By and large, in the eyes of the rest of the world, we’re considered to be benign and tolerant towards all forms of animal life. A recent news item that claimed that India had reported the largest number of bird species amongst all countries in the world, during the Great Backyard Bird Count, seems to reiterate this view. Certainly, we worship several species of animals and they figure in mythology: elephants, cows (which are numero uno), bulls, cobras, peacocks, monkeys, tortoises, tigers et al. There are even temples dedicated to rats (they eat up 20 per cent of our food-grain stocks), which give people in the western world delicious cheap thrill. My grandmother used to set aside small portions of every meal for sparrows, crows, cows, dogs, cats and any other denizen that was not getting enough. Also, most of us (present company excluded) are vegetarian.
But do we really like animals and are we really interested in them?
Feeding monkeys (who will rudely grab bananas from you and then bare their fangs as thanks), or rats or cows or elephants simply because you think you’ll make the gods happy — and they’ll shortcut your route to eternal bliss, or get you that Lamborghini you’re lusting after, or make you come first in your exam despite your abominable maths — is frankly bribery. At best, it’s bartering for favours. You feed the animal or bird and the gods pay you back with success. But I do think that if you keep regularly feeding animals or birds, a certain relationship — dare I use that hideous word, “bond” — should develop because all too soon the animals in question will expect their goodies daily and will vociferously protest if you disappoint them by not showing up. But I’ve really never seen any PDA happening at this time. There’s none of that sugary, “come babies, come to mummy/daddy, there’s a good girl/boy, such a good girl/boy!” falsetto squealing that is so often emitted by animal lovers in the west. But then, I guess we’re bad at PDA amongst our own kind — and going all gooey over animals and birds in public might hurt the sentiments of some sensitive souls and oblige them to cause public disorder and disturbance. Usually, it’s a very practical businesslike operation — the birds or animals are called, the food is scattered, the emptied plastic packets thrown by the roadside and the benefactor hops on his scooter and is away. Done and dusted, till tomorrow.
Sometimes I wonder if this “tolerance” is simply due to the fact that if we weren’t “tolerant” and did not live and let live, we would spend all our lives trying to get rid of the multitude of creatures that share living space with us. And they outnumber and often outwit us in every department of the game, so we’re not going to win anyway. Probably this is truer in rural areas — Jim Corbett often wrote about villagers casually waiting beside a jungle path for a tiger to pass by, which it did without so much as a growl or a glare.
At the same time, we are viciously cruel to animals and this makes us probably amongst the worst offenders in this respect in the world. From “dancing” bears, to de-fanged cobras, from flogging ponies and bullocks till they collapse to stoning stray dogs and now, leopards to death, it happens every day. It horrifies people from the West. Ah, but who are they to talk — they aimed for mass extermination — be it of bison, wolves, passenger pigeons, (our) big cats, and even “native” peoples, for no other reason than they wanted everything for themselves, or just got their kicks killing on a mass scale. Better sense has since prevailed, but there’s still a distressing tendency to get rid of a problem (an ill or injured or traumatised or violent animal) by shooting it straightaway. Really, all over the world, our relationship with the animal world has been bipolar — no wonder they’re wary of us! You can keep a tiger as a pet in America — and never mind if it eats your face, but if your Chihuahua nips your neighbour’s barn-sized bum, it’ll immediately be “put down humanely”.
What really says it all is this: Dogs, it is generally agreed, is “man’s best friend”. And yet, what do film heroes spit while dispatching the villain?
“S O B! Die like a dog!”
Figure it out.
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Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature