by Julia Piggin

In Circe, Giovanni Battista Gelli’s famous 16th century series of fantasy-philosophical essays in the form of dialogues with enchanted animals, a deer complains of her treatment by men. “Your degrading us is impious and against the law of nature,” she says. She accuses man of assuming tyrannical power and prerogatives, styling himself lord and master, denying freedom and behaving scornfully.

The twist here, of course, is that she is not complaining of her life as an animal. but of her life as a woman before the sorceress Circe transformed her. As a woman, she says, she was limited and confined, and even considered by some “wise men” as belonging to a different species. Her life was continual slavery. As an animal, on the other hand, she has complete equality with males, with equal privilege and authority. In spite of the perils of life in a Renaissance forest, the deer firmly refuses a chance to live again as a female human. Other animals, too, refuse humanity, pointing out the relative liberty, prudence, simplicity and honesty that prevail in animal societies.

Gelli’s Circe is not about animal rights – that concept would not be fully evolved for nearly four centuries, though the case for women’s rights was already clear. But buried in these dialogues is the inescapable question: if animals live in societies that offer fulfillment as well as freedom, have humans the right to seize and use them for their own purposes? To torture and abuse them in laboratories in the name of science or to confine them in factory farms? And beside this stands the even more basic question: Does difference – whether of sex or species – confer the right of domination and exploitation of one group over another? The answer, given different rationales in various cultures, has for millennia been a resounding “Yes!”

In western society, its basis is supposed to lie in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Adam, in the first chapter of the Biblical Book of Genesis, is given dominion over all living things, and particularly over Eve, who is subjected and subservient to him, among other penalties, for her sin of tempting him in the Garden of Eden. Biblical literalists have even argued that the serpent, specially cursed for his own role in the Fall, is also a representative of the animal kingdom and so all animals, too. are being deservedly punished. Today, theologians of almost all faiths are re-examining and reinterpreting the scriptural foundations for mastery over animals – often finding more texts that prescribe kindness to animals than equality for women.

Traditionally, however, there have been two reasons for treating animals compassionately. One, they are capable of suffering, and so, in simple decency, should be spared it.

Two, causing pain damages the human who inflicts it, deadening his/her capacity for feeling and coarsening his/her nature. Even the valiant founders of the humane movement, fighting for legal protection for animals, thought more in these terms than in terms of actual legal rights for animals.

There is a familiar ring to these arguments isn’t there? For almost identical reasons, a magnanimous patriarchal father might deal kindly with his wife – or wives – and daughters. But the perceived benefit was not for the women themselves, it was primarily for the man. In his condescending enjoyment of the women’s gratitude for his benevolence and nobility of spirit, society reinforced women’s subservience. This relationship is basically a description of the present-day relationship of “owner” to “pet”. In the 17th century, Descartes, created his profoundly influential, dualistic and mechanistic philosophy which denied any personal or societal obligation to consider animals. They were, he said, “mere machines”, without rhyme or reason, and therefore could not feel or suffer. If they seemed to experience pain, it was simply the built-in reflex of an automaton, a machine, and not genuine agony as humans can experience it.

To prove his point, Descartes would nail young dogs to boards and laugh at their screams of agony, berating onlookers who showed any signs of concern or compassion. To many modern thinkers, Descartes’ philosophy can be used as a powerful argument against medical experimentation on animals. If their nervous systems are so totally different from ours, and if they feel no pain, why perform tests that purport to measure pain and then correlate them with human reactions? Instead, Descartes has historically been cited to justify the torture of animals in laboratories – if they do not really suffer, but simply react automatically, why not use them? Of course, most scientists conducting animal experiments are not Cartesians. They believe they are sacrificing and using animals in the name of the god Science and simply accept the older concept of man’s right to dominate and use all the creatures of the universe for “man’s benefit”.

Animals cannot protest their exploitation articulately, though many understand a lot more human language than most people imagine. Exploited women and children can speak, of course. But until recent times, the majority of them have accepted their “place” almost as docilely as animals, and pathetically or proudly resigned themselves to their right to be dominated. The abused child, the battered wife, the victim of incest, the mother forced to endure repeated, dangerous, unwanted pregnancies, all have had little more control over their lives and bodies than laboratory dogs or young calves, unable to move, kept in chains and cages until they are 18 months old and slaughtered on factory farms to make veal.

In his early book Face to Face, the writer Ved Mehta tells of going to a fair in his native India. His family saw a healthy well-fed boy devouring a delicacy on sale at the fair, while his emaciated, literally starving sisters watched him, not daring to even ask for a share of the desperately-needed food. Their frail mother pointed to the girls and said sadly, “Some have to starve. They will have to go first.” The story is primarily an indictment of terrible poverty. But for the victims there is not much difference between slow starvation to conserve food and slaughter to provide it, except that the slaughter may often be quicker and more merciful. Victims of such deprivation – even infanticide – in other societies have almost invariably been girls or women.

Margaret Atwood, in her current novel The Handmaid’s Tale, describes a future society in which women have been reduced to total servitude. One of the architects of the new regime, considering the degradation imposed on women to create a “better” male supremacist nation, observes, unoriginally but thoughtfully, that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” He is echoing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in the 18th century forged his Social Contract in exactly the same spirit but with somewhat more venom. In the “natural state”, he argued, women are completely equal to men like Gelli’s deer in her animal world. But once a society is formed, women must lose all their rights and privileges. They “are made for man’s delight” – like cats and dogs – and “must submit completely to him, remain in seclusion, accept injustice at his hands without complaint”, be weak and passive. Their status, in other words, is precisely the status of animals today. Rousseau did not go so far as to suggest that females should be killed for food or used in medical experiments, but a creature required to obey another creature “often vicious and always faulty” and “to suffer wrongs inflicted on her… without complaint” would not be in much of a position to draw a line. Children equally subject to their father’s whims, lived in a similarly animal-analagous world, though males could look forward to eventual escape.

Women, at least in the West, have ‘come a long way” from Rousseau. Animals, of course, can never come as far. Not even the most dedicated animal activist expects a cat to be elected President, or a dog to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Domesticated animals cannot be sent back to the wild to fend for themselves without skills and instincts lost in thousands of years of cohabitation with humans. Decisions must be made for them, as they cannot really be full, participating members of the society that surrounds them, and. unlike children, will never grow to be, at least within millions of years of evolution.

But animals are here, sharing the planet with us. They live, feel joy, suffer, love, communicate, form relationships, and only some sets of ancient words and conditioned beliefs backed often by economic factors have determined their purpose to be inferior to ours. Animals are an extraordinary and often beautiful part of the chain of life, and if life is at all cherished and respected in us, it should also be in them.

The real plea of all rights movements, civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, is that each individual be allowed to fulfill whatever potential is possible, without interference from others whose interests are too often self-centered. “Possible potential” is an enormous concept for exploration when applied to animals. But the animal rights movement asks, “Have we really the right to deny it?”

Julia R. Piggin is Editorial Director for the Humane Society of NY. Since 1904 the non-profit Society has fought to prevent animal abuse, cared for distressed animals and. as funds allow, provided a free clinic for pet owners who can’t afford veterinary care. No animal is released for adoption unless compatible with its new owner.