(Note: I have scheduled this commentary for Wednesday because the research described was primarily focused on Linguistics with some commentary about the subtle cruelty of pun-based name. Otherwise, it is primarily science, conservation and outdoors focused.)
When I was a teenager, working in the boundary waters or northern Minnesota (many years ago), I had the privilege of working alongside a wilderness guide. He was a man who knew true respect for the wild, the water, and the unique area in which he worked. He was a hunter and, as such, had some interesting arguments with a fellow student – a sometimes vegetarian and extremely youthful animal rights activist. One of the arguments he made has stuck with me over many years (paraphrased from memory): “…you eat that animal that was raised on a farm. It spent its whole life locked in a cage or trapped behind a fence. this deer [venison stew he’d brought to share] lived in the wild. It got the chance to be a deer. Now you tell me which is worse, the animal that dies on the farm, or the animal that lived in the wild?”
At the time I thought he’d made sense in a very important way. It wasn’t about whether or not humans lived up to their predatory nature by eating the flesh of other animals. It was only partially an issue of quantity – do we eat entirely too much meat? What was at the core of the issue of animal rights was the quality of life as dictated by the animal’s ability to live within its own birthright, as an animal. Being hunted is part of the deer’s life experience, just as hunting is part of the life experience of a wolf, cougar or bear. By trapping animals in cages and pens, we remove their ability to live and die, according to their own nature.
This long-ago argument kept resurfacing in my memory as I read this article. The author provides some heartbreaking descriptions of cruelty toward animals at the hands of researchers. It was hard to pull out quotes because my heart kept going out to the animals described in the story. I wanted to heal their pain and set them free to experience the life, pleasure, hardship, and pain that an animal deserves to experience – the life they were meant to live as the creature they were made to be.
However, the core of that cruelty seemed to be based on the human perceptions, and individual arrogance, about the nature of both animals and humans. The following quotes (hopefully) illustrate that lack of respect for the animals subjected to research and lack of understanding of both human and animal nature.
“Speculation on the origin of human language was long discouraged among linguists; inquiry into the subject was formally banned by the Société de Linguistique de Paris in 1866, and the taboo thereby established persisted for nearly a century.”
““What makes us human?” The way we phrase the question—which presupposes that the answer must be a definite thing we possess—tends to make language the most satisfactory answer.”
“There is something glib and thoughtless about bestowing on another conscious being a pun for a name. Glibness and thoughtlessness, as one sees in the documentary, are just a couple of Terrace’s winning traits, and Nim Chimpsky’s name was only the first indignity in a life full of indignity and suffering, which is the main subject of Marsh’s film.”
“We enjoy mocking that sliver of biological difference between us and chimpanzees. Yet anyone who has ever looked with curiosity and respect into the face of a chimpanzee has seen a presence there. If we abandon the notion that language is necessarily the bedfellow of consciousness, we get a better understanding of ourselves, while our relationship to the other beings we share this planet with becomes more enlightened, more humble, and more humane.”
“The Last Distinction,” by Benjamin Hale – An entry in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, Edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee