Saving the sea turtles

The passion for saving marine life has again drawn throngs of East Coasters to Atlantic Ocean beaches in desperate attempts to save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. It’s a laudable campaign that has been going on for decades. Having cheered on the volunteers,  I was reminded by my wife of an article she wrote about such campaigns. Kathy wrote this piece while working as a substitute teacher in northern Wisconsin, and though the articles is decades old I am resurrecting it here because it has lost none of its relevance as the years have past. Kathy has since abandoned substitute teaching but continues her work as a freelance writer and advocate for animals.

by Kathy Coughlin 

Substitute teaching doesn’t boast a long list of advantages, but one of the few is variety. Boredom is not likely to set in when no two days in a row are the same, and roving from one classroom to another gives a teacher an idea of what’s being taught in our schools today. A recent stint in a fifth grade gave me insight into the possible genesis of some of our attitudes toward animals. 

That week, the students were assigned to read the short story “Interrupted Journey” by Katherine Lasky. It related the experiences of a mother and son who volunteered in a project attempting to save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the most endangered sea turtle in the world. These volunteers worked selflessly, during the night as well as during the day, to help facilitate the unusual and perilous nesting and hatching ritual these animals practice on some East Coast beaches.

The story was definitely educational, as it taught them about the environment and the biology of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. And it was a heartwarming account of a mother and son working together to help those of another species at their most vulnerable time. After reading class, the fifth graders enthusiastically lined up for lunch. On the menu that day was a favorite for many of them: chicken nuggets. 

The irony here was lost on these youngsters, of course, because they had likely never had it pointed out. Adults might miss it as well: a beautiful display of compassion toward one animal in the day’s lesson was followed by a blatant disregard for the suffering of another. The chicken these kids were about to eat was undoubtedly factory-farmed.

Since several high-profile food companies have recently pledged to stop using eggs produced by battery-caged hens, chickens have assumed a larger share of the public consciousness. We now know they’re as intelligent as some mammals, using many different vocalizations. They’re social creatures who can differentiate among dozens of separate individuals, and mother hens are extremely caring and affectionate mothers. But the contrast between our collective lack of concern for chickens and our concern for endangered sea turtles is glaring! 

Called “broilers” in the industry, the chickens raised for food are so intensely confined from birth that there’s no chance for them to express any natural behaviors, such as building nests or taking dust baths. Kept indoors for their entire lives, they never feel sunshine or breathe fresh air. They have been bred and drugged to grow so fast and so unnaturally large that some have organ failure or become crippled long before slaughter. Some die of thirst because they’re unable to walk to the water nozzles. A five percent death rate is expected and considered reasonable by the industry. 

The chicken is only one of several animals farmed for food, and the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is only one of many endangered animals. But their disparate stories illustrate how overwhelmingly inconsistent we humans can be. We shower our pets with love and endangered animals with protection; meanwhile, no laws forbid or punish cruelty toward farmed animals. 

When it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter that chickens are smarter than we’d ever believed. Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth century British philosopher said, “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” Of course, they can and do suffer, and agribusiness has been quite successful in keeping their suffering a dirty secret. It’s up to us to expose that secret. 

Substitute teaching provides me with many surprises. One day as I waited for a kindergarten class to arrive, two girls ran ahead of the pack to give me a giant and sincere hug. As far as I knew, they had never seen me before, and I certainly didn’t know them. But it was a warm gesture of welcome that simply seemed to affirm our connection as creatures sharing this earth. I wonder whether that connection can ever become universal among species. There would be no substitute for that. 

Recommended Reading:Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, PhD ••   Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran

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