I met Tippi Hedron at an animal rights event back in the early nineties. She was there with her organization, The Shambala Preserve, and had a booth selling marketing items. One of her slogans was "It's not about loving animals; it's about respect." The slogan went right to the heart of why I became involved with animal rights and I asked her if I could borrow it. She graciously said yes.
I have used that slogan ever since as my own personal credo. Animals are not always lovable, that's not a news flash. There are times when I find it really hard to love my cat. It's hard to love her when she wakes me up at dawn because her wet-food dish is empty. It's hard to love her when I am trying to sleep and she serenades me throughout the night with that unmistakable siamese yowl. It's really hard to love her when she teases a lizard who has had the misfortune of getting into the screen patio.
She's a timid cat, she runs away from anyone unfamiliar. She won't let anyone pet her but me, not even my spouse who is as gentle and unassuming as anyone I know. She is terrified of the unknown and hides whenever guests are around.
So it's easy to love her when she leans her head against my leg, turns belly up and allows me to stroke her soft, unprotected, vulnerable underbelly. I am rewarded with a soft purr while she regards me sleepily with those impossibly gorgeous deep blue eyes. I think I love her the most in those intimate moments. Earning an animal's trust is easy, keeping it is another story.
The thing is, we don't need to love them in order to protect them. Animals are the new minority. Those people who marched in Selma, Alabama, for the rights of people-of-color didn't necessarily love all those black people. The ones in Nazi Germany who hid Jewish families did not do so out of love for Jews. When we take up the cry of "equal rights for gay people" it's not because we love them.
In all these instances we speak for those others because we respect their right to be whoever they are. We tend to anthropomorphize animals quite a bit. We discuss how they love us, how they act guilty when they have done something wrong or we delight in the dolphin's smile. Those of us on the front lines of the battle for animal rights know that these things don't matter. We have friends who say they love animals but what they really mean is they love some animals -- usually the furry and cuddly ones. They eat the other ones.
Animals have a right to be animals. We are not fighting for their rights because they make us happy or they serve a useful purpose. We are fighting for their rights because they are sentient beings just trying to make their way in the world. We've made it quite difficult for them to do so by ruining their habitats, killing them for food or sport or forcing them to entertain us. We don't have to love them to know that we are doing terrible things to the animals of the world. We do, however, have to respect them as fellow earthbound creatures. It’s what makes us human.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)