Last week, news outlets reported on the neglect and abuse of two children and more than two hundred pigs, goats, birds and other animals rescued by New Jersey law enforcement officials.
Two adult residents were subsequently charged with animal cruelty and child endangerment because two children (under ten years old) were also found living in squalid conditions. Sadly, this type of scenario isn’t as rare as it should be.
Today, activists and the general public often think of the human rights and animal rights movements as separate and distinct causes. But history tells us that this wasn’t always the case.
Historically, cruelty against children and animals were not seen as two different problems with two different solutions. Even in the nineteenth century, activists, philanthropists, and policymakers recognized that violence against children and animals shared common origins. Causes to protect vulnerable humans and animals stemmed from the same ideological lines and shared a common moral vision. Societies emerged to protect the most vulnerable members of society, including animals. Some of the most influential societies were the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals in Europe and the United States. These organizations focused on respecting animals as a first step toward civilization. In the late 1800s, the American Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals even intervened on child abuse cases – at a time when parental rights were a priority and interventions to protect children were relatively uncommon.
As a physician and public health specialist, I’ve straddled the human and animal rights movements for most of my adult life. I’ve worked for vulnerable populations on issues ranging from female genital mutilation and factory farming to political persecution and animal experimentation.
But I’ve always struggled with the fact that the modern animal rights and human rights movements work in detached silos, overlooking their obvious underlying commonality and historical bonds. I wondered: Is it possible to bridge the gap between these worlds? How is it possible to reconcile these divorced causes? Then in 2007, the answer hit me like a lightning bolt.
In 2007, I organized a training seminar for health professionals interested in learning to conduct forensic medical examinations on people seeking asylum from political oppression and violence. I invited several of my colleagues to participate as trainers. And I listened carefully as one of my colleagues described the neuroanatomical and physiological basis for mental health disorders.
I knew that, like humans, animals possess the brain structures and biological mechanisms involved in the development of psychiatric disorders my colleague described. Subsequently, I learned that, as a result of these anatomical and physiological similarities, people and animals experience positive and negative emotions in very similar ways. These similarities help explain why we see mental health disorders in humans and animals. Their needs reflect ours, and ours reflect theirs. And when basic needs for freedom, safety, respect, love, and opportunity are violated, we share similar pathology – mental disorders like depression, PTSD, anxiety, and compulsive disorders manifest in people and animals.
After further reflection, I concluded that society will only thrive with a steadfast commitment to these basic needs, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, nationality, social group, political opinion – and species.
My epiphany also helped explain why many asylum seekers I met over the course of my career immediately made the connection between the torture and suffering of people and animals. They understood that the need for freedom, safety, respect, love, and opportunity – basic needs which are violated by torture – are universal.
In his book Torture and Impunity, Alfred McCoy writes about the problems with societal tolerance and impunity for torture. He writes, “Torture occurs in small, secret places and yet has profound global implications. Every act of torture plays out on a narrow stage…closed to the eyes of the world, where one individual accosts another in ways that are intrusively, destructively intimate.” This is not unlike what happens to animals behind closed doors in windowless factory farms, laboratories, and slaughterhouses. Tolerance for violence – in any form – fosters an illusion that social order can be broken and reformed at will, destabilizing society.
The common roots connecting violence against people and animals are deep, and the branches are long. Studies show that perpetrators of intimate partner violence and child abuse are also likely to abuse animals. Additionally, some studies have shown that domestic violence and child abuse are endemic to communities where slaughterhouses are located – likely because of the psychological trauma related to daily exposure to large-scale violence, death, and desensitization.
It’s time for these two movements to come together again, with a common vision to end violence. Human and animal rights movements already share fundamental goals – to lift the burden of suffering and foster respect for marginalized individuals. If we are serious about addressing the roots of oppression, we need to address these issues comprehensively, creatively, and intelligently – to identify compassionate and sustainable solutions.