The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Facing Our Singular and Collective Inhumanity

DEAR READERS: I am sickened by the daily news reports -- as well as the long history -- of our cruel mistreatment of our own kind, and of other species. The all-too-common phrases “treated like an animal” and “they behaved like animals” also offend me. I have a doctoral degree in ethology -- the science of animal behavior -- and take offense at this demeaning of animals, many species of which have highly ritualistic behaviors to avoid harming each other and establish bonds of trust.

In actuality, we humans are behaving like the animals we are: aggressive, carnivorous primates with all the existential fears of sentient life compounded by arrogance -- believing we are the superior of all species -- and by xenophobia, fear and hatred. In his book “On Aggression,” the late Konrad Lorenz, M.D. -- Nobel laureate and my friend -- made it very clear that for our own good and the good of all life on Earth, we must recognize and better control our instinctual impulses that can lead to aggression, violence and inhumanity.

Treating humans “like animals” implies a cultural acceptance of animal cruelty. This is inevitable in a society where millions of animals are slaughtered for human consumption. The sheer scale of producing and processing these animals to meet market demand makes humane regulations impossible to enforce, along with worker-safety precautions.

A metanoia -- a revolutionary turnaround of human civilization, calling for justice for all our human and non-human relations -- is coming. Witness the globally nascent reverential respect for all life, along with concerted efforts to protect, heal and save. Even so, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., warns us of becoming “socialized to evil.” As empathy and compassion are severed from our relationships, there is dehumanization and de-animalization: animals treated as non-feeling automatons. So we destroy our roots, and this pathology of anomie -- from the Greek word meaning “lawlessness” -- ascribes a sense of rootlessness in society today.

Enthusiasm for environmental and social justice is the sustaining power for what we believe in: a shared spirit of divine inspiration, and a sense of the sacred in all creatures. Such enthusiasm is the antidote to depression, fatalism and despair for many, especially those suffering existential environmental despair and those who feel burned out helping save animals wild and domestic from extinction and cruelty.

DEAR DR. FOX: Please, in light of the hysteria, rumor, exaggeration and general craziness happening right now, be careful in implying that wild or domestic animals may someday carry COVID-19. This could lead to pets being abandoned by people who come to see them as a threat to their health. I know you didn’t actually say that, but things are so edgy and there is so much misinformation out there right now.

If it does become a problem, then address it, and even then, do so carefully so you don’t panic anyone. -- P.W., West Palm Beach, Florida

DEAR P.W., Your cautionary note needs to be highlighted for all concerned -- especially the ignorant and terrified who, as in Peru, started the mass killing of bats in March until their government intervened. Bats help protect people from several insect-borne diseases such as Zika, West Nile virus and dengue fever. These are now coming to the U.S., gift-wrapped in our abuse and disregard for wildlife habitat protection and stewardship. Our public health services should be more engaged with other agencies in protecting the natural environment, the health of which determines our own health.

I have mentioned countless times how cats, especially black cats, were blamed and persecuted for the Black Death pandemic that swept across Europe in the Middle Ages, killing an estimated one-third of the human population. Yet it was spread mainly by fleas and lice.

Some companion animals have already been abandoned by owners paranoid about COVID-1. Such irrational behavior, to which we are becoming desensitized at the highest levels of government, is consonant with the evocative language of fear and retribution: We are encouraged to “wage war against this invisible enemy” and “take this adversary down.” Public concern about a few cats and dogs getting COVID-19 from infected humans calls for responsible quarantining and testing, not abandonment and extermination.

Some say I am becoming too political in my columns, but we all must! Animals and the environment have been excluded for too long. But thanks to the work of nonprofit organizations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Environmental Defense Fund, animal and environmental protection are now on the agenda of civil society. Relevant laws are becoming part of the curriculum in law schools and universities around the world.

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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