Some obstacles to change

Charles Danten

Undoubtedly, some of you who own a pet and fit in with the picture I will depict will be moved by what I will describe but I assure you whatever the reasons for this matter no one has to feel guilty.

Ignorance and certain flaws in our ways of thinking and decision process can lead to major errors of judgment.

Positivism: We look exclusively at the good side of things functioning on the correction mode as opposed to the precaution and prevention mode. This dates back to the Greek philosophers, on to the Christian concept of faith which evades all forms of doubt and on to the American philosopher Charles Pierce who stated: «a thought which does not lead to action is useless». The general idea was to remove all forms of thinking that would hinder technological progress; in fact our world is an accessory to that fact, an epiphenomenon, a fluke, a non-anticipated result. None predicted that our decisions would lead straight to it. It happened by mere chance.

Lack of criticism

Doubt and skepticism are not popular qualities. We are not encouraged to look at the dark side of things. And contrary to popular perception, people who do so, reasonably, are not «party poopers» or «negative», «depressed» losers. In our fast pace consumer society, the world belongs to «winners» who never look back. But, it wasn’t always so. Socrates for one, taught his students to always evaluate the negative and positive sides of a situation. By eliminating the negative, we have amputated our reason by half.  

With corrective logic, when we finally react to a destructive trend it's often too late, like in the case of the marine fish stock for instance.


We think that what is good for us is good for others.

For instance people will often judge a situation according to their own personal context and with their own anthropocentric criteria.

Meaning that if we treat our pet well, it goes without saying, everyone else does or if we give our pet what we think is good for us he will necessarily be happy, satisfied and fulfilled!

Anthropomorphism - the attribution of human qualities and needs to animals – also weighs heavily on the overall welfare and fate of animals. In an effort to dislodge man from his pedestal some of us are adding insult to injury. The effort to prove that animals communicate like us for example is an absurdity by every serious biologist there is. It’s not because dogs, cats, parrots, seagulls, whales or dolphins have very complex means of communication – don’t all living beings? - that they can reason like we do. Yet, experiments in teaching primates to communicate by sign language or colored bits of plastic denoting words have become some of the most publicized of modern science. «For reasons that are unclear to me... this topic has aroused considerable emotion, at least in popular discussion. This work though has not the remotest relation to science, though people in white coats and with equipment sometimes do it.» states linguist Noam Chomsky.


«Gorilla saves tot from drowning in an ape pit» ran the front page headline of the Chicago Tribune; «Courageous cat saves his family from fire» reports The Montreal Gazette on its front page. There are hundreds of these urban legends: «Dog lost on west coast 6 months ago finds his way home to New York», «Dolphins rescue swimmer in distress» etc. What should we make of them?  Or more important, why are we so credulous? There are always two sides to a coin yet we seem to systematically ignore it choosing instead to live in a one-sided fantasy world.

Take the first headline for example CNN and most medias of the world pick it up making a «bona fide hero» out of Binti the 8 year old female gorilla. Not only did she rescue the boy from the pit but she went on to cradle him in her arms carrying him gently to the door of the ape’s enclosure where paramedics were waiting. One visitor reported: «she protected the boy from the other gorillas who were trying to get near him.» A keeper who had helped raise Binti when she was young could not believe his eyes: «when I saw her on TV, I could not believe how gentle she was. I just had chills». Following this story, people were in aw and gifts poured in from all over the world: bananas, financial contributions and what have you.

Binti’s saga is typical of most of these stories in more ways than one, Stephen Budiansky author of If a lion could talk (Free Press, 1998) goes on to explain. In fact, it’s not quite true. Many crucial details were left out. Binti did not shield the boy from the other apes, this job fell to the zookeepers who were training high pressure fire hoses at their feet, shooing them out another door of the pen. Later on, during a symposium for zoo keepers on the maternal behavior of gorillas, Dimitrios, one of the lead keepers at the zoo admitted that this whole story was exaggerated by the media: «they made it sound like Binti made a conscious decision to quote unquote «save the boy from the other gorillas» but this is pure speculation, none of them were coming after him.» But more telling: Animals like Binti neglected by their mothers and hand-reared by humans have to be taught how to be mothers so that they can eventually raise their own young. To do this, zoo keepers use a doll and they train the future mother to carry, retrieve and bring it to her keepers just like any good retriever dog would do. The fact that the boy was unconscious also helped. According to Dimitrios, if he had been awake and screaming, Binti might have run away or even pushed or bitten him. The story of Binti, the wonder gorilla that saved a child who fell in a ditch, has nothing to do with compassion or conscious action.

Stephen Budiansky sums it all up: «The shallow and self-centered view that sees what is worthy in nature and animals as that which resembles us is vapid and petty. We try so hard to show that animals are like us in their feelings and thoughts that we denigrate what they really are. We define their feelings and intelligence in human terms and by doing so we blind ourselves to the wonder of life's diversity. The intelligence that every species displays is wonderful enough in itself; it is folly and anthropomorphism of the worst kind to insist that to be truly wonderful it must be the same as ours.»


