Attenborough's Africa: Why do we feel sorry for the animals on our screens, but not in our bellies?

Our tears over the plight of animals in Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries show a stark contrast to the lack of consideration for animals in our own kitchens

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"Of course I’ve been deeply moved and upset. How can you not be? You can’t watch a young gazelle being attacked by a cheetah, say, and eaten alive without being deeply moved. Because you’re human; we feel protective."

Sir David Attenborough’s emotional confession this week that he often cried over the fate of the animals in his programmes offered solace to those of us who have modestly shed a tear at the savage demise of many of the programme’s protagonists.

It must follow that what applies to a young gazelle being attacked by a cheetah and eaten alive, also applies to a young calf or piglet attacked in an abattoir and whose throat is slit while it is still alive. These animals feel just as much pain, in just the same excruciating way, and are just as deserving of our tears and sympathy. Yet there are no moving tirades for these animals, no TV hit series with emotive overtones and soundtracks in which moist eyed celebrities blink hard at the camera.

If the victims in our kitchens, the billion a year victims in our kitchens, are given any consideration at all, they are brushed over as if a necessity to survive an enduring famine, a third of which we then proceed to waste. The superiority of our unique race relinquishes any moral obligation and grants us the right to massacre on this scale. Or else a mere preferential taste that goes nicely with boiled new potatoes is all the justification required. The words ‘factory’ farms and live ‘stock’ illustrate to just what extent our view of these animals has been reduced to mere objects.

It is a lot easier this way, to regard certain animals not as living animals at all but inanimate objects, incapable of any meaningful life experiences, hurt or emotions. In a similar way, the sheer scale in which they are bred and reared detaches us from each single creature and suggests the suffering at an individual level is reduced. Yet, this, from Sir Paul McCartney, should serve as a poignant reminder, that the natural urge for self preservation is inherent within us all:

“I realised, I am killing him- all for the passing pleasure it brings me. And something inside me clicked. I realised, as I watched him fight for breath, that his life was as important to him as mine is to me’.

But why does something inside us click when it is depicted on a television screen transmitted from a remote corner on the other side of the world but not when it is in our own kitchen? How is it that the same horror, suffering and carnage that is embedded in our every day lives and in their most unimaginable proportions, fails to arouse the same emotional response? All these victims are living breathing feeling creatures whether they have trotters, hooves, horns or a snout, and all are as equally vulnerable as the gazelle. The deliberate brutality inflicted upon pigs, cows and sheep is every bit as violent and savage too.

The BBC’s epic blockbuster ‘Africa,’ fronted by Sir David Attenborough, has made headline news, pulling in record numbers of viewers moved by baby rhinos, ‘necking’ giraffes and swinging tamarins set in breathtaking landscapes. Eight million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode alone. Capturing the hearts of the audience is crucial at a time when reports of dwindling populations of wild species are flooding our inboxes. But the snuffles on our sofas are not bemoaning conservation failings or the toll on the delicate eco web of nature that each loss brings. These tears light up our illogical and discriminate sensitivities towards the suffering of other living creatures.

Overloaded livestock trucks pass by on their passage to death day in and day out. The lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep and the squealing of pigs fills the air, as does the fear and the sights of terrified eyes between the slats. Yet it would seem we don’t notice these live scenes of terror and death, not even when they are right before us. Instead we play high resolution digital images of wild animals in their final struggles for life to blubber over. It took over four years to collect the footage and produce the ‘Africa’ series, while back in the UK the Government refuses to install CCTV cameras in abattoirs.

“The problem is if you do anything you’ll almost certainly make it worse,” Sir David told Radio 5 Live. And here’s the tragic crunch. Expressing our concern and getting weepy over something we cannot make one iota of difference on is one thing. But when the responsibility stops squarely with us and we still choose to look the other way, this is something else altogether.

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