From time to time, usually when nothing else of interest happens, the news remind us of bird flu (avian flu, H5N1) again. See The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and The Washington Post for examples from the past few days only. It is a constant scare in the papers, on radio, on TV and parents are telling their children not to play with the birds.
But let me put things into perspective:
- Since 2003, fewer than 600 people have been infected with bird flu, of which 335 people died.
- That is 37 deaths per year worldwide, which is less than any other known cause of death. (In 2010, in the USA alone, 29 people died from lightning so even that figure is bound to be higher worldwide than the deaths caused by bird flu.)
Looking at the number of people (7 billion) and the number of birds in the world (unknown but huge, based on my own observations), these numbers are extremely low. In addition, while I generally refuse to blame the victims, some people might have almost called for being infected. This is from a New York Times article about the transmissibility of bird flu:
There have also been some anomalous cases, including a group of diners in Vietnam who apparently were infected by raw duck blood pudding, and the handlers of fighting cocks who were stricken after sucking blood and mucus out of their birds’ beaks.
There is another reason why I have a hard time feeling sorry for the few people that are killed by bird flu:
- Worldwide, 50 billion chickens are killed every year.
- And that’s only chickens. Humans also kill ducks, turkeys, geese, swans and any other type of bird that they can lay their hands on.
Now people will ask “Don’t you see the difference between birds and humans?” Yes, I do see the difference:
- Birds don’t kill humans on purpose.
I cannot discern any moral justification for killing animals on such a grand scale. Yes, animals are different from people. But being different does not mean that they are worth less. A bird, a horse, an ant, a whale and your dog have a life too. Some of them have a partner, many of them have children.
Some proponents of mankind’s right to kill animals argue that animals can’t talk, don’t have emotions, don’t have the same kind of sophisticated lives as we do. But we don’t really know that for sure, and we can’t, despite all of the science that we have at our disposal, because this scientific approach will always be guided by how we as humans think. We just cannot imagine, feel or understand what it’s like to be a cat or a worm. Heck, we men can’t even understand what makes women tick the way they do.
For those who like to stress the difference between humans and animals, I would like to point out one difference that I concede: We as humans can pause in our actions, reflect about the ethics of our behaviour and change it.
(Disclaimer: I may change my opinion about bird flu once I will contract it myself.)