Last week I was supposed to write and deliver my weekly column, but I did not.
The day was dark and somber on March 20, 2018 – marking the first year of passing of my grandmother and the shocking news that day, that the vibrant, young, talented singer and friend to so many, Kak Channthy, was tragically killed in a road accident.
I knew Channthy, although not close, and the news that this person – always full of radiance – is no longer with us, struck my personal grieving for my grandmother too hard. The questions of personal relevance in the world, our place here, our purpose and what do we leave behind when we go, kept me awake.
I read and re-read eulogies delivered, and also written to my family when we lost my grandmother. And I have, for the first time, at least formally in my mind, realised that she was the original Animal Mama.
She spent years with me and my pets; giving medicine, from a little pipette, to my sick hamster who had a cough; fed every street dog we had in our neighborhood; and had come with me to ask our neighbors not to drown the newborn kittens, but instead give it to us for care (drowning newborns was a very common cat overpopulation control in the Soviet bloc in the 60’s and 70’s, and it made my grandmother look rather silly in the eyes of the community).
And I still remember how she had cried for years after a puppy called Aly she had rescued, raised and taught to search for me to entertain my four-year old “hide and seek” games, died from eating chicken bones he had stolen from the trash bin.
All these made me reflect on how we, normal regular folks, become altruistic, empathic, and kind towards each other and our animal friends. Why do some of us feel almost nothing when we see a dying kitten on the street, while others, from the same communities, countries, cultures, and religions would be willing to spend their last dollar on buying milk formula to feed and care for an orphaned puppy?
I firmly believe that the empathy and kindness towards animals and other humans, or the lack of it, is not exclusive to Cambodia. It is a global human problem. I will neither entertain nor support the snobby remarks of “missionary-style saviors” trying to teach “these people” on how to “become” empathic towards animals.
In my eight years in Cambodia, I have seen both extremes – needless violence towards animals and humans and altruism beyond any other, where empathy and kindness is shown to another being without any expectations of rewards.
It all goes back to my academic work on altruism as a fellow of The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, where one of my field of studies was in fact, psychology and the neuroscience of kindness.
Are animals capable of being empathic or is it exclusive to humans only? Are humans wired to be kind? Or are our brains naturally evolved to compete and survive against all odds? And most importantly, when there is a need for larger societal changes – at least where human and animal welfare is concerned – do we engage in the process of changing people to be more like us, educating them to know better or do we tap into what is already genetically wired within all of us to make a significant global difference?
Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal has always been, and still is, one of my greatest influences. He spent a lifetime trying to answer these questions through his extensive work and research – primarily on bonobos and chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives, and also studying fossil records of early hominids. His findings were groundbreaking and his unorthodox conclusions, when first published, stated that moral behavior in humans is not predicated on social influences or religion alone.
He showed how evidence of moral sentiments, like empathy and altruism, predate the advent of religion by millennia and co-evolved in non-human primates as well as in humans.
“Mammals have what I call an ‘altruistic impulse’ in that they respond to signs of distress in others and feel an urge to improve their situation,” writes de Waal.
“To recognise the need of others, and react appropriately, is really not the same as a preprogrammed tendency to sacrifice oneself for the genetic good… humanity cannot and will not change on a dime…we better get along with it and learn from it, even if our goal is ultimately to set out on a new course,” adds de Waal.
And as we learn and understand the world around us and as more studies confirm animal intelligence and feeling, the more evidence there is to “support a dichotomy rather than hierarchy of evolution”, for both, humans and animals.
Coming back to Cambodia and the animal welfare movement here today, I would argue that since altruism, empathy, and gratitude all underpin our moral behavior, finding them in our fellow mammals suggest that these are deeply wired into our own brain biology and did not develop as a result of moral reasoning or religion or culture.
Our attempt to change attitudes towards animals here and globally, especially towards homeless animals and wildlife, should rely on changing behaviors and attitudes not because we must and we know better, but because it is natural for all of us to be kind. If religion and social standards of morality developed because of our innate capacities for caring, our goal should be to tap into what is already biologically set in our human brains and go from there.
The paradigm of “give man a fish…teach man to fish” is in my opinion primitive and outdated when it comes to public education and attitude change. What we should try to do is to help people realise their own capacity for greatness, caring, kindness and how all these factors benefit our mutual long-term survival. This is what should underline our work of promoting and influencing behavior change towards animals.
The lives of my grandmother and Channthy remind me once again that even though we are witnesses to poverty, war and violence in our birth countries, and have different educational levels – they do not determine our attitudes towards others, whether animals or humans. We choose to be kind. And when our times comes, and we do leave this world, our legacy will remain from the choices we have made for generations to come.
“Some day we will die, Snoopy”, said Charlie. “But every other day we will live,” replied Snoopy.
Choose to live everyday so we can all live forever.
Animal Mama® Animal Clinic & Welfare Centre provides a wide range of services for animals & pets: vet care, boarding, daycare, pet food & supplies, hydrotherapy, grooming and doggy play dates.
Please visit us at:
Villa #15, Street 500
Toul Tom Pong, Phnom Penh 12311