Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Selective compassion

Yesterday I posted a picture of Joe the hawk preening in his aviary. In the post I attributed his good mood to Joe's having just killed a rat, and noted that while I had taken photos of his eating it I would not be posting them.

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.


CJ said...

Interesting. I don't know what to say either. I could have done without seeing the dog photo since it looks like my dog so I suppose you made your point.

Morgan said...

Sorry, CJ. I wasn't trying to upset anyone. Really. As for points, I'm not sure I even arrived at one.

Andrea said...

I'm not really sure what to make of this brings up a lot of conflicting emotions, doesn't it? But I love that you titled it "selective compassion." Not to steer the discussion every which way, but I totally understand when you said that we have a sliding scale for humans & animals, based not on their inherent worth, but on how we feel about them. It reminds me of how people who are supposedly pro-"life" want everyone to see pictures of dismembered fetuses, but do not support similar awareness of foreign victims of military conflict.
Anyway, I admit that I'm not really that upset about various odd (to us) Asian dishes. I would prefer that any animal raised for consumption is treated and killed as humanely as possible, of course.
Sheesh, it really is hard to arrive at a point with this one.

Morgan said...

It's so true what you say about the sliding scale. Most of us are far more upset to hit a cat or dog than a possum while driving. Far more likely to spray for caterpillars but appreciate the butterflies without realizing they're just different stages of the same creature.

Pro-lifers say we should respect all life, but they LIE. If they truly respected all life, the poor, black drug addict's life would be as worth of saving than the white fetus. Again, they're both human, just at far different stages.

My sisters and I were debating this earlier and I commented to them that serial killers often start by desensityzing themselves to the pain of animals before moving on to human victims. I wonder if humans as a collective group haven't done that. Having turned our compassion off to non-humans because they're different from us, it's a short step to subdivide humanity and turn against the man or woman who doesn't share our skin color, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

All this and I still have no answer.


CJ said...

What you say about prolifers could be turned around Morgan. Some people who are for abortion care more about gay people and drug addicts than they do unborn babies who they believed it should be legal to kill right up to the delivery date.

CJ said...


Andrea said...

That's very fair. It does go both ways. I don't relate to either side. Why are those who are very enthusiastically for war, against abortion (even at its earliest); and why are those who are against war so frequently for abortion (even at its latest)? Both sides are very inconsistent to me.

And, I guess I would be more upset if I hit a dog (even a stray one) than if I hit a squirrel. Maybe it's because a dog seems more intelligent, although for all I know that's not accurate.

Morgan said...

I agree with Andrea (again) that you make a fair point, CJ.

I suppose it is my own inconsistency that I'd prefer to save a starving three-year-old while not interfering in the choice of an unwed mother to abort an eight-week-old fetus. To me they are different. We could argue till we're blue in the face about the right to life and still be arguing when the world ends and crumbles to dust around us. So my intent isn't to start a debate on abortion. I tend to shy away from those because I've never seen one that didn't turn ugly, viscious and personal.

Even the abortion debate - when you think about it - isn't about the baby. It's about the "I," as in "I don't want the baby," and "Well, I think you should have the baby." It's how we feel about the baby and about life - the tug of war between moral rights and moral wrongs. It's not about the baby. Or about the woman which I think is why so many pro-choicers get so pissed off by the pro-lifers.

Andrea said...

I didn't want to bring it up initially either, so that is my fault, but I can't help but think that it's related. The hypocrisy, the willful blindness, the moral high ground of both sides.

I do enjoy a nice steak every now and then, but I don't like to think of the cow being slaughtered, even if it's as painlessly as possible. I couldn't do it myself unless I was starving to death. But it's done for me, then neatly packaged, so I never have to think those unpleasant thoughts. Other cultures are not so squeamish, the animals are hanging up on both sides of the street for all to see and buy.

Similarly, I do not enjoy the thought of so many women choosing to get abortions, but I'm also not cheered by people having more children than they can afford to care for. I wish pro-lifers would accept that there *is* a difference between a 4-week abortion and a 20-week one. And I wish pro-choicers would accept that there is a *difference* between a 4-week abortion and a 20-week one. But like you said, it's an impossible problem to resolve.

Andrea said...

But strictly pertaining to the animals, I personally don't feel a difference in seeing Octavia eat a grasshopper vs. Joe eat a rat. I just accept the animal kingdom for what it is, and that's what animals do.

Morgan said...

Oh, I know that animals kill each other in nature. I don't have a problem with that. I just thought it was interesting how people tend to feel more sympathy for "cute" prey animals than they do for the less than loveable ones.

Again, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. And I do find the images of nature it its rawest form disturbing. I have a hard time watching those nature specials where prides of lions pull down a water buffalo and start eating it before it's dead.

But nature is brutal, despite the depictions of it as all beauty and balance.

Sterculian Rhetoric said...

Morgan Le Fay - You will have to email me for my new address. I've had to bow to the Blogger Gods on account of my poor upbringin' and gratuitous profanity. I can't be 'listed' any more. Hence, you can not get to SR from my profile if you click on my avatar above.
I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia now. Home of the great Angkor Wat temple complex.
As a born again antivivasectionist, the photographs are disturbing, as are the feral cats and dogs flitting about here.
Acculturation plays a major role in how we feel about the grand panorama of nature. Cows in India are not eaten as they represent Nandi, a divinity. But, they are not looked after at all. They wander the streets in terrible states of health.

Erik said...

More on the hypocrisy angle... The people who are most fervently pro-animal could easily be labeled anti-human.

Those for the war are against abortion and vice versa (as noted) but interestingly those for the death penalty are against abortion (and vice versa)

Morgan said...

SR, yeah, the photos are disturbing. I debated posting them but thought, in context, well...

That's interesting about the cows. On documentaries I've seen about places where cows are revered, they don't look very well-fed. There's one temple, though, that believes rats to be the reincarnations of humans and those rats are fat.

Morgan said...


I agree with you completely. Some people's love of animals is directly proportional to their hatred of people.

I know quite a few wildlife rescuers who are misanthropic. I've never known why that is; sure, animals do get injured through the carelessness of man but I've never had an injured animal brought to me by another animal. It's by the kindness of humans that they find their way to my door.

It's hard to have a dialogue with a misanthrope, though. I think often the problem is self-hatred.

Erik said...

serial killers often start by desensityzing themselves to the pain of animals before moving on to human victims.
it's a short step to subdivide humanity and turn against the man or woman who doesn't share our skin color, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

I have heard that also and I would imagine it to be true. That isnt of course the same as simply killing an animal, rather it is deliberately causing pain (i.e. torture)

As for the racial thing... it can and has been caused by a belief that the other races arent human or are less human. I keep finding myself referring to the life of Ota Benga, so once again, check it out. He was believed to be a lesser life form, closer to that of apes and he and his tribe mates were treated as such.

Obviously, worldview (basic belief system) greatly affects, determines, your opinion on these things. I wonder how much of the disconnect is by people trying to mix basic worldviews into their own personalized system?

Erik said...

Erik, one of my most thought-provoking and cherished readers

I dont know whether to blush or laugh at your joke! (o=

Erik said...

I know quite a few wildlife rescuers who are misanthropic.
It's hard to have a dialogue with a misanthrope, though. I think often the problem is self-hatred.

Often those people's only friends are animals. They identify with them. But I guess that is a chicken/egg question.

Shrubbery said...

I fully embrace my station at the top of the food chain. To all those animal rights activists...*wipes A1 from chin and finishes chewing the bite of new york strip I doth inhaled*...relax, chill, don a pair of leather Berks, eat some bacon, club a baby seal, and shutdafuckup.

Morgan said...

Erik, feel free to blush. It's no joke. You always make me stop and think. And as my ADD worsens, that's not hard to do.

You're right about the tendency of some to dehumanize other races. I guess it makes it feel less like murder and more like sport when you bomb them. Go figure.

As for worldviews, those get passed down in the form of prejudices. That kind of ingrained hatred is a difficult cycle to break, especially given the tendency for people to pronounce themselves God's Favorite.

Shrubbery said...

I'm not really sure what to make of this brings up a lot of conflicting emotions, doesn't it?

Andrea, how can you be conflicted when in the presence of a juicy brautwurst or good burger or hot boneless wings? Where's the conflict? Dig in girl, enjoy, damn the quadripeds and feathered foul you're ingesting. Get down with being an omnivore.

Shrubbery said...

Hey Morg, if Joe has a bad eye, does he fly in circles? Just checking.

Morgan said...


The animal rights activists have their logical glitches, to be sure, but I wouldn't go throwing the baby out with the bathwater. "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" is debatable. If my child is starving and I need to feed it the rat or the pig would have to die. Sorry. But not debatable is the call to consider more humane treatment of what we do eat. But then that gets me back to my orirginal point. What is compassion, and should it be measured solely by our perceptions?

Andrea said...

I was thinking more about the eating of dogs and cats in some Asian places. I don't have any pets myself but the contrast between cuisines is startling here. Still, why is eating a little baby lamb ok, but not a dog?
I'm generally ok with American food, although eating gators, snakes, etc. doesn't sound like good eats to me. Some people here in the Pacific Northwest get all upset when Native Americans want to go out and hunt a whale, but I don't have a problem with it.

And hey, give me some wings and beer and I am one happy girl!

Morgan said...

Shrub, you are such a naughty, naughty boy. No, Joe does NOT fly in circles.

PS See me after class.

Morgan said...

Andrea, our neighbor killed a bear once and gave some to us. I'm the type of person who will try anything once but I just could NOT try that.
For the life of me, I can't see the need to kill an apex predator. Especially in our deer-infested area.

Shrubbery said...

I have little patience for animal rights zealots. On the one hand they'll castigate me for ingesting meat yet they'll eat an omelette, wear leather shoes or suade, or drink milk and sleep on a nice feather pillow. Most of those fruitloops are hypocritical to the nth degree. There's nothing hypocritical about gleefully downing a 14oz new york strip or 11oz filet, that's mastication and digestion at its red-blooded finest.

thimscool said...

Excellent post, Morgan.

“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.”

There is a wonderful novel primarily concerned with this concept of empathy, and its ramifications; in fact it was used as a method to detect the difference between humans and replicants (androids).

The novel was “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and the author was the venerable Philip K. Dick. It was made into a movie you may have seen called “Blade Runner”, with the venerable Indiana Jones dude.


As for your quandary about sundry, supposedly edible mammals, I would say that maybe you should stop eating them… unless you’ve ensured that they lived a humane (and clean) life, died a quick death, and died for a good purpose (not to be discarded as leftovers in a dumpster). That’s my pithy conclusion, for what it’s worth.

Hunting’s ok; if you’re gonna eat it. Should one eat a dog? Hell no! It’s a predator. You don’t eat land predators unless you’re desperately starving.


Shrub, it’s good to see you.

In spite of appearances, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you here... While I will admit that I am a fruit loop and potentially a hypocrite, I still think that there should be some consideration towards the animals that are sacrificed to provide your steak, my belt, my medicine, etc.

I suspect that an emotion other than impatience with “zealots” keeps you from considering what happens to the animals on many farms here and abroad.

Just because you commit to killing a prey does not mean that you should cause it to suffer. True, meat would be more expensive if we abandon certain techniques, but the market is democracy, right? So let’s just do whatever to minimize prices and maximize profits. And put a couple more chickens in each cage. Hyah!

Erik said...


Should one eat a dog? Hell no! It’s a predator. You don’t eat land predators unless you’re desperately starving.

What is your reasoning behind that?

That Cleaning Lady said...

I agree with Shrub, hypocrites just piss me off. I don't eat beef, drink milk, or eat pork, but it's a health thing not a moral thing. I don't like what they are fed, how they are treated or how they are killed, so in my own way I am protesting. But, alas, I do wear leather shoes.
I wouldn't eat dog or cat or bear on purpose, but in those byegone days of eating in Chinese restaurants, who knows for certain?
As for hunting, I stand my my conviction that if you have to kill it - you have to kill it like another animal kills - bare handed - no guns, fishing lines/hooks, no bow and arrows. Run out there, catch it and kill it bare handed, how many vegitarians would there be then??

sammyray said...

I was a vegetarian for two years, and it was great. Hot slaughtered pig batter - I mean, a hot dog - did me in.

That cow going down the chute reminds me of us.

thimscool said...

Land predators have unsavory, stringy, strong tasting meat. Their flesh is contaminated by the environmental toxins in the flesh of their prey. If a sheep retains X amount of toxins from eating grass all its life, and a wolf eats 200 sheep in its life, then the wolf is exposed to 200 X the number of toxins, and presumably retains a good portion of them (especially heavy metals and fat-soluble compounds). You want to eat that?

Also, predators are cuter and cooler. Cows are kind of stupid and docile, and don't really inspire much empathy or admiration. A cat or a dog can be a vicious killer, but also a love bug within their clan.

Prey eat vegetation, not other prey, it seems to me.

Giraffe said...

Thimscool, I know people who eat racoons. I have read that cougar meat is delicious. There are some Native Americans around here that still eat dogs.

I don't think there are many kinds of meat I wouldn't try. Skunk or muskrat I suppose. And I'd never eat a house cat.

Where I live, our local economy depends on livestock, and hunting and fishing. We take a very dim view of animal 'rights'. People shoot or poison animals that are pests. A lot of people shoot prairie dogs by the thousands just for fun. And if they didn't, the ranchers would poisen them because they have to be controlled somehow. Are we desensitized? No. You are oversensitive. The way we live is how it used to be everywhere.

Some people around here get attached to their pets. My view is pets are property, not family. Yes, I have an emotional attachement to my dog. I was pretty desparate when she fell through the ice one fall. But I wasn't going to risk my life to get her out. (she got herself out) I figure a guy who risks his life going into a burning building to save a pet is an idiot, not a hero.

A dog is a pig is a rat IS NOT A BOY!

thimscool said...

Oversensitive? Whatever.

I’m sure that people eat all kinds of animals for various reasons. If you want to try monkey brains for the sake of trying it, have at it. If you must eat a dog due to hunger, or you have to let a dog perish in the fire, condolences for the dog, but humans come first.

Now, given the choice between a stew made with beef vs. raccoon stew, which would you eat every day for a week? Why is that? That’s what I was saying.


The idea that people take glee in killing rodents is a little sad, but at least they are overpopulated and they don’t have complex nervous systems like larger, more specialized mammals (predators, omnivores). That means that they have less of an emotional capacity for suffering, in my book.

What can I say? I think that people should be conscious that there was a significant sacrifice needed to put that burger on the table, and recognize the issue. Thanking God for the food is a decent start, but many native tribes literally thanked the animal as well. Hunters are much closer to the mark in this regard.

I don’t believe that animal rights are anything like human rights, and I am not on a crusade to make stricter laws in favor of animal rights. But I think that cavalier killing of animals without cause is stupid and coarse. It may be the way that the world was everywhere, but that don’t make it right to kill for glee, or without thought.

Morgan said...

"But I think that cavalier killing of animals without cause is stupid and coarse. It may be the way that the world was everywhere, but that don’t make it right to kill for glee, or without thought."

Well said, Thimscool. You make a better argument for mindfulness in this matter here than I ever could.
Add arrogant to stupid and coarse. So many people being on the top of the food chain means they don't have to be thoughtful or compassionate. But when you look not only at the cruelty behind some farming practices, but the cancer rates, early puberty caused by hormones passed through milk and other problems it shows the price we pay for consumption without questioning.

JohnR said...

I wasn't going to weigh in on this but that cleaning lady's comment is just plain wrong.

Carnivores do not catch prey bare-handed.

They used tooth and claw, that is weapons. There is even a fish (names escapes me now) that squirts a stream of water at bugs to knock them into the water so they can eat them. Again, a weapon.

Don't some monkeys use a stick to put into antholes to get ants to eat. Again, a weapon or tool, if you wish.

Guns, knives, fishing rods, and traps are simply extensions of teeth and claws.


thimscool said...

The Archer Fish.

I wonder what they taste like...

Sterculian Rhetoric said...

"...I know quite a few wildlife rescuers who are misanthropic. I've never known why that is; sure, animals do get injured through the carelessness of man but I've never had an injured animal brought to me by another animal. It's by the kindness of humans that they find their way to my door. ..."

Very much the truth indeed.

Erik said...

Okay Morgan

Time for a new post! What is wrong with you making us wait so long? It's like you have a life or something. (o=

Morgan said...

I'll try to come up with something tomorrow. I've just been otherwise occupied with work and holiday preparations. And I'm still recovering from the Drunken Office Party.

thimscool said...

Drunken Office Party?

Sounds like a wonderful post!

Erik said...


I think you may have answered this previously but I couldnt find it. How did you manage to get your pictures purchased by your local paper?

I'm needing money in a fierce way and am looking at anything I can to gather some up.

Morgan said...


I have a long-standing relationship with our newspaper as a former staff writer and current parttime copy editor. So I was at an advantage when I submitted my photos for publication. I'd shot before in a pinch so they knew I was a decent photographer, even with the photo department loaners.

What you need to do is to contact the editors of your paper and see if they need photo stringers. Stringers is just another word for freelancers, but that's what they're called in journalistic circles. If your paper is big enough, there should be several different editors -one for metro, one for local and one for community news. I'd start with the community news editor. They often need photos and this time of year the staffers are slammed with holiday stuff in addition to breaking news.

Put together samples of what you have. If you can shoot digital, all the better.

If you have any questions, email me at
Hope this helps.

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