An analysis of 'the status of animals'

The status of animals is not an innate constant such as eye color or build, but a social-cultural characteristic that can be awarded or taken away. As a cultural group, we decide how high this status is. It's also a gradual concept. A higher or lower status can be awarded, contrary to the concept of "intrinsic value" that may or may not be recognized in animals. It's impossible to say about an animal that it has a little intrinsic (or self) value. People, animals and objects can gradually be awarded more or less status. At the top of these gradations there is sometimes a transition. When a musician, a horse or an old house gradually grow in status, it may be that after a certain "threshold value" they gain an untouchable super status: rock stars, dressage horses, monumental buildings. This top status receives a lot of attention and sometimes veils the gradual character of the concept of status. Thirdly, status is a relative concept. I award a different status to the teacher of my 7-year-old son than my son does himself. Underneath are text fragments from the speech by , given on 1st April 2000, on his acceptance of the office of extraordinary Professor Animal Testing Issues at the Faculty of Animal Medicine of the Utrecht University.
Researchers award a lower status to a laboratory rabbit than other people do to their pet rabbits. A sociologist sees behavior changes when people of different status meet. The behavioral scientist sees status differences in social animals such as people and wolves, which incite submissive or dominant behavior. Meeting people of the same status, however, does not lead to behavioral changes, we act as we normally do. Realizing that status has no absolute size but that it is a cultural group phenomenon, means that people in a subculture who think animals have a low status (poultry farmers, animal testers) have just as few "solid" arguments as those in a subculture who award a higher status to animals (animal protectors). As long as these two cultures remain strictly separated by laboratory walls, any meeting between them will lead to a culture shock, and as a consequence will at least incite avoidance behavior. People will keep their mouths shut outside the laboratory and at the next family gathering. Legislators were wondering whether animal status could also be improved in the field of biotechnology. The interesting thing about the concept of status is that it is dynamic. The status of a top researcher or top institute may plummet when news of unethical behavior such as fraud and plagiarism reaches the outside world. And inversely, a biotechnologically altered bull can grow into the Dutch media hype "Bull Herman" for which the government eventually determined that it can't be butchered like any normal bull.

What determines this dynamic status?

An animal's status is determined by four variables: a historical/cultural component, the personal bond, knowledge about the animal and the abundance of the species. S = f (H + (P+K)/A) Let me briefly exemplify this. There are cultures and practices in which a certain animal "as a matter of course and over many years" gains a higher or lower status. Stephen R. Kellert did a lot of research in the US into this cultural valuation. You all know the examples of the holy cows in India, the holy cats and crocodiles in Egypt, and the spider Anansi in Africa. But there are also "pariahs" under the cultural images of animals, such as rats and spiders in Europe. People are born into a cultural framework and through fairy tales, cartoons and computer games children learn the status belonging with every animal species. This background value is used in resonance with the environment to develop variations. Pets that people bond with gain a higher status than other people's pets. P for personal bond A bond is a contract that creates mutual obligations. The philosopher Levinas said that ethics finds its roots in encounters with others. In instances where these meetings go beyond mere eye contact I surrender my own selfish freedom to the influence of this other. I allow the other to manipulate my emotions. The other also opens his defensive cover and knowingly becomes vulnerable to my enrichment. Encounters change people. Several encounters create a bond, a relationship, a contract of mutual taming.

K for Knowledge

There are also animals to which we do not ascribe a historical status and with which we do not have a bond through direct experience. But it's remarkable that having knowledge about the lives of certain animals can help them gain a higher status. Stephen R. Kellert did research in the seventies to find out whether systematically low-scoring animal species could gain more status by introducing e.g. spiders to children in grade schools during their Natural History lessons. It turned out to be possible to increase an animal's status through education. This places animal experimenters in a strange process. Their own research generates much knowledge about the animals. The literature that positions their own research compared to other research in the world accumulates in the minds of the biologists. The more they know about the complexity of animals, the more researchers esteem the animals, and the less they will be inclined to handle them "carelessly". The animals gain status. But this representation is less appropriate in the case of molecular biologists. On the one hand their focus is on detailed processes within the cells, and they will develop a respect for cellular mechanisms. On the other hand they only rarely meet genetically modified mice. Rearing them is done by animal keepers, and the biologist often only studies the animal's tissues through his microscope lens. The image is also less appropriate to animal experimenters in medical studies. For them people, mainly as patients, are the points of reference. The animal only has value when it succeeds in mimicking a human property. More knowledge on lethal forms of colon cancer (in transgenic mice - genetically altered to allow the growth of human tumor cells) generated a respect for the mechanism of human cancer cells. It didn't so much increase the status of mice, it may even have decreased it, because mice are "only" the carriers of the cells. A for Abundance There's an interesting psychological phenomenon that also determines the dynamic of an animal's status. As soon as we hear that there are only a few specimens of a certain type of animal left, this species' status skyrockets. A variation on this phenomenon appears with the status difference between originals and copies. Copies of masterpieces in art are awarded a lower status. Their numbers appear to be an important variable for status. Endangered species may count on a higher status than those who are not endangered. Animals that have large litters several times a year, such as mice and rats, are marked as pests. They are outlaws, and hunting them seems to hardly affect their species. This is completely different with animals that only bear a single young when they reach a late age (lions, elephants, orang-utangs, whales). The death of a single parent or young can endanger the entire group. The WWF is very active for these vulnerable animals.

What does this dynamic mean for the future?

