It was the swat heard ‘round the world: President Obama caused something of an international incident when he killed a fly during a CNBC interview on Tuesday. I like to think of it as a sign of the times that the life—and death—of a fly registered, at least for a moment, on the public consciousness.
While we all may argue ‘til we’re blue in the face over when and if it is justifiable to swat a fly or shoot a rampaging bear, there are millions of animals out there who will never, ever cause us a moment’s irritation or discomfort. Do we have the right to make their lives miserable simply because we can’t be bothered not to?This week, Sir Paul McCartney and his daughter Stella introduced the concept of "Meat-Free Mondays," coincidentally the same name as that of a program that PETA Europe is also working on in British schools. As a vegan who was once busily eating her way through the animal kingdom, from mussels to calf's brains on toast, it's a message that I wish I'd heard far earlier, just as I wish that when I wore my first fur coat, there had been an animal rights activist there to hand me a card saying, "Your coat was stolen from its original owners." Thirty years ago, a good animal rights "nag" was hard to find.Some people had figured it out though. Back in 1977, a young man was charged with freeing a dolphin named Puka from a laboratory isolation tank in a university in Hawaii and releasing him into the ocean off Maui. The man said that he had been driven to this desperate act, which cost him his career, by the attitudes of those around him in the science lab where he worked.At his trial, the man said this: "I came to realize that these dolphins were just like me. I watched the psychiatrists tormenting them and I watched the dolphins sink into deep depression, cut off from all that was natural and all that they had loved and wanted. I could not stand my own inaction any longer. I will go to jail with sadness that the world does not yet understand what I do ..."In the decades between then and now, that understanding of who animals are has changed, in part thanks to pioneers like Dr. Jane Goodall, who reversed science's deliberate attempt to depersonalize animals by daring to name the chimpanzee families and individuals she studied in the Gombe; Jacques Cousteau, who introduced us to the undersea world of the incredible "aliens from inner space," the squid and octopus; to Biruté Galdikas, who showed us video footage of young orangutans making umbrellas out of leaves with which to shelter from the rain; and so on. And every week, there is more reason to feel empathy for animals. A couple of months ago, we were treated to news reports that crabs can remember pain inflicted on them, and a couple of weeks ago, we learned that crows will not only find a piece of wire or a bendable twig but also can gauge how long it should be and at what angle to bend it so as to extract food from a hole in a tree trunk or a jar.I was in England a couple of weeks ago and, reading the Sunday paper, came across a curious remark from a dog walker. Remember that, contrary to what Buddhists would have you believe, he said, a dog is just a dog--"he will never write a great book or compose a great symphony." I question whether that columnist will ever write a great book or compose a great symphony, but one thing I know for sure is that he will never detect a cancerous tumor with his nose, and he certainly wouldn't be able to find his way home over hundreds of miles without the benefit of a GPS, a map, a street sign or advice from another human being. Perhaps what separates humans from other animals is the desperate quest that our species has to find something that distinguishes us from the other animals. To add to Rodney King's "Can't we all just get along?" maybe the next question should be "Can't we all just see ourselves as one of many musicians in a vast orchestra, no more special than the others?"The place to start can be the breakfast table. As the philosopher Peter Singer said, "The way most people interact with animals is three times a day, when they eat them." Although more people are downloading PETA's free "Vegetarian Starter Kit" (at PETA.org) than ever before and vegan cookbooks are flying off the shelves, it is nevertheless a sorry reflection on the ability of most otherwise caring people that they can read an article about pigs' intelligence, a hen's fierce maternal protectiveness, or a lamb's natural playfulness but not connect it to the animals' terrifying and painful experience on factory farms, in transport trucks, and in slaughterhouses when they step up to the supermarket freezer case.The wonderful thing is that it's so incredibly easy to be kind. Today, I marvel at the vegan foods in the supermarket, at the cruelty-free clothing choices in stores, and at the fantastic alternatives to dissection in schools, the modern ways to test medicines without killing rabbits and beagles, the many forms of entertainment involving purely human performers. Every animal has his or her story, his or her thoughts, daydreams, and interests. All feel joy and love, pain and fear, as we now know beyond any shadow of a doubt. All deserve that the human animal afford them the respect of being cared for with great consideration for those interests or left in peace. The wish of that young man who freed the tormented dolphin 30-odd years ago is coming true: More and more people understand that animals have their own languages, their own music, their own culture, and their own lives and that they are, in all the important ways, "just like us."Ingrid E. Newkirk is president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the author of the book The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights .