The death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala has led to widespread outrage. While the incident is doubtless tragic, several debates have emerged over it. The first is whether the elephant was fed the pineapple with explosives that killed it or if it ate the fruit which was actually meant for wild boars. Some insist that the intention makes a difference while others say that since the fruit was anyway meant for an animal, it does not mitigate the brutality.
Before we plunge into what happened in Kerala, it is useful to examine our attitudes towards animals in general. I do not mean wildlife experts and conservationists but people like you and me, people who are outraging on social media, even calling for the yet to be identified perpetrators to be shot.
Our emotions towards animals are governed mostly by four factors a. how much we can anthropomorphize them (meaning, attribute human qualities and feelings to them) b. how useful they are to humans (meaning, how we can exploit them for our benefit) c. how rare a species they are (meaning, we feel guilty and anxious that they're disappearing because of us) and d. how much of a threat they are to humans (meaning, we are either afraid of them or consider them to be pests). By and large, our relationship with the animal world is about ourselves. Not what the animal wants or needs.
For instance, even as the pregnant elephant makes headlines, we are eagerly sharing news about the coronavirus vaccine trials on monkeys. There might be a few animal rights organisations which protest the vaccine trials too, but this is a slim percentage of the population. Most people would agree that the trials are necessary before human subjects are used. We believe that some form of cruelty is all right because it is for a cause. But the question is, does it make a difference to the animal? Does it make a difference to a monkey whether it was killed so human lives could be saved or if it was killed for a human's amusement? The nobility of the action is decided by human society, and our attitude towards the animal's suffering changes accordingly. Our laws and rules about animal rights too are mostly framed keeping these factors in mind.
In the elephant's case, the death is viewed as "unnecessary" since it did not add to the betterment of human lives. Further, it matters that the animal which died was an elephant, a majestic and much loved beast, which is also worshiped as the beloved Ganesha. The visuals of the great being in pain moved us because of the emotional relationship we share with the species. If a wild boar, for which the fruit was originally meant according to many, had died in a similar fashion (and they have been dying in a similar fashion for years), it's doubtful that there would have been so much outrage from the general public. The fact that the elephant was pregnant has made us even more angry about what happened because the family is the fundamental unit of human society, and we place motherhood on a pedestal. The Asian elephant is classified as endangered and this death adds to our guilt about what we have done to the planet though we're unlikely to make drastic changes to our lifestyles to save it. It is very much all about us.
It may seem that I'm indulging in whataboutery and perhaps I am. But I think this is one instance where whataboutery is necessary to make us place the issue in context. It is important to examine how we define "unnecessary" animal cruelty and who gets to outrage about it. Traps and snares like the stuffed pineapple, though illegal, are common in Indian forests. People use them to kill animals for their meat and to protect their fields from being destroyed. Sometimes, animals other than the target — like tigers, leopards and this elephant — die too. These incidents of human-animal conflict are not unusual in areas where people live on the margins of forest land, and conservationists and forest officials try to work with the local population by educating them and coming up with other solutions. This is important work that must be done and there's no denying that.
What, however, seems hypocritical, is for the urban populace which does not have to deal with the real challenges of living in such areas, to call other, less privileged humans, names. Bird species have been steadily declining from urban spaces because of habitat destruction (meaning, we have taken over their homes). We have normalised the cruelty of the dairy and meat industries to deliver our food at our doorstep. We do not see the irony in crying over the pregnant elephant's death while drinking a cup of coffee with rich cow's milk. No, I'm not vegan. I enjoy my dairy products and eat meat nearly every day, but it is because I'm conscious of what I do on a daily basis that I cannot bring myself to flagellate other humans for similar actions.
Moreover, Hindutva groups have latched on to reports which wrongly said that the elephant was found in Malappuram, a Muslim majority district in Kerala. But, the elephant was found in Valliyar river in Palakkad; it could have been killed by a snare kept by anyone in either of these districts. These groups see no contradiction in using their 'love' for an animal to generate hate against a human community.
As we speak, officials in Kerala are investigating if the elephant was deliberately fed the pineapple or if it was originally meant for a wild boar. For most of us, the intention and the target will change how we feel about the incident. For the elephant and the wild boar though, it doesn't change a thing. It will do us well to understand this.
Views expressed are author's own.