The Practices of Compassion and Cruelty

Blacktailed Jackrabbit

“I don’t understand these people trying to help animals when there’s so much human suffering in the world. Shouldn’t they be helping humans instead?”

I was asked this question at dinner the other day. One of the characters in my novel, The Last Island, is an animal rights activist. The questioner thought that her passion, like that of many other animal activists, was misplaced. I answered the question as best I could at the time, but after some thought I realized that my response was inadequate. I’ve since come to a new conclusion. Continue reading

The Ag-Gag Reflex: The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act’s Impact on All of Us

Pig in a Factory Farm
On November 27, 2006, after heavy lobbying by the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was signed into law. The AETA makes it a terrorist offense to engage in certain speech and activity that causes an “animal enterprise” the loss of real or personal property. (There is a dispute as to whether the term ‘loss of property’ means ‘loss of profits.’)

The authors of this designer legislation were certainly aware of its problematic reach and so included within it a ‘rule of construction.’ This ‘rule of construction’ is, in itself, a great legal construct because it means that, notwithstanding what’s actually in the law, nothing shall be construed to prohibit any conduct that is protected by the First Amendment.

That is, even if the law is written in a way that criminalizes constitutionally protected speech and advocacy, it really doesn’t, you see, because it says that it doesn’t.

Currently, this law is being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in the State of Massachusetts. The plaintiffs, all activists who’ve devoted their lives to advancing the compassionate and ethical treatment of animals, claim that the AETA criminalizes the free speech and political advocacy guaranteed by the First Amendment – that is, the AETA makes it a crime to peacefully attempt to change people’s minds.

The AETA is an insidious and dangerous law not only for those in the animal rights movement, but to every one of us for the following reasons:

  • Free Speech is a Defense against Violence

    Political violence usually comes in two varieties: 1) those who can’t get what they want through advocacy, yet remained so convinced of their arguments that they engage in violence and 2) those whose advocacy is silenced and so must advance their cause in other ways. Accordingly, any suppression or ‘chill’ of free speech generally leads to more, not less, violence, regardless of cause or country.

  • The Government is Discriminating on the Basis Of Viewpoint

    The AETA targets the animal rights movement specifically, singling out activity that affects animal enterprises. The government is not acting as the referee in an ongoing and spirited public debate, but prematurely choosing the winner. If laws like the AETA are allowed to stand, important political debates will be decided before they have begun and the government will pre-emptively be deciding that which we should be deciding for ourselves.

  • State Level Ag-Gag Laws Prevent Undercover Investigations

    A number of states have used the AETA umbrella to pass so-called ag-gag laws, which make undercover investigations illegal, so there will be no method of documenting what goes on inside animal enterprises. This has grave consequences not only for the animals within those poorly regulated and often inhumane enterprises — but also for those who continue to eat the meat that comes from them.

Many people think free speech is important in case they find themselves on the wrong side of power and prestige. And that’s certainly true, for what it’s worth.

But the merit of unrestricted and expansive speech is far greater than that. Because it’s only by vigorous debate and within the protests, placards, signs and songs – only within the cacophony of our raised and numerous voices — that we, as a nation and as individuals, find out who we truly are.

The plaintiffs in this case, all animal rights activists, have long fought to give voice to the voiceless, but now their advocacy is broader: now they speak for the potentially de-voiced as well — which is every one of us.

Let’s not allow ourselves to be silenced.

More information on this case is available at The Center for Constitutional Rights.

‘The Last Island,’ with its themes of environmentalism, animal rights, and the costs of capitalism, is available here from Betimes Books.

Blackfish: Weighing in on the Killer Whale Controversy at SeaWorld.

Where They Belong

Who are we really saving?

Blackfish is a provocative documentary that tells the story of a killer whale that has killed several people at SeaWorld.  There’s been an impassioned response to this film by many people, who are now demanding that all killer whales in captivity be freed.  The visceral nature of this response is not just because of what is happening to killer whales in captivity and what they are as a species but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it goes to the heart of who we are.

The Case for Humility

Killer whales not only have larger brains than humans, but they have a part of the brain that we don’t have, possessing an extra lobe of tissue that lies adjacent to their limbic system and neocortex. This lobe has something to do with thinking, of course, but also with the processing of emotions.

Just as dogs have a superior sense of smell than we do and chameleons can see more of the light spectrum, killer whales may have a greater capacity for emotion.  That is, they may experience the same emotions in a range and depth that are inaccessible to us.  In addition, they may experience some emotions that are unknown to us.

We, humans, have been wrong about almost everything since time began; what we once thought right is now, almost categorically, wrong.  The critical error we continue to make, the ongoing blunder, is how impressed we become with ourselves in every new era, dismissing the foolishness of the past even as we, minute by minute, slip into it.

If we’d acknowledge the limitations of our minds in understanding our world, including the more complex creatures with whom we share it, this would be evidence of our own developing emotional maturity and intelligence.

We don’t know what killer whales experience intellectually, emotionally or otherwise.  We can’t know.

The Case for Compassion

The moral progress of mankind can be viewed as an extension of compassion: from ourselves to our families, to our tribes, to our communities and nations.  Historically it was common to enslave, exploit or oppress people who fell on the other side of the various fault lines of gender, language, beliefs, or skin color.  And whatever progress we’ve made along these lines was achieved by learning to care for those who are more and more unlike ourselves.  Since our moral progress can be measured by the limits of our compassion, shouldn’t we strive to extend that compassion to other species as well?


Whether you believe dominion over animals was granted by God in the Bible or not, we certainly have it.  We can do with animals what we will.  Since we are the sole cause of the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals on our planet in the last half billion years, it’s clear what we have chosen to do: destroy almost every single one of them.

For an increasing number of people, it’s apparent that we need to save both our planet and our animals in order to save ourselves.  To do that, we have to change who we are, and we can start with one tree, one animal at a time.

Freeing the killer whales in captivity is, relatively speaking, a small thing to do, but it is the humble, compassionate and right thing.  It won’t save the environment, and it might not even save the whales from the dangers in the greater ocean, but it will save them from us and might, in some small way, begin to save us from ourselves.

My novel is available here: THE LAST ISLAND

Do Animals have Souls? What 7 major religions have to say.

Do animals have souls?

Of course, this begs this question: do souls exist?

For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that they do — most of us having gleaned that information from our religious beliefs and texts.

So let’s take a look at those.

Of the six top organized religions by number of followers, three of them — Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism — believe in reincarnation, that is, a cycle of death and rebirth.  This rebirth takes place in both humans and animals.

Hindus and Sikhs believe that both humans and animals have eternal souls that through this process of rebirth can be purified.   Buddhists do not believe in eternal souls per se, but do believe that both human and animals have a Buddha-nature and therefore the possibility of becoming enlightened.

All three believe that reincarnation holds for both humans and animals and that all creatures are on the path to purification or enlightenment.

The other three religions, the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are more nuanced in their approaches.  But in their sacred writings all of them assert that animals praise and glorify God and that He watches over them.  (See quotes below.)  I’ll leave the question open as to whether the knowledge and ability to praise God is scriptural evidence of a soul, but the implication is unmistakably there.

Lastly, St Francis, easily the most popular Christian with those outside the religion, thought all creatures had souls – they were all in his ‘brotherhood’ – and he often preached to the birds.  It stands to reason that he wouldn’t be preaching to them unless he had a reason to be.


Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.   (Matthew 10:28)

Each one (i.e. all beings) knows its own prayer and praise, and Allah knows well all that they do.  (Quran 24:41)

Deer, camel, donkey, monkey, rats, creeping animals, birds and flies — one should consider them like one’s own children, and not differentiate between one’s children and these creatures.  (Bhagavata Purana 7.14.9)

All beings tremble before violence.  All fear death, all love life.  See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt?  What harm can you do?  (Buddha)

Nature in species, kinds,  colors.  Nature in life forms.  All nature is yours, Oh powerful  Creator.  You command it, observe it and pervade within it.  (Guru Granth Sahib)

The beast of the field shall honor me. The wild beast of the field shall glorify me.  (Isaiah 43:20)

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.

Who is that Dolphin in the Mirror? (Dolphin Consciousness)

Are dolphins conscious?

In my novel, The Last Island, an animal rights activist, Kerryn, thinks so and is willing to risk her life to prove it.

But is there evidence for this assertion?

Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, and we can get bogged down in definitions until we ourselves start to lose it – first by falling asleep and then, ultimately, by dying.

I think most of us would agree that if we can’t define something satisfactorily for ourselves, we certainly have no right to deny to any other creature. That is, I can’t say that humans or animals don’t have ‘something’, if I don’t know what that ‘something’ is.

But for the purposes of this post, let’s define consciousness as what most of us intuit it to be: the state of being aware of the world around us. But that doesn’t seem to be enough, does it? Mere ‘awareness of the world.’ So let’s set the bar higher.

Let’s go beyond mere consciousness and ask ourselves if dolphins possess self-consciousness (or subjective consciousness), which can be defined as an awareness of one’s own self or an awareness of one’s own awareness — a sort of dual awareness, if you will.

Dolphin’s exhibit at least two distinct behaviors that demonstrate self-consciousness.

The first is their keen interest in mirrors. They know when they are looking at themselves and, like us, are fascinated. This could be either narcissism or because their inner sense of themselves doesn’t quite match their outward appearance. But both are demonstrations of consciousness of a self.

A second and more powerful demonstration of self-consciousness is that dolphins have been known to commit suicide. (There is some debate about this, but a preponderance of evidence indicates that they do.) For a creature to commit suicide, they need to have an awareness of their awareness (or consciousness) as something that can be extinguished — in the same way that you must know a candle is lit before you can put it out.

And there you have it: two demonstrations of dolphin self-consciousness.

Here’s the Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness in Non-Human Animals, which was signed by a number of prominent scientists on July 7, 2012. It was late in the day for such a declaration, but better late than never.

In my next post, I’ll raise the bar even higher — to a metaphysical level — and address whether dolphins have souls.

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.

Death Penalty for Killing Dolphins? (Dolphin Intelligence)

In my novel, The Last Island, an animal rights activist claims that dolphins possess intelligence, consciousness and even souls.

But is there any evidence for this?

Let’s start with dolphin intelligence.  Dolphin brains are at least as large and well-developed as our own, and they and their ancestors have been ‘brainier’ for a lot longer.  That said, we humans are proud of our technological society (despite the harm it may doing to the planet) and take it as a measure of own superiority or ‘dominion’ over the animals.

But if a technological society is proof of an intelligent species, why haven’t dolphins developed one?

An answer may be found in Isaac Asimov’s remarkably concise, Asimov’s Chronology of the World.  Asimov writes that “water is so viscous a medium that it tends to enforce streamlining on any organism that wishes to move quickly within it.  Fast-moving organisms are smoothly ‘fish-shaped’ in one way or another, and rarely have irregular shapes.”  But in air, a less-viscous medium, irregular shapes are not such a problem.  The result is that humans developed hands to manipulate the Universe about them, while dolphins did not.

In addition, the foundation of all technology, fire, can’t exist in water.  So without fire and hands, no technological society is conceivable in water, which is the reason dolphins haven’t developed one.

The truth is: there’s no good reason to believe that dolphin intelligence isn’t superior to ours.

It was a capital offense to kill a dolphin in Ancient Greece.  Maybe it’s something we should consider…

In a later post, I’ll address dolphin consciousness.

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.