Witnessing evil

A few months ago, I was on a motorcycle trip from my hometown in Germany to Cape Town in South Africa. While passing through the East African country of Tanzania, I encountered a packed bus, presumably on the way to Dar es Salaam. The bus had just passed me at considerable speed when I see a group of young goats at a distance of a few hundred meters slowly crossing the highway. There is no other traffic and one can clearly see the inexperienced animals, least bothered by the approaching danger.


I slow down to give them the time needed to reach the other side of the highway, and expect the bus driver in front of me to do the same. But he does not. He does not slow down even a bit and I watch him drive right into the group of goats. While most goats escape the rolling reaper with a terrified jump, one small goat is unlucky. The bus runs right over her. I hear her backbone crack – … The bus moves on and the animal appears in front of me on the asphalt. Her innards cover the road and I see that the goat is midway cut into two pieces, with only patches of skin seeming to keep the two parts together. She is still alive, her mouth wide open, her eyes starring. She utters a final bleat and all goes silent– she is dead.

I cannot comprehend what I just witnessed. I am literally beside myself. I notice my pulse going up, anger building in my chest – my mind is blank. I begin chasing the bus (without a clue what I would do were I able to stop it). After a few minutes, I catch up. I pass the bus and turn my head left to get a look at its driver. He sees me on my motorbike… and gives me a thumbs-up. I suspect it is his way of paying me a compliment for my adventure ride. About what he just did to the poor goat, he could not care less.

As far as he is concerned, nothing happened. What is going on in the driver’s head? How can one care so little for other sentient beings? I am angry, enraged and disgusted… but these feelings soon get clouded by an overwhelming sadness. Then I think about the close to sixty billion non-human animals who are killed worldwide every year to produce meat, eggs, and dairy and the many more who suffer at our hands in fur farms, zoos, rodeos and circuses. Most of these animals have rich subjective lives that matter to them, just like the young goat. They consciously experience emotions such as pain, joy, grief and anger, and their lives can go better or worse, from their point of view. Yet not many seem to care about the many awful ways in which we treat them.

It strikes my mind that the bus driver’s attitude towards the goat is in an important way similar to the common attitude people show towards non-human animals in general. If more people made the emotional connection between the goat and the chicken in the factory farm, there would be more animal rights advocates. You might object and say that there is an important difference between the case of the goat and the case of the factory chicken. Whereas the latter is killed for human consumption, the former is not.

Think again. Assume that the bus driver was sure that somebody will find the remains of the goat shortly after the killing, turned them into food and consumed them. Further assume the bus driver’s prediction actually turned out to be true. Would that make his killing the goat any better, morally speaking? Would you feel less repulsed by his action?

Now think about the factory chicken. While the goat arguably died a quick death after leading a comparatively good life – unconfined, in company, etc. –, the chicken’s life prior to slaughter went incomparably worse than the goat’s (see, for example, Peter Singer’s description of the horror of modern factory farming in his book Animal Liberation). Most of us are moral schizophrenics in many regards but especially when it comes to animals.

While ready to condemn the bus driver for his lack of compassion for the little goat and being disgusted by cases of pet abuse, we hardly waste a thought on the animals on our plates, tormented every bit as much, if not more, as the goat, or the abused pet…

Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Acts of animal atrocities are no rare occurrence in today’s society,” The Rice Thresher (USA, 27 October 2011)
“Witnessing evil,” bdnews24.com English (Bangladesh, 16 November 2011)