If the criminal investigation of BP and those who signed off on the drill-site inspection sheets and safety assurances shows wilful fraud and deception, dereliction of duty, bribes or who knows what else, there is one additional set of criminal charges that should be added to the list: cruelty to animals. For this is the largest case of cruelty to animals in U.S. history.
We are being spared, for political reasons, some think, but mercifully perhaps, most of the photographs of the animals that have died and are still dying, slowly, painfully, not just coated but drenched in oil. It is hard for anyone with a heart to see the gulls and pelicans, blinking up through a thick coat of muck that prevents them from flying, eating, taking a drink of water and escaping the burning heat of June. It is even too much to come across a snippet of video that shows a huge rubber-gloved hand gently plucking a tiny crab out of a puddle of black glop. Only the outline of his body tells you what he is, although his struggles tell you that he is still alive. For the moment.
For most of the animals, any help is too late. Studies show that even if rescuers capture an oiled bird in time, before much damage has been done, the terror of being handled by a predator, of being force-fed, doused and scrubbed, is too much for their pounding hearts to endure. Even if they survive the trauma of being cleaned and re-cleaned, it is suspected that most die after their release.
And in this case, one must ask, "Where can they be released?" Many birds mate for life; others are lost without their flocks. Their nesting grounds now lie under the oil slick; their friends and family are dead or dying. What is there for them to return to? And what of the turtles, dolphins and -- dare I write it -- whales? Cetacean experts do not expect whales to escape this slick completely. Once killed for their own oil, will they now be killed by ours?
And don't laugh, but what of the fish? As inconvenient as it may be to think about it, given the seafood buffets of summer, studies show that fish feel pain and fear just as acutely as mammals do.
Whether or not BP is charged with cruelty, there are many things that we can and should do other than just pointing a finger. Some suggestions are to provide less support to oil companies by consuming less oil, by buying fewer oil-based plastic goods (the beaches of Hawaiian atolls are inches deep in discarded plastic) and by following the recommendations issued by the United Nations this month and going vegan in order to save the waterways, forests and ozone layer.
Paul McCartney's "Meat-Free Monday" project is getting institutions and individuals to look at the environmental devastation caused by energy-intensive factory farming and to do something about it by reducing meat consumption. In taking responsibility, U.S. President Barack Obama would do well to announce that he, too, is embracing at least that one baby step.
Those responsible in the corporate world and in government can never truly make amends. How do you "make it up" to those creatures that are suffering and dying in agony out there at this very moment? However, before looking away from the umpteenth heart-wrenching photo of an oil-coated pelican, the rest of us can do something positive and make some personal choices ourselves so that none of the oil companies will be able to claim consumer demand as a reason for misbehaving. It's just a thought.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
--McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2010 A17