Mahatma Gandhi acutely observed that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” To seek to reduce the suffering of those who are completely under one’s domination and unable to fight back is truly a mark of a civilized society.
Charting the progress of animal-welfare legislation around the world is therefore an indication of moral progress more generally. Last month, parallel developments on opposite sides of the world gave us grounds for thinking that the world may, slowly and haltingly, be becoming a little more civilized.
First, the British House of Commons passed a motion directing the government to impose a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. The motion followed the release of undercover footage, obtained by Animal Defenders International, of a circus worker repeatedly beating Anne, an elephant. The measure was, at least initially, opposed by the Conservative government, but supported by members of all political parties. In a triumph for parliamentary democracy, the motion passed without dissent.
More controversially, the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a law giving the Jewish and Islamic communities a year to provide evidence that animals slaughtered by traditional methods do not experience greater pain than those that are stunned before they are killed. If the evidence cannot be provided, stunning before slaughter will be required in the Netherlands.
At times, it has seemed that gains for animals in Western countries have been outweighed by increasing animal abuse in China, as growing prosperity there boosts demand for animal products. I found it difficult to watch the videotape of the beating of Anne, but that recording did not compare to videos I have seen of animal cruelty in China.
The sickening footage available online shows bears kept in cages so small that they cannot stand up, or in some cases move at all, so that bile can be taken from them. Worse still (if one can compare such atrocities) is a video showing fur-bearing animals being skinned alive and thrown onto a pile of other animals, where they are left to die slowly.
In light — perhaps one should say darkness — of such images, it is sometimes suggested that animal welfare is exclusively a Western concern. However, that is implausible, given that Buddhist tradition places more emphasis on concern for animals than Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
Long before Western philosophers included animals in their ethics, Chinese philosophers like Chuang Tzu (莊子) said that love should permeate relations not only between humans, but between all sentient beings. Nowadays, China has its own animal-rights campaigners, and there are signs that their message is beginning to be heard.
One recent sign again concerns circuses. Chinese zoos have drawn crowds by staging animal spectacles and by allowing members of the public to buy live chickens, goats and horses in order to watch them being pulled apart by lions, tigers and other big cats. The Chinese government has since forbidden state-owned zoos from taking part in such cruelty.
Welcome as these initiatives are, the number of animals in circuses and zoos is tiny compared with the tens of billions of animals suffering in factory farms. In this area, Western countries have set a deplorable example.