Humans are pretty darn superior — from a human’s perspective. :)
Even objectively, it’s hard to argue against the fact that we’ve pretty much taken over the planet. For better or worse, we’re running the show. That means we’re ‘superior’ to animals in the sense that, at the very least, we have power over them and will decide their fates.
When I have power over someone else, there are different ways I can react to that power imbalance. I can take advantage of this imbalance by ‘using’ the other person, but I can also leverage my power to show mercy and protect those who are unable to protect themselves.
If I found an abandoned newborn kitten, my immediate reaction would be, “Oh no! Poor thing! Let me wrap you in a blanket and get you to safety!” not, “Oh, awesome! This kitten is totally defenseless and clearly not as smart and sophisticated as I am. I’m going to kill and eat it.” If somebody reacted in the latter way, it would be a felony in most states. However, as illustrated by this image (which sadly turned up when I searched for “cute pig”), many of us actually do react that latter way to seeing a newborn piglet.
If someone is violent toward a defenseless person, or to a companion animal, we see this behavior as heinous and have outlawed it. Meanwhile, the same behavior toward certain other animals is not only legal — it’s a profitable industry that kills billions of animals every year in the US alone.
Why this huge disconnect? We can “thank” the phenomenon known as speciesism, which holds that killing certain mammals is a felony, but killing others is lunch.
I recently saw a social media post about a pig in my town who had escaped from the yard of the woman who had adopted him. (Pigs are smart and curious, so they can pull some serious Houdini moves despite their caretaker’s best efforts.) The woman was desperately trying to determine if anyone had seen her pig, or knew of his latest whereabouts. Eventually, people in her neighborhood did spot her pig, and here’s a picture of what they posted. If they had followed through on their threats, would they have faced legal animal cruelty ramifications, as they would for killing another species of companion animal? Or is cruelty to a pig impossible, since we also pay companies to kill them for food? Luckily a kind person found her pig and kept him safe until she could come pick him up. Imagine if when your dog got out, you had to worry that your neighbors would gleefully kill and eat him. Yikes.
When we look at other cultures’ speciesism, we get a glimpse of how arbitrary our own speciesism is. Americans were in an uproar protesting China’s dog meat festival, and images of the dogs being prepared for food were widely described in the media as ‘heartbreaking’ or ‘horrifying.’ Meanwhile, pictures from a barbecue festival that depict pigs being prepared for food are described as a ‘treat for the senses.’ Why is one heartbreaking, but the other is appetizing? It’s totally arbitrary. It’s speciesism. It’s a failure of our empathy that our hearts break for these dogs, but not for these pigs. If we humans really want to show that we are superior beings, then surely we can do better.
I really do think that humans are pretty darn impressive, and that our species can show a great capacity for intelligence and wisdom — which is why I don’t understand why we can’t manage to extend our empathy beyond only cats and dogs. While I’m thrilled that we’ve come to understand that harming cats and dogs is cruel, and have made it illegal, it breaks my heart that we have failed to come to this understanding with other beings. Even if we aren’t capable of accepting them into our hearts, the least we can do is be kind enough to leave them off of our plates.