Public outrage erupted earlier this week when people learned that a Minnesota dentist killed Cecil, a 13-year-old lion who lived with his family in Zimbabwe. Hunters lured Cecil out of a protected environment and shot him with a bow and arrow. Cecil suffered for 40 hours before he was shot again and killed. After he was killed, his head was severed from his body to be used as a “trophy.”
As a physician who works in the fields of ethics, human rights, and animal protection, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about what it takes to encourage empathy for people and animals.
While working with animal welfare colleagues in Kenya – where hunting is banned – I’ve watched lions in their natural habitats. They are sensitive, beautiful, and intelligent beings deserving of empathy and compassion. So are the elephants, rhinos, buffalo, monkeys, birds, and many other animals they share the wilderness with.
Though I am deeply saddened by how Cecil must have suffered and the grief his family faces, I’ve been encouraged by the public response to Cecil’s death.
Some advocates have drawn attention to other animals who suffer daily in factory farms and elsewhere. Others have called upon the importance of combatting ongoing human rights violations in Zimbabwe. And in her New York Times op-ed, “Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose and Cecil the Lion,” Roxane Gay describes how important it is to also show public grief and empathy for “the seemingly endless list of black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement or racist zealots or other bringers of violence.”
The real question is how can we encourage more empathy, compassion, and change – for people and animals?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Tell their stories.
Advocates know that personalizing a story makes a tremendous difference in whether people pay attention, care, and act. People are more likely to pay attention to a picture of one child instead of a picture of many children – even if they are facing starvation or genocide.
In the past several years, opposition to animal experimentation has grown. The majority of Americans now oppose animal testing and research. Though there are many reasons for this change, one factor is the growing number of animals – casualties and survivors – with whom people connect.
The Beagle Freedom Project is a great example. Beagles are the most popular dog breed for laboratory use because of their friendly, docile, trusting, and forgiving personalities. But beagles are also members of our families. By drawing attention to the plight of dogs used in laboratory experiments, the Beagle Freedom Project has rescued beagles and other animals who would otherwise be killed in laboratories. The Beagle Freedom Project has also garnered support for legislative change across the United States.
3. Be honest.
Most of us try to follow some basic moral principles – that we should be kind, have mercy, avoid hurting others, protect the most vulnerable, and promote justice.
There is no defensible reason to apply these principles to some beings but not others. Compartmentalizing our behaviors does not make hurtful, unkind behaviors okay.
Rationalizing harmful behaviors – because of prejudices based on race, gender, sexual orientation, political or religious affiliation, or species – just doesn’t hold up.
4. Model empathy.
Many of us realize the importance of modeling empathic behaviors for children. But modeling empathy is also important in our interactions with each other. Kindness is contagious.
5. Just do it.
There is now plenty of evidence that many of our behaviors precede our conscious thoughts. We don’t have to ponder humane choices ad nauseum. Behaviors can change our thoughts just like our thoughts can change our behaviors.
People and animals without recognizable names also need our empathy. Like Cecil, we are all vulnerable, majestic beings deserving of mercy, kindness, compassion, and justice.
Wouldn’t we want others to do the same for us – whether they know our names and stories, or not?