A worm’s eye view

Posted on the 1st March 2002

Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler comments on the 'animal league table'.
Some arguments against animal cruelty are easier to make than others. Defending monkeys is less arduous than defending rats.

Our cultural tradition dictates that rats must be regarded as unlovable disease-carrying vermin – even though the disease problems for which they get the rap invariably arise from our own waste-generating and disposal habits; while the reject rats my wife and I have given a home to are anything but unlovable.

Monkeys, by contrast, enjoy an altogether different status. This is why those who vivisect them, or cage them in zoos, must concoct elaborate ‘justifications’ that are supposedly rooted in science and conservation.

Monkeys are favoured over rats because they are said to be more intelligent, complex and pain-aware. In fact, the rats I have known have all been impressively bright and complicated. What people who champion monkeys over rats really mean is that when they look in the mirror, the image they see is more monkey than rat-like, and because we human beings regard ourselves as superior to all other species, it must follow that the species most like ourselves is superior to any other.

What about further down the animal league table than even rats? How are we to regard insects and worms? I don’t know the extent to which such beings think or experience pain. But I do know that those who disrespect and treat them as trash demean themselves. They also expose their ignorance. Without insects and worms, the soil on which we depend for food would yield nothing. In other words, the link between compassion and self-interest is as powerful as that between cruelty and self-destruction. Witness modern factory farming systems and the curse of BSE, foot and mouth, campylobacter and such like.

A few weeks ago, one of our excellent contacts on the south coast of England telephoned me in an alarmed state to say that a teacher at a major local secondary school had put on a show for pupils that involved sending electric charges through insects and worms in order to make them glow. There were plans for repeat performances. Would I phone the head teacher?

The encouraging part of this story is that the head anticipated and even saw merit in the arguments I made. He agreed that the whole business was demeaning, showed a lack of respect for life and sent out negative signals to young people. There would be no more of it, he promised. The teacher concerned – a supply teacher – would be talked to. And would Animal Aid care to send a speaker to address the children on the use of animals in vivisection and related matters?

How far does that incident signal our movement has come?

While we are all painfully aware of the many sordid, death-centred features of human culture, we can celebrate the fact that the head of a mainstream English school understands that a worm, as well as a monkey, deserves proper consideration. Next time you see a worm floundering on the pavement, why not put it on to some earthy ground. By such small acts, the world goes around.


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