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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Attitudes toward animal abuse

Will changing times change things for the better?
CATS Recruit in The Straits Times - October 31, 2010
By: Adele Ong
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Attitudes toward animal abuse

The recent case of a Pomeranian battered to death by a man who remains at large brought tears to the eyes of animal lovers who heard about the incident through news reports. Sympathetic people must have asked themselves: Could no one have stepped in to help? The poor dog must have been terrified and baffled, and throughout its ten minutes of horror before death finally took it, it must have wondered why none of the other humans standing around would intervene on its behalf.

When a dog’s life is worth less than a pack of beer
While some may suggest that Singaporeans are generally apathetic, or fear getting involved in matters beyond their personal affairs, others say that the people of this country do not empathise much with animals, which is why no one has come forward to identify the killer of the Pomeranian despite the offer of a large cash reward. Such lack of empathy may also be the reason why cases of pet abuse seem to be on the rise here.

If that is true, then laws against animal abuse should result in more severe punishment. Longer jail terms and bigger fines will help to send the message that abusing an animal is not a small matter with minor repercussions, but a serious offence that warrants serious action. When that message gets through, even people who do not empathise with non-humans will be more likely to refrain from animal abuse, or stop others from committing animal abuse, purely out of the awareness that a serious crime is being committed.

Yet, the heaviest sentences I have seen meted out include a mere six weeks’ jail for a man who killed a kitten in 2004, and a three-month jail term which a judge turned into a $1,500 fine for a man who kicked a Boxer to death in 1999.

Offenders who have stolen beer and sweets from supermarkets without physically injuring anyone or anything have been jailed for longer than that. Is the life of a dog or cat really worth less than a few packs of alcohol and chocolate? Is that the message our society wants to send out?

What constitutes animal abuse?
Psychologists and other experts who advise that animal abusers be prosecuted or counselled often say that it is wise to re-educate such offenders and keep an eye on them because those who kill or maim animals may go on to kill or maim humans.

While that is a sensible argument for getting through to people who don’t care for animals, it is interesting that we are obliged to resort to it at all. Shouldn’t abusing an animal be an appalling act in itself? Must it be prevented only because of the possibility that humans may later be harmed? Surely the animal’s life is of value in itself.

One difficulty in preventing animal abuse, though, is that people’s definitions of what constitutes abuse may differ. To one person, abuse involves inflicting serious and permanent physical harm on an animal; to another, it means depriving a pampered pet of luxuries.

Between those extremes is a range of acts that may include caning, smacking, confinement in small spaces, tying up the pet, failure to provide adequate food and water, failure to provide shelter from the elements, failure to provide companionship, failure to give the pet adequate exercise, depriving the pet of rest, pressuring the pet to perform tricks, failing to provide adequate medical attention, frightening or intimidating the animal, sending inconsistent disciplinary messages, causing unnecessary stress, and not providing love and affection.

To some pet owners, some of those acts are abusive; to other pet owners, some of those acts are part of the normal relationship between animals and humans. Those who campaign for animal rights consider slaughtering a chicken for food cruel and abusive; those who make a living selling meat regard slaughtering chickens as acceptable so long as the chickens aren’t pets, and are killed quickly, without unnecessary suffering.

People who take one position are not easily converted to another. However, definitions and societal tolerance may change over time, along with changes in society. Gradually, more people are seeing that causing emotional suffering and distress to a pet can be as abusive as harming it physically.

Even if a pet is not permanently or seriously hurt, but is a neurotic wreck because it never knows when it will or will not be punished, should that not be considered abuse? If a pet is regularly threatened, or tied up or confined to a cage all day, is that not abusive?

Changing times, changing attitudes
Unfortunately, some people don’t even think that beating their spouses or children is wrong as long as no bones are broken and no blood is drawn. What kind of empathy can we expect from them for animals?

Attitudes do change with time, though. It used to be that even in the societies we consider advanced today, it was acceptable for men to hit their wives and children, as long as they did not kill them. As time passed, they “evolved” till it was considered all right to beat wives and children as long as the beating left no visible marks. In those same societies, such behaviour today is reprehensible in the eyes of society and the law. In fact, emotional abuse of spouses, children and elderly parents is now unacceptable, even if one never raises a hand against them; such a notion would have been alien to people in the days when dominant males treated their families like their property.

The rights of animals are also evolving. Gradually, people are internalising the attitude that not only is it unacceptable to physically abuse a pet, it is also wrong to keep it frightened, or confined to a small space and deprived of affection, or without proper nutritional sustenance and health care.

I cannot foresee a time in the near future when animals will have significantly greater rights. But as people become increasingly educated about the needs and feelings of their fellow living creatures, things may change for the better. As societies’ attitudes towards human rights have gradually shifted, perhaps there is hope for a shift towards more protection for the animals under our care.

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