Who killed compassion?

Charlotte's Web

You are 5 years old and you are sobbing uncontrollably baffled, devastated, horrified that something so cruel could be happening. The ground is covered in snow, the birds are singing a chirpy little tune and then all of a sudden your world is torn apart… Bambi the talking deer’s Mum has been shot dead by a hunter.

PETA provide a list of films that teach children to be compassionate towards animals. I doubt whoever compiled this list had a particularly difficult task. Family friendly films seem to almost primarily teach compassion and empathy, especially towards animals. Who can forget that heartbreaking, stomach sinking moment in Charlotte’s Web when Wibur realizes he will one day be made into bacon? Or poor little Babe’s naive faith that Farmer Hoggett would never dream of eating him. Or Chicken Run; even though they were just a bunch of talking cartoon chickens that didn’t look a whole lot like chickens I think we’d have all liked to think they were just ‘going on the holidays’ when the farmer picked them off one by one to be made into pie.

And then there’s the time Nemo gets stolen from his Dad or when Dumbo’s Mum the circus elephant gets beaten for trying to protect her baby. Then there’s Watership Down, The Fox and the Hound, 101 Dalmations, Madagascar… all seemingly demonstrating the same ethos: animals are worthy of human compassion.

I suppose there is a second way of looking at this. Perhaps these films are just pandering to emotions that are inherent in most children. There’s a certain thought experiment that is simple but important when considering whether compassion towards animals is innate…

If you put a young tiger in a pen with say… a baby rabbit, what can we expect to happen? The likelihood is the tiger will, at least attempt to, kill the rabbit. If you do the same with a young child, what is most likely to happen? The child will probably show a strong interest in the rabbit, stroking its fur, giggling maybe prodding it a bit but certainly will not pick it up, put it in its mouth and tear open its throat.

As children, we are compassionate. We mostly enjoy the company of animals and we enjoy stories where animals are our friends. So why do we live in a society in which only a small percentage of adults choose compassion? How have we become so comfortable with the mass, unnecessary slaughter of animals or the needless suffering of animals in the dairy, cosmetic and fashion industry? And more importantly why are we so able to collectively ignore what is going on?

Speaking in the documentary film ‘The Ghosts in our Machine’ Photographer and animal rights activist Jo Anne McArthur says:

‘I truly believe that it’s innate, that we’re all compassionate and that if we’re given the opportunity to care we will’

With this, I couldn’t agree more which has lead me to consider a final more sinister  thought when about what kills, or at least masks, our empathy towards animals.

Perhaps these films aren’t meant to teach or mirror compassion. Perhaps they serve the purpose of preparing children to live in a society where cruelty is everywhere so we must learn to protect ourselves from it, to build up that barrier that allows us to ignore it and therefore allows it to continue. Perhaps PETA have it all wrong, perhaps when we mourned Bambi’s mother as children we learned how to develop that thick skin that so many of us wear today.


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