The Demise of the Ringling Brothers Circus: A Case of Displaced Empathy


As a child I loved having pets in my life, but these days an observation bothers me: As many people prevent the birth of children through birth control and abortion, the surplus of empathy and the instinct to nurture is placed onto something (or some might say, someone) else: the animal.  The demise of the Ringling Brothers Circus, coming as a result of American sensitivity to the plight of animals, highlights an irony: many people zealously protect the feelings of animals while at the same time, condone tearing apart, without anesthetic, unborn children limb from limb–treating them more poorly than they would a circus animal.

Philosopher Peter Singer’s utilitarian valuing of some animals as persons more than the fetus or the newborn does not take into account the millennia we have spent in nurturing our own kind. For thousands of years, mothers have had babies, suckled them, raised them, with the help of fathers, and often with grandparents. Sometimes babies died, sometimes mothers did, and families grieved.

Although historically some women have tried to kill their unborn children or placed their defective newborns out into the elements to die, the anti-child mentality did not have the force that it has on many people today.

Over 90% of American women have used artificial birth control at some point in their lives and over 60% of women of reproductive age are using it now.

About 1 in 3 American women have committed abortions.

What is the psychological effect on the couples who knowingly say no to children every time they have sex? What is the psychological effect on the couples who kill their unborn children when birth control does not work?

Has the instinct to cuddle the child, to smile at the child, to speak to it in soft voices, been squashed?  No. It has not. We can’t change our human nature.

The instinct has not been squashed. It’s merely been rechanneled: like a dam built on a river redirects water.

Now many people “ooh” and “ah” over every little thing that Susie does. That is, Susie their Siamese cat. And post onto Facebook the latest video of antics that George has carried out. George, their bull dog puppy.

Many say they can’t afford children; they don’t have the time or money. Yet they take their dogs for countless walks and spend thousands of dollars on veterinarian bills.

Children used to wear hand-me-down clothing from older siblings or relatives, and boys’ pants used to have patches sown on the knees from wear and tear. Mothers and grandmothers stayed home and had backyard gardens and canned vegetables to save money and provide wholesome meals. Parents made do with fewer material things in order to accommodate a house full of children.

Now many ship their child–or maybe two–to day care centers and let them get nurturing there (where animals are brought in  for emotional support) while women fulfill themselves in the workplace.

Many parents overly nurture the mere handful of children they do have because there are so few of them: consequently, the children are the most pampered, the most protected, the most sheltered they’ve ever been. And with fewer of them, the demands on them to be the best reflections of their parents are even higher.

Going contrary to nature by preventing the birth of children has resulted in the rechanneling of instincts for nurturing with a bizarre result: billions are spent on animal food, animal toys, animal clinics and hospitals, animal psychologists, animal day care centers, animal cemeteries. People say the animals are members of their family. They call themselves their parents. Dogs are their best friends. Cats greet them at the door. Both dogs and cats sleep with them in their beds. They mourn them as they would mourn lovers–or children–when they die.

Are people better off when they value animals above children? Are they happier when they treat animals like they were their babies instead of having children (or more children) of their own?

I once was an overnight guest in a home with one adult child. The elderly parents sat in front of the television with the one adult child and one stuffed toy rabbit placed center stage on a table.  The condo didn’t allow pets. So they had a stuffed animal. And they talked to it. They talked to the stuffed toy animal about what was talking place on the television program. They treated it like a person. My thought was this: they only had one child, and so their human need to nurture had nowhere to go. And so they ended up nurturing a stuffed animal.

In planning rabbitparenthood, we might want to give the old-fashioned, natural way a second look. We might find ourselves happier for it.

Marianne  Bovée




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