Bans are the bane of any free society; hypocrisy, the biggest deterrent to social reform. We have a large share of bans, and a fairly large share of hypocrisy too. When it comes to cruelty against animals, the list of bans is ever lengthening. Most people fighting for this 'cause' don't understand the real issues of conservation and end up garnering attention for themselves by appealing to what Slavoj Žižek terms as 'ethical redemption' from our acts of consumerism.
The recent ban on animal dissection in schools reflects a misconceived notion where a purely scientific pursuit is confused with cruelty. Dissecting an animal first hand helps children discover their natural bent for surgery and understand anatomy. On the computer, it may just be another video game. This delays identifying the natural flair of a student. The greatest ornithologist of our times, Salim Ali, says in his autobiography Fall of a Sparrow that his interest in birds was kindled with hunting a sparrow.
Similarly, the ban in the name of cruelty on madaaris and circuses has led to the sad demise of the age-old art of animal training in our country. If we've to ban circuses and zoos, there should also be a ban on ponies, buffaloes, cows, horses. The original homes of our pet dogs and cats were jungles. Hunting is now illegal in India and rightly so. An abundance of poachers kill for commercial gain. But that doesn't justify using the cruelty argument on the disciplined hunters of the old days. 'Cruelty against animals' also extends to non-vegetarianism. Consuming milk that belongs to the calf, killing trillions of insects/worms by pesticides to provide us vegetables, death of birds due to shortage of food caused by pesticides…all this is not considered cruel. Tikiri Dissanayaka says, "When the puritan Devadatta wanted to enforce vegetarianism on the Bhikkus, the 'ism'-free Buddha turned the proposal down…The true intellectually free man can never be a purist in this mixed, never wholly pure world."
We tend to superimpose human emotions on animal welfare. Cruelty against animals should be seen in a broader, practical perspective of long term coexistence with nature, which has diminished as Man leaves nature behind in his great walk. Development has had a staggering environmental impact. Robinson Jeffers said that, "cruelty is a part of nature, at least of human nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us." Cruelty towards animals is highly objectionable. But what is cruelty? We need to re-examine our hypocritical approach. Loss of habitat is the greatest cause of wildlife destruction. Cities have replaced jungles and we go on banning the few remaining links with the wild. The creatures we value commercially or for entertainment have not become extinct - cattle, dogs, silk worms, hens. If the trading of tiger skin becomes legal, there will be funds from all quarters to breed them.
We put on leather shoes made from cattle skin, get into the car drilling a hole in the ozone, switch on the AC drilling the ozone hole deeper, sip on tea made of milk belonging to the calf, pat the pet dog and sigh about the 'cruel' madaaris, zoos, hunters and rat dissections.
The drive against bans should begin with banning our purist approach. Let's provide forested corridors connecting the jungles for migration of animals whose ancient routes have been cruelly cut off by our cities and highways. That, perhaps, would be a worthy start in our fight against cruelty towards animals.
Arefa Tehsin is honorary wildlife warden, Udaipur, and Raza H Tehsin is a former member, Wildlife Advisory Board, Government of Rajasthan
The views expressed by the authors are personal