We have entered the age of information technology. The knowledge scientists and biologists are collecting about animals is growing every day. This knowledge is now being spread to citizens and students at a much higher speed than twenty years ago, thanks to popular science magazines (New Scientist, Nature and Technology) and scientific sections of newspapers, and of course Discovery Channel and the Internet. If there are any animals left about which no fascinating reports on their lives have been written, this will surely come in the next fifty years. This trend shows us that cumulative knowledge will increase the status of all animals. Fifty years ago it was possible to freely use DDT to fight malaria in Africa. Nowadays this is a classic example of simplistic thinking. Of course, DDT kills mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite. But now we know so much about the network in which parasite, mosquito, man, resistance and immune systems modulate each other, that a reasoning of linear cause and effect is deemed outmoded and simplistic. However, the philosophical consequences of the network approach are that the status of the smallest animals is elevated to an essential link in the survival of the known top scorers in the animal kingdom. Think about the role of krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans) in the polar seas that are essential to the survival of whales. If there were something I would stake my life on, it would be the certainty that in the next fifty years Holland and Europe will be urbanized even further. What is left of nature will be shifted more and more to national park management. The question is whether even Africa and South-America will still have wild areas. The movements of larger animals will be monitored from satellites, and Wild Life Rangers will guard ecological networks locally. There will be no question of wild animals. Just imagine. There will be a time when even wild animals will be comfortable with people driving, walking and videotaping around them. The category of "wild" animals will cease to exist. We will only be able to speak in a virtual sense about animals that, if we hadn't noticed and protected them, would have had the potential to become truly wild animals. But no animal will live that way. All animals are doomed to become "kept animals". The concept "kept animal" plays a part in judicial philosophy. The Flora & Fauna Law contains rules for handling wild plants and animals. The Health and Welfare Law for Animals contains rules for our handling of all kept animals. The former legislation will become increasingly empty in the coming years. Even migrating sandpipers in a borderless Europe will be regarded as protected animals that fly from reservation to reservation along biological main structures. Already, ornithologists have a bond with recaptured birds they ringed the previous year as "wild birds". The thought that people in other countries may shoot down "their" birds during their migration and eat them makes their blood boil. In this sense, the bond between an ornithologist and his ringed birds leads to the same emotions you would be experiencing when some brute poisons your pet. Maybe you want to interject that there is a difference between a personal bond with a pet and a general feeling of responsibility for the survival of animals. Morally, this difference does not exist. Morally, I would be outraged in both cases, because this bond, in the sense of 'you mean something to me in my life (and vice versa)', has been brutally trodden on by an unknown person. In neither case is it a question of a bird dying in France (or a cat in Amsterdam). No, it's my bird and my cat dying. In future, all animals will be my-animals for everybody.
Another indisputable prediction for this century is that the list of endangered species will only get longer. This will eventually also lead to all animals gaining a higher status. Dear listeners, in view of the demographic developments it is inevitable that the status of animals will keep increasing in the coming years, all the more because our knowledge of animals and their function in ecological networks keeps growing. At the same time, biodiversity and biomass of animals will constantly decrease. The remaining animals will be placed under the management of people, so humanity will integrally take up the function of animal protector in the coming century. But Holland also has two sectors in which the numbers of animals are kept large through breeding programs, where everything is done to prevent bonding with animals, and where a compromising increase of knowledge about species' needs is answered with programs to deselect these needs (minks, chickens) or to remove them from the animal through genetic engineering. In short: where every variable points to a lower status of the animals. I'm talking about the booming business of factory farming and biotechnology. And this while, please note, agricultural politics have been pursuing a policy for five years to shift production maximization towards durable agriculture, and the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, urged on by Parliament, has been aiming toward a decrease, replacement and refinement of animal testing for 15 years! Of course, economical forces are great in both sectors. But that is at most an explanation, it has nothing to do with justification. I do foresee two developments that will stop the current growth in the use of test animals. In the coming years, attention for the refinement of test installations in relation to tour de forces in genetic modification will lead to completely new types of test animals and installations. In most cases of biomedical testing the animals should hardly have to notice that they are being tested on. At a subtle detection level, small changes in the genome of mice will supply a lot of information about the non-pathological dynamics of physiological processes. The extreme pathology we know now in classic animal testing will no longer be as necessary, because our knowledge of mechanisms at a molecular level will increase. Research questions will increasingly be asked at that level, and this will remove the need for painful symptoms as a necessary end. Eventually, it's conceivable that animal testing will become redundant because molecular diagnoses, direct therapy and monitoring inside patients themselves will become possible. The risk of suffering, against which vulnerable test subjects are protected by the Nuremberg code and the Declaration of Helsinki, will be greatly reduced. In this sense I would like to start a dialogue between the medical ethical committees and the animal experiment committees about the real added value and risks of animal and human testing in the transition to clinical trials. Animals and patients can benefit when the unnecessary parts of animal testing are skipped. I also foresee that genetic modification as a new technology will break free from laboratories and will significantly change the agrarian sector (factory farming, fur, recreational animals). But it will not be restricted to this sector. Pets, released animals "gone wild" and finally even people will become modified. Of course, some researchers and farmers will be inclined to anachronistically invoke traditional values and historical rights (the right to hunt, to wear fur, to the inheritance of agricultural businesses, to fishing with live bait, to cancer research with mice). But still people would be wise to anticipate more on the increase of the status of animals in our society. It's today's young researchers that will be called to account in fifty years. A survey by our own department has shown that today's researchers and research management do not score high in transparence in the area of transgenic animals. They would rather invest in research than in welfare monitoring and animal care. This is understandable from a short-term viewpoint. In the long run grandchildren will question their grandparents on their past handling of animals. And then I guarantee that views on a "correct" handling of animals will be much more elevated than they are now.

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