Culture

Why our obsession with animals is schizophrenic

Chinese pandas have made their way to Berlin. How sweet! Or not? Best-selling German writer and philosopher Richard David Precht believes our relationship to animals is contradictory.

Berlin's Zoological Garden received two pandas from the Chinese government. The couple - the female Meng-Meng and male Jiao Qing - landed in Berlin on June 24 and were formally handed over on July 5. Many Germans have appeared ecstatic about the event. Others, like German philosopher Richard David Precht, are skeptical about the fascination with "cute" animals. DW spoke with the best-selling author, whose works have been translated into dozens of languages.

DW: Mr. Precht, are you looking forward to Meng-Meng und Jiao Qing? It's a very unusual visit.

Richard David Precht: "Looking forward to it" is perhaps not quite the appropriate expression. But I do think it is a good thing for the zoo to have been granted the bid to host the pandas, since very few zoos outside of China are home to them.

The Berlin Zoo has been busy building and installing air-conditioning systems, places with shade, a little river, some places to retreat to, and so on. The pandas are supposed to have a good life in Berlin. But is it really okay to transport endangered animals in this way?

Richard David Precht (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schuh)

Philosopher Richard David Precht is also a writer and moderator

That is not the problem. There are all sorts of animals that are on the "endangered" list, but which are saved from going extinct by living in zoos, among other things. Pandas are not necessarily at the top of that list, but zoos nowadays - as compared to the ominous role they played in the past - are making their contribution in that area.

There are more Siberian tigers in zoos than there are in the taiga.

And now these pandas are functioning as political ambassadors…

This has been around for a while, the so-called "panda politics." That dates back to Deng Xiaoping [Eds.: paramount leader of China from 1978-1989]. The Berlin Zoo received two pandas once before, or rather, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt did. That's nothing new. And for China to show its more sympathetic side in this way should not count for nothing.

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You wrote a book about animal ethics entitled "On Animals - Animal Rights and Human Limitation." On the one hand, you say that we mercilessly exploit animals - for instance, in factory farming and by eating meat. On the other hand, we mollycoddle our pets - dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and even pandas. How does that fit together?

And now we're spending millions of euros to construct a panda compound. And it's true: That is major social-cultural schizophrenia! And I will not tire of denouncing that. But that's nothing against the pandas; it's very much against factory farming.

A long, long time ago, when we were still hunters and gatherers and still saw ourselves as a part of nature, did we respect animals more?

Book cover Tiere denken by Richard David Precht (Goldmann Verlag)

The author says that "animals think"

Yes, in what we are familiar with about indigenous cultures, such as folk groups who live in the rain forest, or what we can interpret from ancient Egyptian religion: Before people began systematically keeping animals, they had a much more respectful attitude toward them, because they were not considered a part of the environment, but as our contemporaries.

And now we dominate nature, also through technology. Was this a bad course for animals?

Yes, it has been a largely bad course. But I can't see anything wrong with a cultural institution such as a middle-class zoo that later helps to preserve certain animals.

You said earlier: "The more human beings dominate over nature, the more soulless those mastered over appear to them."

That is really the case. The more violence one wields over something, the less respect one has for it. We see a long course of it in the history of humankind.

And monotheistic religions can't even help out there?

No. Monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam or Judaism have significantly contributed to the objectification of animals.

And human beings thus become the yardstick to be measured against. And animals become objects?

Exactly. People become the exclusive creatures. Christian salvific history is not about animals. It's about human beings.

Do you believe we need to finally resolve our relationship with animals?

Yes. And we are doing so. When you realize that there are one million vegans in Germany and nearly eight million vegetarians, then you can presume that a huge change in thinking is occurring.

Panda rolling around on ground (picture-alliance/dpa)

More than just cute to look at: Pandas can thrive in zoos

In which direction?

Toward more sensitivity in how we treat animals and what we consider normal. That people take it less for granted when thousands of pigs are kept in stalls together, or that people eat meat at all - I consider that ethical evolution.

You write that animals suffer and that they have a consciousness. Should that determine our relationship to animals?

Yes, but in my opinion, it should also determine a fundamental fascination with nature. I think we do neither ourselves, nor nature a favor by so mercilessly objectifying it.

What do you think you will think when you stand in front of the Berlin panda couple Meng-Meng and male Jiao Qing?

I will look at the compound very closely - at its aesthetics and how the animals are kept. But the Berlin Zoo is in very good hands, so I'm quite optimistic.

Richard David Precht is a German philosopher, journalist and author and one of the most famous intellectuals in German-speaking countries. His best-selling books, such as "Who Am I? And If So, How Many? - A Journey Through Your Mind," have been translated into more than 40 different languages.

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