Erik, one of my most thought-provoking and cherished readers, took me to task for my decision. Why, he wanted to know, was it OK to post all those up-close photos of Octavia the spider dining on grasshoppers but withhold photos of Joe eating a rat?
It was a fair question, and the answer I gave him reveals something about compassion - or inequality of it - as exercised by many people, myself included. "Grasshoppers," I wrote, "are generally far less bloody fare than rats, and it's been my experience that public sympathy runs higher for small furry creatures than it does for scaly, six-legged ones."
When I wrote that, it hit me. It does seem that we humans base our compassion for other creatures - and even our fellow humans - not on their worth, but on how we feel about them. But why? Below is a picture of Joe with his rat:
No, it's not a pretty sight. Not at all. But I didn't shed a tear or even flinch when I tossed the rat into the aviary. This is particularly ironic given that last week, after live-trapping a house mouse I spent several minutes marveling at its enchanting button eyes and trembling whiskers before taking it in the back field and gently setting it free.
So what's the difference between the mouse I set free and the rat I threw to the hawk? I refused to look at the rat; I shut off the part of myself that would let me feel anything. I distanced myself. With the mouse, I allowed myself the "luxury" of being sympathetic.
Is that cruel? Is it hypocritical? If it is we're all guilty. How many of us had steak for dinner this week? Or picked up a burger in the drive-through. Before that meat was on the grocery store shelf or formed into a patty, this was how it looked:
Before that, of course, the animal had to be killed. Erik and I debated a bit over which fate was worse - that of the rat or the cow. I told him I felt sorrier for the cow, since the rat is dead before it knows the hawk hit him. I believe anticipation of death is worth than death itself, or at least must be the most painful part of the process. But the above picture doesn't upset me as much as the following one, for I feel less for the dead cow than I do for the terrified cow heading down the chute to its death:
But still, we distance ourselves from that reality. The slaughter of animals is necessary to feed humanity, people say. But then, throw this into the equation:
In Korea, where dog meat is a popular dish, this picture sparks no more sympathy than the picture of the slaughtered cows do to the average U.S. citizen. That's because to Americans, the idea of slaughtering dogs for food is a travesty. Why? Because dog's are Man's Best Friend. Again, our compassion for the dog has little to do with the dog itself, but rather how we feel about dogs.
If you're looking for me to wrap this all up with some wise and pithy conclusion, I'll just have disappoint you. I really have no answers, only more questions today on how I am able to dispense my sympathy for other living things in such a haphazard way.
Knowing that I'm not alone in this brings me no comfort. In fact, knowing how we humans are able to turn our compassion on and off like light switches gives me some insight to what is wrong with the world in general. I mean, in some way it's necessary; if I felt sorry for the rat I couldn't feed the hawk. But still....
For once I'm at a loss and not sure where to go with this. So please, jump in. I'd love to know what you think.