From the top of our pedestal we have divided the world into multiple isolated fragments making it difficult for us to make meaningful links between seemingly far apart events and situations.

If we were to use primates as pets instead of dogs and on the same scale, considering that they are so similar to us physically, it would soon strike us that what we are doing to animals is wrong.

Faulty cause to effect conclusions

We are prone to false insights - constantly seeking relationships between events even when they are not there. The idea we have about the benefits of having a pet is based on the Skinnerian principle of intermittent reinforcement. The naïve dog owner only needs an occasional payoff to keep thinking this relationship is good for him. Like a compulsive gambler he tends to remember only the good sides, forgetting all the bad sides of this «more trouble than it’s worth» relationship.


«To rationalize is to give reasons that sound good but are not accurate and honest. We usually rationalize to hide our not so healthy motives behind the illusion of high moral standards. It’s a defense mechanism used by egocentric people and societies, our species, to get what they want without having to face the fact that their motives are egocentric or their behavior unconscionable. It’s an alibi, which enables us to sleep well while we behave unethically. Those who held slaves for instance often rationalized that slavery was justified because slaves being like children, had to be taken care of» write Paul and Elder in their book Critical thinking.

The word is not the thing

We confuse words, concepts, analogies, metaphors, with reality. They become one and the same. Important concepts like love, friendship, compassion, respect and integrity are often twisted and distorted in our everyday life and thoughts. These tools of rhetoric are used to provoke emotion and often to obscure rationality. We take them at face value mistaking them for the real thing creating an ever-widening gap between reality and appearances. As a result fundamental contradictions or inconsistencies in our lives go unquestioned. This is part of the self-deceptive tendencies to which the human mind is prone.

Ideological immunity

Many material and psychological interests are involved in the pet industry and no one is willing to let go. As a result, depending on where their interests lie, people will either exaggerate the positive as well as the negative or vice versa, mitigate the positive as well as the negative, defending often «until death do us part», their point of view, their career, their grant money, their social status, their capital of sympathy, their self-image, their source of pleasure and satisfaction. This resistance to change is directly proportional to the interests at stake. Change rarely comes from those who stand to loose the most. They simply die off and are replaced by a new generation that thinks differently. This is why it is much more constructive to work at a grass roots level with those who stand to loose the least.


Most of our concepts deeply imbedded in our unconscious are invisible to us though implicit in our talk and behavior. This is one of the main reasons it’s so hard to change: inattentive most of the time, we are seldom aware of the deep down motivations of our everyday actions.

The big picture

These factors, to name but a few, have led to a distorted picture of reality. As a result we are unable to see the big picture. Can you imagine yourself trying to make sense of a movie with the screen almost completely hidden by a curtain?  Imagine trying to play a chess game if you only see 2 or 3 squares of the chessboard. It would be almost impossible to make the right moves, those that don’t do more harm than good and that will lead to our well being and survival. Yet, we often base our decisions on partial information, functioning mostly by the corrective principle, as opposed to the preventive or precautionary principle. And when we finally see the big picture, like a chronic smoker who learns he has cancer, it is often too late.


It can be argued that it’s often impossible to see the big picture. I agree. After all, we know very little of what remains to be known about our world. To make things worst, we observe a situation through our own anthropocentric bias. But, when in doubt - and in this particular case, you will agree, there is plenty of reason to doubt - it’s often better to refrain than to indulge. The most fundamental principle of medicine is not to do more harm.


And this is a collective error, no need therefore for scapegoats. Consumers and the industry, vets, animal activists, shelters and humanitarian societies are all in on this. From the supply and demand end, to the maintenance and recycling end, everyone is part of the same chain; we are all interlinked. To blame others is a classical way to focus attention away from the real issues: our own responsibility.  It allows us to let some «steam» out and to find some solace from our inner contradictions.


Many of us, notably the pet animal industry, have been very complacent for reasons I will let you surmise.


No one asked too many questions, many of us «know but don’t want to know», granted, but can we blame anyone for simply taking advantage of an unfortunate situation which most of us, anyway, consider natural, legitimate, irreversible, as sacred as the Bible or baseball?

I will let you decide...

The solution is in the problem itself

We are quick to look for solutions outside the problem without even taking the time to understand the problem as such. In other words, while we are busy looking for solutions, we don’t have to take the trouble to understand. Yet, often just understanding the problem, taking it apart, deconstructing it, seeing all its ramifications, will bring its own solution. Once you see clearly what’s at stake, you are in a state of mind, which will allow you to make the best possible decisions.

We don’t love them well

The problem is not that we don’t love animals but that we don’t love them well. As you will see by yourself, we are actually killing them with our love and this self-centered love is as harmful to us as it is to animals.

Some good books to read: