Outcry over squirrel kicker, yet disrespecting animals is the norm

YouTube footage of a man kicking a squirrel off a cliff has prompted outrage, yet we all need to stop and think about how we treat animals. YouTube

An online video apparently showing a French tourist kicking a squirrel off a cliff in Grand Canyon National Park was greeted with horror and incredulity after being posted (and since removed) on YouTube last week.

Branded a “thug” in media reports, the man and his accomplice have triggered an outcry over their “callous” and “barbaric” behaviour.

Always ready to grasp an opportunity for publicity, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has offered a US$15,000 (A$16,100) reward for information leading to the identification of the perpetrator, who faces a six-month jail term and a hefty fine if caught and convicted of harassing wildlife.

But what is it about the tourist’s apparent behaviour that is so troubling? Animals are killed in their tens of millions every day, many enduring deaths just as painful and as distressing as the squirrel’s (presumed) demise. Yes, killing the squirrel was unnecessary (it posed no danger to the man) but most animal deaths are unnecessary, depending of course on how we define “necessity”.

To play devil’s advocate for just a second, it was only a squirrel – what’s all the fuss about?

Reasons for wrongness

There are several reasons to think the tourist’s behaviour was wrong. These can be classified according to whether we consider it wrong for reasons relating to the squirrel itself (“direct” reasons), or to the tourist and society at large (“indirect” reasons).

The two most obvious direct reasons are the squirrel’s (presumed) death, and the pain and fear it doubtless suffered. Both of these are very difficult to justify given that there was no good reason for them. Unless we live in a moral universe where one’s own desire can be used to justify cruelty, and thankfully we don’t, then it is reasonable to conclude that subjecting the squirrel to such suffering was unnecessary and therefore wrong.

Being kicked unnecessarily over a cliff was no doubt bad for the squirrel, but the action can also be considered wrong for indirect reasons. The distress and outrage felt by people around the world, as well as the potential judicial (and social) ramifications for the perpetrators and their loved ones, are also relevant factors to consider.

Other indirect reasons for thinking the action was wrong relate to the tourist himself: his character and what it may indicate about his potential to harm other human beings. A great deal of research has addressed the purported link between animal abuse and human violence. After all, he showed callous indifference towards a defenceless animal; worse still, he reportedly lured the animal to its fate with the offer of food.

Less dramatically, we can also point to the tourist’s apparent boorishness and arrogance in abusing an animal for his own amusement. These are considered undesirable traits in our supposedly enlightened times.

Stone, meet glass house

But are our times really all that enlightened as far as animals are concerned? No doubt much of the outrage at the man came from people who themselves treat animals in a way comparable to him, albeit without actually killing them or causing them pain or distress.

Almost all of us have, at one time or another, failed to respect animals. We manhandle them unnecessarily to get attention or cheap laughs, or we use them in advertising or as playthings for our children.

Do animals have rights not to be used as props for cheap laughs? Malika Virah Sawmy/Supplied

The tourist’s failure to respect the squirrel is another direct reason why his actions were wrong. He failed to treat the squirrel in a manner befitting an individual with a life of its own. He failed in his moral duty to leave the animal be.

As far as our own dealings with animals go, treating them with respect means more than simply ensuring we don’t cause suffering. Someone can still do wrong by an animal even if their treatment did not cause pain or death.

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine if, after being kicked over the cliff, the Grand Canyon squirrel was caught by someone on a ledge just out of view of the camera. Imagine also that the squirrel did not feel anything at all during the experience. Shouldn’t the man’s action still raise our ire? After all, he’d treated the squirrel like an object to be used, as if it were like a sandcastle being trampled on a beach. We can condemn the man for failing to respect the squirrel even if it hadn’t suffered.

Do we want to live in a world where people can pick up animals and throw them around as if they were living tennis balls? If pain and suffering, and death, are the only ethical obstacles standing in the way of people using animals to play catch, then with a little practice and some veterinary painkillers these obstacles could be readily overcome. I think we can agree we don’t want that.

Society disrespects animals all the time

Petting zoos are a textbook instance of failing to respect animals. Other notable examples include using them in advertising, confining them in zoos, getting them to perform “unnatural” acts in circuses and aquaria, and using them as “studio guests” on television.

In all such cases, the animals are not killed and it is often difficult to determine whether they are suffering, yet they are manhandled and used for our purposes and thus, by definition, they are not being treated with respect.

Respecting animals means more than simply ensuring they are well looked after. Leon7/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Does it matter if animals don’t know they are being disrespected? No. Asking if an animal cares or not is just another way of asking if they are suffering. Suffering is just one factor to consider, respecting them is something else entirely.

If ethics is to progress beyond a preoccupation with welfare, we need to view animals as if they are persons even though they are not people.

How far should a duty to respect animals go? Should we respect worms or ants, or vermin in our houses? Aristotle reminds us that ethics is not like maths and science – it doesn’t give us definite answers. The US philosopher Tom Regan has suggested that we owe respect to at least “normal mammals of one year or more.”

This is a good start, albeit cold comfort for one squirrel.