and then turn the transformer on so that the frog was electrocuted and set on fire simultaneously. This boy was so thrilled by his action that he repeated it again and again on the same frog that he had killed, laughing gleefully with a wild, crazed look in his eyes.
I have often wondered if he grew up to be a wife beater and a child abuser. Maybe he turned into a Bear Grylls. Of more importance, though, the possibility should not be excluded that he could have changed direction and matured into a person with a genuine concern for the rights of all creatures. The possibility for change needs to be one of the most important objectives in the discussion of cruelty toward animals.
It was a Tom Sawyer- like existence for kids in the little Hoosier town where I grew up, a town like many all across America. There, motivated by superstition, the fear of wild animals, phobias about pests and the diseases they carried, and the belief that everything on earth was put here exclusively for human use, killing was never questioned if the life form being killed was nonhuman. In the summertime when you entered a neighbor’s home or a country store where the door jangled open to a cheery greeting, it was common to see two or three glue strips dangling down that were covered with flies. If a fly managed to get beyond the screen door, you swatted it. That was what everyone did and does still today. This was apparent when President Obama swatted a fly during a recent CNBC interview and said “I got the sucker,” to the amusement of the interviewer and the stage crew involved. The camera panned down to show the fly lying dead on a rug on the floor beside the President. But when other species pose some threat to our welfare and/or environment, rather than just robotically going into a killing mode, why don’t we at least try to find a more compassionate alternative.
For many people, compassion for a simple fly seems absurd. If it gets caught on a glue strip or gets swatted, so what? It’s just a disease-spreading insect. This is the prevailing attitude. As with any species, of course, if a fly really does pose a threat to life, that needs to be taken into account. But good fly management, especially sanitation, garbage control, and exclusion by sealing and screening, can mostly eliminate the threat of flies in the home. The fact that flies have an ecological role to play should also not be forgotten. They are pollinators of flowers, participate in the breakdown of dead organic material, without which there were would be no top soil for plants to grow, and provide a protein source for birds, frogs, and other insects. Insects, in general, are important participants in the life of our ecosystems. They aerate the soil, pollinate blossoms, and control plant pests. Beetles and ants dig tunnels that help channel water to plants. Bees play their part in pollinating fruit trees and flowers. All insects help to fertilize the soil with their droppings.
In our hierarchical classification of species in which we have judged some to be more worthy of life than others, we have consigned insects to a lower class deserving immediate execution if they are perceived somehow to be in the way. Homo sapiens stand at the apex of this hierarchy, sitting in judgment on all other species. There, humans also engage in the continuing battle among themselves to see who gets to remain sitting at the top of the heap. This system represents a major obstacle to the furtherance of progressive views developed by forward-thinking human beings. As long as this hierarchical system exists, humans are going to continue assigning certain groups as being suitable for killing, including not only nonhumans but other humans as well. The result is chaos and murder.
Concern for the life of a simple fly or any other insect, on the other hand, is a signal of empathy for the struggle for survival in which all living creatures are engaged and a sign of respect and appreciation for the inherent value of other species. The way we feel about a “simple” insect impacts our own consciousness in the kind of life we create for ourselves and manifests outwardly in our interactions with loved ones, friends and neighbors, and fellow human beings.
In my town a pest contest at school offered prizes for different species that were perceived as posing some kind of threat. A hawk’s claws netted five hundred points. A mouse’s tail brought two. At every turn, the message was communicated that animals were inferior and should be treated accordingly. The farmer who lived at the edge of town hired men with pliers at castration time and the high-pitched, horrific squealing of pigs being held down and castrated echoed out from his barn. The sound and the thought of the pigs suffering as they had their testes ripped out with pliers made you wince. But that’s alright, everyone said. After all, they’re just pigs. Nothing but pork chops and ham. Just like the bacon, hamburgers, bologna, chicken over which the kids fought for the drum sticks, and the occasional T-bone steak that reached the dinner table at home every week. On warm summer nights children captured fire flies and put them in jars, often crushing them just for the fun of it. Stepping on bugs was customary except that lady bugs had somehow managed to get themselves classified with a “don’t kill if possible” status. We rode our bicycles tires over grasshoppers, shot birds with BB guns, and captured frogs in the creek outside of town in the night, throwing them into a bag for one of the boys to take home to kill and cut off the legs to eat.
The spirit of Bear Grylls must have been at our home the night an unfortunate bat flew into our house where we beat it to death with brooms. Take that you rabid, blood-sucking vampire! But why didn’t we just open the window and shoo it out? I have often mourned for this bat and the suffering that it endured at our hands, defenseless, alone, and terrified by the inescapable nightmare into which it had unwittingly flown.
Why did we treat this other living creature so cruelly? It, too, wanted to live like any other living being. But this is the way our family had been conditioned. It was the way the entire town had been conditioned. The entire state. The country. The world—a world which, insofar as the treatment of animals is concerned, all too often is filled with the spirit of Bear Grylls, a world that has yet to grow out of its conditioned addiction to animal cruelty. In this kind of environment animals were just things put on earth to serve us, whether for eating, killing for fun, as objects on which we were free to vent our emotions, or for dissecting in biology class. Few of us stopped to recognize the wonder residing in every living creature without exception, whether the most beautiful or the most grotesque. All living creatures have their own special and significant message to convey in this grand collage called life and they all play their part. As for the bat. What a marvelous creature it is, able to navigate by echolocation, ecologically important in the consumption of vast quantities of insects like mosquitoes, valued in the pollination and dispersal of the seeds of certain plants without which they could not regenerate, and the only mammal that can actually fly.
A mammal that can really fly! Does that not deserve the highest marks in the chronicles of the miraculous? Yes, Homo sapiens are the most phenomenal of all species with their large brains, their ability to speak and walk upright, and the incredibly, complex technological world they have managed to create including artificial flight that can carry them to distant planets. But even the absolute best among this family of mammals cannot leap more than six feet above the face of the earth and can remain at that height for only a millisecond. Now a bat! This mammal was flying around a good fifty million years before Homo sapiens ever first put down a footprint on the earth.
The conditioned ways in which I grew up extended long into adulthood so that I became a conditioned adult in a world controlled and governed by other conditioned adults all living their lives grounded on a foundation of animal exploitation and abuse. But I have stepped away from this belief system that teaches cruelty and dependency on other life forms as a way of life. A growing population of concerned citizens has done and continues to do the same, setting the foundation for building a new kind of world that rejects the exploitation and abuse of animals. And while Bear Grylls may think he has the right to beat and stomp bats to death just because he wants to and just because he has his own television show, the consequences of cruelty toward animals are unmistakable. We see it everywhere we look, whether it is in childhood obesity, the health crisis in which so many unfortunate people are dropping dead of cancer and heart disease, the drug epidemic the world faces, or world poverty, especially in the developing world. We know today with certainty from many sources, a variety of which are easily found on the internet, that the origin of many of the world’s problems are traceable directly to the consumption of animals and the murderous manner in which we treat our four-legged friends, whether by trapping, hunting, in animal research laboratories, or on factory farms.
We human beings who regard ourselves as being so superior to all other species must grow out of the conditioned ways in which we evaluate the other life forms that live with us on this earth. To regard other species as being mere things with which we can do whatever we want is ignorance. To respect and recognize the value and magnificence of the other species that cohabit our planet and their place in the grand scheme of life is to use our intelligence in evaluating ourselves in relation to our environment, the world, and the universe. We must reject this egotistical belief system that is motivated by fear and the unrestrained desire to control everything and which tells us that we are the only important species on this planet. Only then can we begin to experience the unity in all of life. In doing so we will put a stop to the divisive ways which have led us down so many blind alleys into slavery, bloodshed, and the creation of societies at war with each other. There is far more to living than a continuous preoccupation with violence and dealing with its demands. The key to unlocking the secrets of a different kind of human potential is to stop exploiting and abusing animals and to start respecting life in all its manifest forms.
This opens the door to a new journey for humankind, the dimensions of which we are just beginning to explore.