English 103 – The Caged Do Scream

The Caged Do Scream

A being is trapped in a too-small container. The smell of blood is in the air, along with the stench of ammonia and other chemicals. The being is trembling, eyes wide, flinching away from any sign of movement toward it’s container. Imagine this being is a rat. Now, a rabbit. Now imagine it is a dog. A monkey… A human being.

When, in the previous paragraph, did you feel yourself react? Was the simple term “being” enough to elicit a response? According to Peter Singer, in his essay Animal Liberation, it should have been.  As Singer cites in his essay, the question of how nonhumans should be treated is not “can they talk?” or “can they reason?” but rather, is “can they suffer.” Singer spends the majority of his essay, citing examples that illustrate this point, and there are more than enough proofs to make this claim valid.

How do we tell if another creature is in pain? According to Singer, “Pain is something one feels, and one can only infer that others are feeling it from various external indications” (201). If a human being is cut and screams in pain, is this any more or less of an indication that a rabbit, exhibiting the same “symptom,” IE, screaming and bleeding, is also in pain? Personal experience has taught me that a rabbit (a common medical and scientific research creature) not only can feel pain, but can react in a quite human way. When I was growing up, I had a pet rabbit. After we had him for several years, he jumped wrong and unfortunately broke something in his back. This did not kill him, though he could not move. And when we attempted to move him to take him to the vet, the scream that he let out rivaled that of the fabled bean sidhe, or banshee. Eerily human sounding, the scream was an obvious indication of pain. If a rabbit can scream in pain, should we not take the yelping of a dog, or the squealing of a rat the same way? As Singer puts it, “the ground for inferring that these animals can feel pain are nearly as good as the grounds for inferring other humans do” (201).

Despite the evidence that nonhumans feel pain just as humans do, there is a majority that would argue that they are still not human, and therefore do not deserve the same consideration we give our own species. Singer’s essay brings up a valid point, when he argues that a human infant is likewise incapable of speech, and can only communicate through a varied exposition of body language and facial expression – no different from how most of our nonhuman cohabitants of this planet communicate with one another. Does this make it “right” to run these same experiments on a human child, simply because it is on the same level of brain development as these nonhuman test subjects? The majority of the populace would scream a resounding “no!” at this idea, however the experiments continue. As Singer put it,

“The experimenter, then, shows a bias for his own species whenever he carries out an experiment on a nonhuman for a purpose that he would not think justified him in using a human being at an equal or lower level of sentience, awareness, ability to be self-directing, etc. No one familiar with the kind of results yielded by these experiments can have the slightest doubt that if this bias were eliminated the number of experiments performed would be zero or very close to it” (207).

If the plight of nonhumans in a laboratory setting is not enough, we should consider the living condition of those creatures destined to end up on our dinner table. Their short lives are spent in confinement befitting already dead sardines, with no room even to turn around, and nothing comfortable to lay down on other than wire mesh that’s designed with the ease of cleaning in mind. These “factory farms” are perhaps the most blatant example of nonhumans being exploited. Laws are passed that are intended to make their short lives less miserable, and then the laws are summarily ignored or dismissed by a industry intent on the ease of cleaning and the speed of production.

Ultimately, Singer’s essay is, as he put it, “a challenge to every human to recognize their attitudes toward nonhumans as a form of prejudice no less objectionable than racism or sexism” (210). This “speciesism” is rampant in modern society, and while there are obvious issues with applying this thought process to every interaction between humans and nonhumans (rats biting slum children is mentioned in the essay, and perhaps man-eating sharks and big cats should be considered as well), this essay is a well thought out and thought provoking argument that we should be giving more consideration to the plight of nonhumans under our care.

After all, just because it is covered in fur an cannot speak, does not mean that it cannot feel pain… or that it cannot scream.