x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 October 2017

How we treat animals reflects our society

We need to find legal mechanisms to enforce a basic set of norms on people's behaviour towards animals, writes Laura El Katiri

Mohammed, 17, holds the cat shortly before hurling it against a wall. Footage of the assault was posted on Twitter.
Mohammed, 17, holds the cat shortly before hurling it against a wall. Footage of the assault was posted on Twitter.

Last month, many of us were shocked by a viral video of an Emirati teenager throwing a cat against a wall before leaving it to die. Sadly, the perpetrator didn't face any legal consequences. The act was disturbing not only because of its brutality, but also because it contravenes the teachings of Islam and the norms and values that we are taught.

As a society, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. First, are we doing enough to ensure that our children respect living beings? Are we teaching them empathy? It’s parents and teachers who can instil such fundamental values in a child. 

Unfortunately, school curricula in the UAE contain little about these values and ethics. This is something that could be addressed through religious education as well as through a more interactive education that encourages children to act responsibly and respectfully to all forms of life.

Similarly, mosques and the media could play a much bigger role in guiding young people on the right path.

Second, do we try to set an example to our children though our actions and deeds? We as a society often contribute towards the world view in which animals become disposable goods – to be used for our entertainment. We take our children to the zoo and dolphinarium for entertainment, to show them how wild animals are kept in confinement.

We are often no better when it comes to pets. It’s obvious from the booming pet market filled with exotic species. Thousands of pets are discarded every year on our streets as families move abroad or just because they are no longer wanted. 

We have about 100,000 stray cats and dogs in our streets, many of which are subject to abuse and poisoning. Sometimes they are picked up by pest control companies, to be disposed of like rubbish. Most of us do not know that many of these animals meet the same cruel fate as the cat in the video. 

We need to think how our law reflects our values in caring for animals. While torturing and killing an animal may not carry any legal consequences, as we saw in the case of the teenager, feeding a stray animal is actually illegal and carries a heavy fine in some emirates. Poisoning stray cats is still an acceptable form of “pest control”, a measure nobody would probably agree to if they had to witness the agony the animals go through after being given rat poison. 

Stray animals might not be loved by everyone, but there can be many humane ways of resolving the problem that we are not prioritising, such as responsible pet ownership, obligatory sterilisation programmes and, for stray cats, systematic tag-neuter-release programmes that have demonstrated positive results elsewhere in the world.

The final question is whether there are ways in which we, as a society, can find legal mechanisms to enforce a basic set of norms on people's behaviour towards animals. The fact that animal abuse is barely monitored and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted seems to reflect our inability to enforce the law rather than lack of ethics and empathy among individuals. Had the cat been owned by someone, perhaps the boy would have at least been liable for damaging personal belonging (if we can classify an animal at least as a “thing”). But valuing commodities more than living things doesn't benefit our society in any way.

With regard to animal rights, there is a set of basic standards most of us would intuitively agree to. For example, animals must not be subjected to unnecessary suffering, and if they are kept as pets, they must be treated appropriately. These thoughts are also enshrined in the law of this country. But, what this means to us is anybody's guess. 

In addition to closely monitoring animal abuse and prosecuting offenders, there should be much more emphasis on legally controlling animal trade. The use of pest control companies to deal with stray animals is, in this context, as questionable in ethical terms as is the absence of any clear law that defines fines for animal cruelty in practically applicable terms. 

This includes educational measures as well as fines, for instance for teenage perpetrators such as the one mentioned above. Proceeds from these fines could be used for animal charities, which the UAE doesn’t have. The absence of any registered charity for animal welfare, and the recent implementation of the UAE charity law, means that private individuals face heavy punishments if, for instance, they collect money to feed or treat an injured stray animal.

We could send a message to individuals that cruelty to animals is something that is unacceptable for us as society. Some might argue that the way we deal with our natural environment and our animals actually tells a lot about ourselves and our value system. For what is a society that cannot care about the most vulnerable parts of its environment, nature and all living things?

Laura El Katiri is a consultant in Abu Dhabi specialising in economic, energy and environmental policy

On Twitter: @lauraelkatiri