Decoding animal myths vs reality: How language desensitises us to their suffering

Helping an animal is about attitude and a value system. We can examine our treatment of fellow creatures by our language.

Maneka Gandhi September 12, 2017 15:08:05 IST
Decoding animal myths vs reality: How language desensitises us to their suffering

Helping animals is not just about doing something for them, it is an attitude and a value system. And there is no better place to begin an examination of our treatment of fellow creatures than by our language.

Let's begin with the word, animal. One of the dictionary definitions for 'animal' is a bestial person; a brute. This is common usage. We are told often not to 'behave like an animal'. We hear it often enough on television or in films. In violent scenes, the victim often accuses the aggressor of being 'an animal'. Another common dialogue we often hear is, "he is an animal, he deserves to be killed."

But this exercise is hardly logical. Animals do not rape, loot or plunder. Yet, this mindless slander continues. Pig, swine, ass, rat, cat, bitch, worm are just some of the animal names that have come to connote abuses. We also use similes that have no basis in fact – pigs are not greedy, foxes are not sly nor oxen dumb, wolves do not philander and snakes do not connive. If you are silly, you are called a goose, if you love to eat you are a hog. Your stubborn streak gets compared to a mule, your cowardice makes you a chicken.

Decoding animal myths vs reality How language desensitises us to their suffering

Representational image. Reuters

In Hindi, even kutta or dog is considered a derogatory term. Yet dogs are among the friendliest, most loving and loyal creatures in the world. Pigs have the highest IQ of all animals.

Is being vicious and beastly behaving like an animal? Animals only kill for survival and mate only to perpetuate the species. They do not conspire, steal, rape, drink, smoke or gamble. About how many people can you make the same claim?

Language is at the root of our attitudes. When you think of yourself as the owner of an animal, it confers on you the right to do with the animal as you please. Instead, refer to animals not as your property or pets but as your companions. You can buy, sell and discard a pet as a toy. Will you do the same with a companion? A person of great humanity once introduced his wife: "This is my wife… no, I am sorry, that is incorrect. This is the lady that I share my life with."

Similarly, when people ask me how many pets I have, I say none. The next question is inevitable – so there are no animals in your house. My answer is, "not counting me, my son and the people who look after us, there are 16 animals who share our house."

Animals are not pests or menaces. This word starts from being applied to cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes and now applies to any animal species whose habitats have been destroyed and who now have no option but to either enter farmlands or cities to eat. Elephants, monkeys, nilgai, vultures, crows, dogs, wolves, snakes… the media never refers to any of these animals without using the word menace – elephant menace stalks village, stray dog menace, monkey menace.

Vultures were also a menace till they simply disappeared and now scientists are going crazy trying to rebreed them as no one can clean up the countryside more effectively. Every one of these animals – including pests like the cockroach – is very important ecologically to human survival. So, do not let someone get away with these two epithets.

Another way our language desensitises us to animal suffering is by referring to them as 'it' or objects. An animal is as male or female as you and I. Do not refer to one as 'it'. Every single one including an ant is a family person – a mother, a child, a member of a clan.

Do not refer to animals by the names they are given as 'food' either. Buffalo calves are not 'katras' (animals to be cut), hens and cocks are not broilers and layers. Wild animals that are hunted down are not 'game' – killing does not qualify as a game.

Mixed breed and homeless dogs are not mongrels, pye-dogs or junglies, but Indian dogs. (They should be rated as far superior because they have not been genetically tampered with but have evolved naturally).

Competitions that involve animal suffering are not 'sport'. The word sport implies amusement, enjoyment, entertainment, fun, frolic, play. Does rodeo, which breaks the backs of thousands of horses and calves every year, count as any of these? Does bullfighting? Does bullock cart racing, which involves feeding alcohol and red chillies to slow-moving oxen and then whipping them on, become a sport? Is buzkashi, the Afghan game of polo where the ball is the dead body of a sheep, a sport? Is cockfighting – tying razor blades to two cocks and then forcing them to kill each other, a sport? Is ram fighting? Is greyhound racing – where 50 percent of all the animals are beaten and starved and die of heart attacks? Is horseracing anything except a gambling venture?

Several children’s stories and poems poke fun at or reinforce negative stereotypes, eg the cunning wolf in Red Riding Hood. It may sound harmless in the telling but it does condition a young mind into believing that wolves live on a steady diet of little children! Instead, recount stories/instances that highlight the true qualities of these unsung heroes.

Similarly, it is very common to hear parents or ayahs frightening children with animals: "Go to sleep now or the lion will come and eat you up" or some other equally silly nonsense. In a zoo, you can hear adults cautioning children to stay away from the cages or the animal will come and get them. All this does is produce fear and a distrust of animals that later gets converted into hostility and cruelty.

Language creates, defines, persuades, shapes and changes attitudes and therefore behaviour. Indeed, more powerful than the sword, wield language carefully and correctly. Speak of animals with compassion and respect and you will find yourself and those around you will begin to treat them better as well.

First drop these concepts from your mind. Then start objecting to them wherever you hear or see them. Start with your family, friends, people at your workplace and at parties. Articles in magazines, schoolbooks, films, plays, any form of cultural performance – object in writing both to the producer and to the newspapers.

While puppies and kittens are considered 'cute' and wildlife is 'exotic', several nearer-to-home creatures constantly suffer bad press. Challenge myths that have persisted so long that we have come to believe them.

Myth: Lizards are scary, poisonous creatures that you want to get rid of.
Reality: Lizards are shy, non-poisonous household joys because they keep the house free of flies and mosquitoes.

Myth: Pigs are dirty, smelly creatures.
Reality: Pigs are highly intelligent animals even cleverer than dogs. They are also naturally clean animals with very sensitive noses. The French used pigs to smell out truffles. The only reason they are to be found in rubbish dumps is because they have to forage for survival and they are bright enough to have figured out that gutters will keep them cool. Affectionate, loyal and toilet-trainable, in the West, pigs are becoming increasingly popular as pets.

Myth: Snakes are dangerous and must be killed.
Reality: Snakes are shy creatures that would rather run than fight. Out of the 200 species of snakes in India, only four, the Cobra, Krait, Russell's Viper and Saw-Scaled Viper are poisonous. All the rest are not only harmless but actually beneficial to man as they consume rats that would otherwise destroy crops. They are a useful link in the ecological chain. Instead of killing a snake that's lost its way into a house, drop a basket over it and set it free outside.

Myth: Wolves are monsters that eat little children.
Reality: The wolf is the wild ancestor of the dog and shares the same traits of courage and loyalty that we cherish. Wolves are reclusive creatures who seldom attack humans.

Myth: The raven or crow is a bird of ill omen and death.
Reality:  Crows are actually the bravest and most intelligent birds. Legend has it that they were once as white swans and the messenger of the sun god Apollo. Until one fateful day, a raven revealed to Apollo that Coronis, a nymph that he adored, was faithless. The god pierced the nymph with an arrow, then turning his wrath on the messenger, and turned him as black as soot. In Hinduism, Brahma appeared in one incarnation as a crow. In Rome, ravens were regarded as a symbol of fertility. They are extremely useful as a city scavenger.

Myth: Donkeys are stubborn and stupid.
Reality: Donkeys are brave, clever and hardworking animals. Nimble and surefooted, they are used to negotiate the toughest of terrains. Because of their uncomplaining nature, they are overworked and exploited and need our help not ridicule.

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