News ID: 323576
Published: 1150 GMT August 18, 2022
Rotem Kowner on the survival of animal species:

Being cute is important but not enough

Being cute is important but not enough

1. In a few short decades, as you’ve pointed out, much attention has been focused on animals and their relationships with humans. There are ever-increasing concerns expressed about various aspects of their well-being, there is a “pet hype,” and we are much more worried about extinction of certain species. What do you think has been the driving force behind our “sudden” (in historical scales) spike of interest in animals?

Indeed, we find today far greater attention and public interest in animals and especially in their relations with humans, than in the past. This has to do with several reasons, of which the most important, in my view, is the growing awareness that humans are responsible for the lives and destiny of animals. During the last few decades, the scale of human control and exploitation of the earth has become so substantial that the fate of many species depends now on human behavior. Some argue that we are on the verge, or even in the midst, of a modern, man-made, sixth extinction. But, regardless if we agree with this provocative assertion, many of us have witnessed in our lifetime the disappearance of certain wild animals, often mammals, but also birds, fish, and reptiles, from our nearby surroundings.

Moreover, we are now raising and consuming far more domestic animals than ever. We also keep far more than pets, or companion animals, than ever, and for many of us, these assume cardinal importance in our life. It is widely believed, even among many scientists, that pets bring certain mental and physical health benefits to their owners. Altogether, it is no wonder then that in the last two decades, we have popularized the term Anthropocene (“the human period”) when describing the most recent geological epoch. This period dates from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. This impact has been particularly dramatic on the life of animals and, fortunately, we have begun recently to recognize it.


2. You have noted that “Asia has been a major site for the emergence of moral teachings and ethical guidance on the treatment of animals and on attitudes toward them,” whose legacy “still affects the lives of billions of humans to this very day.” But one might argue that in more contemporary times, the West has been the primary source of more “progressive” contemplative themes about animals. Would you agree with that argument? And if so, I wonder if, from your vantage point, it has something to do with civilizational preponderance?


I partly agree with this argument. The West is the one that leads today the moral attitude toward animals, both domestic and in the wild. At the same time, the West has also been leading in the destruction of animals. Europe is a case in point as many of the wild animals that used to live on this continent are long extinct. The West is also leading in breeding animals for various purpose and exploiting them systematically for their flesh, hides, or even reactions to scientific experiments. This dualism is not surprising as it can be found in anything the scientific revolution has brought about. Science is a blessing as well as a curse for humankind, and I think that in the West, as the main source of the scientific revolution in the past, there is greater awareness of this.

At the same time, the current position of the West should not let us forget Asia. I still believe that without the participation of this continent, and to a lesser extent also Africa, we cannot achieve a truly global change in the treatment of animals. With about 60 percent of the world population and with already predominant political and economic power, Asians are the ones to determine the future of human-animal relations. When it comes to animals, hereon, it is the turn of Asia to make a difference. As the inhabitants of the continent with the largest and fastest growing total consumption of animal products, with the fastest growing market of pets, and with the largest area of still unexploited wilderness and a large number of species of wild animals, Asians should reconsider their attitudes to animals. In this case, traditional moral teachings and ethical guidelines may be at least as valuable as recent trends imported from the West.


3. Second part of your book is dedicated to animals as food. How do you see the “animals as not food” movement, aka veganism? Is it pointing to the prevailing future we are going to ha


This question is relevant to my own research. Being a historian of modern Japan interested mainly in questions of ethnicity and wartime behavior, my initial concern with animals was purely serendipitous. When researching the Japanese encounter with the West, I found that during the late nineteenth century, the Japanese began to consume meat after more than a millennium of virtual taboo. The origin of this taboo is found in the seventh century, shortly after the introduction of Buddhism, and was associated with the slaughtering of draft animals. Scholars tend to explain the initial taboo as motivated by religion, but, in my view, it was mainly ecological. In the intensive agricultural society that developed in Japan by then, there was simply not enough food to maintain both humans and animals.

As a result, domestic animals began to disappear and gradually the local diet became completely vegetarian. The return to meat consumption in the late nineteenth century was motivated initially by the desire to imitate the West, associating meat consumption with large bodies, greater energy, and by extension also with power and empire. Still, the ecological constraints were not over and there were no animals to fulfill this carnivore aspiration. Thus, as late as 1940, the Japanese consume on average about two kilograms of meat annually. It was only the affluence and high export in the 1960s that facilitated the consumption of a considerable amount of meat in Japan, part of it imported, although always in smaller quantities than in the West.

In the past, many agricultural societies were not much different from premodern Japanese society. They were almost completely vegetarian and tended to consume meat only in small quantities and on rare occasions, such as holidays. The Japanese case suggests that vegetarianism poses neither cultural nor health problems. In the long run, society got used to this form of diet inasmuch killing animals and consuming their meat seemed abnormal and shocking. More importantly, this long period of vegetarianism did not prevent the Japanese from developing a sophisticated society and elaborate culture. The only physical “side effect” was a certain impact on their body size: They turned smaller and by 1900 the average height of men was about 158 centimeters.

This case offers us some insights into a possible future. Apparently, the breeding of domestic animals (including fish) causes larger and larger damage to the environment and may force us to drastically limit our consumption in the future. This does not mean that we are going to turn into complete vegetarians like the Japanese, especially since there are already certain substitutes for animal meat. But, it is evident that life without meat, or much less meat, is possible and may have also some health, let alone moral, benefits.

4. Finally, in the whole 143,484 words of your reference book on animals in Asia, I failed to find one single mention of the cutest bestial symbol anyone ever had: Pandas – I’m a huge fan, but China’s rediscovery of pandas and using them as a potent tool of diplomacy is something of significance, I think. Some other countries tried to do the same – Australia and its koalas come to my mind – but none came close to China in this regard – again, admittedly, I’m biased, but I think my overall estimation is not far off the point. Would you agree with my assumptions? And if so, why do you think China succeeded where others failed?


The panda is certainly one of the “cutest” animals, at least from a human viewpoint, but there is to it more than meets the eye. In fact, the story of the giant panda and its conservation in China offers several perspectives on the way certain animals are preserved and others are not and how this treatment could be extended. Four aspects have made this animal so coveted, perhaps the most sought-after wild animal on the planet today. First, it has black patches on its eyes and ears that make it doll-like and particularly cute. Second, it is considered peaceful, quiet, and friendly. Adding to this image is the fact that despite its carnivorous origin it is fed on plants: bamboo shoots and leaves making up more than 99 percent of its diet. Third, the panda is very rare, as there are less than 3,000 individuals in the wild and all of them live in a limited and hardly accessible habitat.

Finally, the Chinese government was wise enough to control the spread of pandas. Treating it as China's national symbol, the government began in the 1970s what was known as “panda diplomacy,” and gave pandas as gifts to American and Japanese zoos. Since 1984, however, China has ventured on 10-year loans of pandas, with very strict terms. Among other things, the receiving zoos are required to pay up to US$1 million per year and under the provision that any cubs born during the lease remain the property of China. For all these reasons, no more than 50-60 pandas are living today in zoos outside China and this makes this animal even more attractive.

No other animal is enjoying today such a combination of characteristics that help conservation. Despite the Chinese poor record in protecting certain animals, the giant panda will survive. Indeed, in 2016, this species was reclassified from "endangered" to "vulnerable.” Other animals are not as fortunate. The koala, for instance, is also cute and seemingly passive but, unlike the panda, its habitat is far more accessible and the Australian government does not control its export correctly. For these reasons, its number has declined from as many as 10 million in the early 20th century to around 43,000 this year. In other words, being “cute” is important but not enough for the survival of a species today.

Rotem Kowner is a professor of Japanese history and lead editor of ‘Animals and Human Society in Asia: Historical, Cultural and Ethical Perspectives’, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.


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