Pet Peeves with a Beastly Bias

Some Arbiters Put Humans in Second Place

LONDON, NOV. 30, 2002 ( Stories of poverty in Third World countries are common enough, but acquire a new dimension when contrasted with the enormous sums being spent on animal care.

On Nov. 20 a report published by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank made a dramatic appeal for additional funds to ensure vaccinations for poor children.

A press release on “The State of the World’s Vaccines and Immunization” report warned that “if urgent and strategic action is not taken to close the gaps in funding, research and global immunization coverage, the world will see the reintroduction of old diseases and the emergence of new infections.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only half the children have access to basic immunization against common diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, tetanus and whooping cough. “In many regions of the world,” explained Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization, “it is more the rule than the exception for children to die of common childhood conditions such as measles, which alone causes about 700,000 deaths a year.”

Foreign aid to developing countries for immunization now amounts to about $1.56 billion a year. With $250 million more a year, at least 10 million more children would be reached with basic vaccines. And a further $100 million a year would cover the cost of newer vaccines, including those for hepatitis B and Hib, or Haemophilus influenzae type B. The report estimates that every year these two diseases cause almost a million deaths among children.

The same day the press release was published, the Associated Press reported on how pets in Palm Beach, Florida, were about to have their very own society magazine. The new publication is designed “to chart the season’s biggest canine social events, the latest designs in dog beds and the general comings and goings that make pedigreed purebreds the talk of weekly grooming sessions.”

The glossy Palm Beach Pet Society is edited by Joanne Cutner, who, according to the report, wants to make sure the animals are treated as well as their owners. Palm Beach pets already attend lavish $1,000-plus birthday parties and are adorned with $75 designer collars, $100 sweaters and even pricier diamond and pearl jewelry.

And then there is health insurance. In Canada, the National Post newspaper reported Aug. 1 that pet owners are now taking out policies for about $15 a month. The policies would pay up to $3,100 or more, if, say, an animal were hit by a car.

The newspaper quoted a May 2001 estimate by a Euromonitor report that less than 1% of the 8.6 million dogs and cats in Canada are insured. This is far behind European countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, 13.2% of the 14.4 million dogs and cats are insured.

Randy Valpy, vice president and general manager of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Pet Plan Insurance, expects the number of insured pets in Canada to grow to 11% within 25 years. Pet Plan estimates the Canadian pet health insurance market is capable of generating up to $222 million a year in gross premium income.

Kill the unborn, save the seals

Also on Nov. 20, a Rhode Island newspaper, The Narragansett Times, reported on a biomedical ethicist who called for the selective abortion of fetuses known to be handicapped.

Dan W. Brock, speaking at the University of Rhode Island’s 10th Honors Colloquium lecture, contended that society might be better off if it prevents the birth of blind and severely disabled children.

“It’s considered a misfortune to be born blind or with a serious cognitive disability,” he said. “But if it’s a bad thing for a born person, then why not prevent these conditions in someone who will be born?”

In his lecture titled, “Genetic Testing and Selection: A Response to the Disability Movement’s Critique,” Brock said he upholds the “full and equal moral status” of disabled people. Yet, he added, “we should distinguish between preventing people from becoming disabled from preventing the existence of disabled people.” Brock works for the Department of Clinical Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

He justified aborting children by saying it would result in “less suffering and loss of opportunity in the world.”

Not so for animals, some say. The Independent newspaper of London reported Oct. 22 about animal rights activists who protested plans to kill a group of sick seals.

Originally, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, hoping to reduce the spread of the phocine distemper virus, had organized six marksmen to shoot the sick seals. The idea was to kill the animals before they could infect other seals. Scotland is home to around 80% of the UK’s seal population of 150,000, so a spreading infection could wreak havoc.

But Les Ward, of the group Advocates for Animals, wants special holding pens for the infected seals, while they recover from the disease. Ross Flett of the Orkney Seal Rescue Center also opposed killing off the sick animals.

Distressed chickens

A pro-beast bias also appears in the cinema. The British daily Guardian reported Oct. 23 that the country’s censors have approved, uncut, the rape scene portrayed in Gaspar Noe’s film “Irréversible.” The film is due out next spring. The author of the article, who defends the use of the scene, notes that the film “has been described as a misogynistic, repulsively sensationalist, gratuitous and grotesque example of ‘directionless machismo.'”

In an Oct. 21 press release, the British Board of Film Classification justified allowing the rape scene saying it “contains no explicit sexual images and is not designed to titillate.”

When the film was screened during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was so shocking that 250 people walked out, BBC reported May 26. As well, fire wardens had to administer oxygen to 20 people who fainted during the film. Some critics who walked out of the screening of “Irréversible” described it as “sick” and “gratuitous,” BBC noted.

Yet, while it deemed a violently graphic rape scene fit for moviegoers, the same British Board of Film Classification had serious qualms about animal welfare.

The Telegraph newspaper on Nov. 14 reported that the film board and lawyers had a heated argument over a scene in John Malkovich’s film “The Dancer Upstairs,” due to be screened at the London Film Festival.

The film is based on a novel that describes how the Shining Path guerrillas destabilized Peru during the 1980s and 1990s. The Maoist guerrillas would often attach explosives to animals, and then blow them up in crowded areas.

The board was particularly worried about two scenes in the film, showing a chicken and a dog with fake sticks of dynamite tied to them. The animals are shown walking into crowds, but the film changes scene before the explosions commence. The board said the animals were “clearly distressed,” and that it would not grant a certificate unless both scenes were cut.

The Telegraph noted it was curious that the board made no complaint about other scenes in the film depicting children similarly strapped with explosives. Malkovich wondered if the censors had consulted a chicken psychiatrist before concluding that the bird was distressed. After a long debate, the board approved the film, without cuts to the animal scenes.

Society “should be animated by a just hierarchy of values,” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No 1895. It seems that quite a few are in urgent need of a refresher course on this subject.

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