ENVIRONMENT
01/10/2015 11:02 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Could Our Own Fear Of Death Be Affecting The Way We Treat Animals?

With shelter euthanasia rates going down, major companies moving toward more humanely-produced food, and the prospect of legal "personhood" for primates being litigated in court, you might have thought things were going pretty well for animals.

But authors of a new paper would disagree.

"There's basically just one area in which things are getting better, and that's with homeless pets," says Michael Mountain, a leader in the no-kill movement. "In every other area we know of -- factory farming, vivisection, wildlife, etc. -- things are going downhill."

"We are in a sixth mass extinction and there is no doubt about that at this point," says Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, cetacean expert and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

Mountain and Marino, whose work is due out this spring, have a theory about why this is happening: existential anxiety and fear of death.

Drawing on ideas advanced in Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, the two argue that our subconscious' need to think of humans as both immortal, and separate from animals, drives our attitudes and behavior toward living creatures.

"There is the same psychological driver behind eating pork chops, wearing fur and mass extinction. That is, a separation from the rest of the animals and an attitude of human exceptionalism," says Mountain. "Wearing fur and eating meat has everything to do with mass extinctions. It is all part of our commoditization and objectification of other animals."

The Huffington Post caught up with the pair by email to find out more.

The Huffington Post: You say in the paper that despite what looks like some gains in animal welfare and animal rights, that things for animals are still very bad. Can you explain?

Michael Mountain: It's interesting that people are really motivated to do something positive and definite about homeless pets, because we see them as part of our "in-group" -- our family. But we see the rest of the animal kingdom (queendom?) as basically resources and commodities for our use and benefit.

Lori Marino: And there are more farm animals being slaughtered and eaten around the world every year.

What Michael and I set out to do in this paper is try to understand why, despite all the efforts of animal protection groups, things are getting worse -- not better -- in most areas of abuse. What we found is that there may be a psychological process that undermines our ability to really connect with the other animals as equals.

So do you think it would be better for us, as humans, to become more comfortable with our own mortality? To think of these other creatures as being extraordinary like we are? Or something else?

LM: Interestingly, the psychology literature says that we are more comfortable with other animals being more like us than admitting we are like them. However, that's all part of the way we are dealing with this. The very idea of "elevating" other animals to be more like us is the problem.

The point is that our species is so obsessed with our own mortality that we've been driven to treat other animals and other humans in ways that are killing the planet. In the process of trying to convince ourselves that we are not animals too.

This is unconscious -- not conscious. No individual -- and no species -- can thrive when they are denying their own nature.

MM: We feel the need to tell ourselves that "I am not an animal" and so we treat other animals as something that's "lower" than us -- i.e. resources and commodities and entertainment.

Another example is that we capture tigers and orcas and put them in circuses. It's a great way of demonstrating to ourselves our superiority over nature.

What we're kind of circling around here is the fact that there's no simple solution. This is just part of the human condition. That's why it all keeps getting worse.

Do you see yourselves as animals? Do you feel like studying this psychological phenomenon has helped you overcome your own existential dread?

LM: I have always thought of myself as an ape.

It helps to understand what drives our behaviors as is the case whenever an unconscious psychological process is made conscious. I don't think it is a panacea.

MM: We all have this anxiety over what we are, but I'd say that the better we relate to the other animals, the more at ease we feel in our own lives.

LM: Yes, I would say that being part of the animal kingdom means we are not alone. That is comforting.

It is funny to say that I've always thought of myself as an ape. Because that's exactly what I am.

Are you concerned with the treatment of animals as individuals, or the treatment of animals as a population? Or both?

MM: Both. But particularly as individuals. In the animal welfare world, there's a tendency to focus on things like sustainability, which is all about keeping enough of a particular species going so that we can continue to use them for our benefit.

We humans like to see our own species as having individual value, and the same should go for the other animals. They have value in their own right, not just in their numbers. But in order to exploit them the way we do, we have to stop seeing them as individuals.

So here is a place where I end up getting hung up: Animals treat each other as resources. Dogs eat cows, for example, even at animal sanctuaries.

LM: There is a difference between doing what one needs to do to survive and taking an attitude toward others which makes them into objects.

MM: Psychologically, it's about demonstrating our superiority over nature. If we can prove we're superior to nature, then we're above the cycles of life and death, too.

LM: It goes way beyond just feeding your children.

MM: No one needs pate de foie gras to survive!

Certainly we can't all live a life that's totally cruelty free. But at the end of our paper we talk about what Albert Einstein said about the "need to extend our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the world of nature in all its beauty."

He said that no one can do this totally, but we can all do it a bit more.

I feel like there is a lot left to say. What else would you like readers to know, or to think about?

LM: That, given that everything is getting worse -- for us, for other animals, for the whole planet -- that there is something about human nature that is motivating us to behave in ways that cause everything to get worse.

It is not just about putting in more effort or more money. It is really about who we are. This is all about the kind of animal we have evolved to be.

MM: And that understanding how we're driven by these basic anxieties can help us to reconsider how we treat the other animals. And to stop treating them as though they're just here for our benefit.

We don't have a simple solution to an unfolding mass extinction, any more than we have the answer to war and poverty. But it begins, like anything else, with the old aphorism "Know thyself!" Once we understand how much we're driven by our need to distance ourselves psychologically from the other animals, we're in a better position to relate to that.

Do you see any reason for optimism?

MM: We don't think in terms of optimism and pessimism. We think in terms of what we can do regardless.

If someone you care about is very sick, you don't sit around wondering whether it's worth doing something or not. You do what you can to give them the best life they can have whatever their situation.

Any of us can stop consuming animal products. Any of us can support causes that diminish the suffering of our fellow animals. And every step we take to respect the lives of animals is another triumph.

This interview has been edited for length.

"Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals" will be published this spring in the journal Anthrozoos.

Follow Lori Marino's work over on the The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy's Facebook page. Michael Mountain blogs about environmental and animal issues on the website Earth In Transition.

Get in touch at arin.greenwood@huffingtonpost.com if you have an animal story to share!

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