If a hippopotamus falls into a swimming pool and nobody hears it, has it really fallen in?

When a hippopotamus fell into a swimming pool at a game farm in Modimolle, Limpopo, many people breathed a sigh of relief. The hippo, whose name we’d later be told was Solly, had come to save us. 44 people, including two police officers, had died the week before. Most of us had seen repeatedly and been traumatised by videos, images and schematics depicting how 34 of the dead met their gruesome and public end in a fusillade from police rifles.

Such was the trauma that our president declared a national week of mourning for the lives lost. But a few days in, the realities exposed by and bickering over the events at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana mine had become much and we needed a distraction. Enter Solly.

Ostracised from his herd by its ruler, an autocratic hippo bull, Solly had made an unsuitable home for himself in swimming pool that did not belong to him. None of his fellow hippos had said to the bull, “Hey, don’t. Solly is one of us. This hippo social system is fucked, man.” No hippo came to Solly’s aid as he floundered there, starved and tired in that Modimolle pool. And no hippo cried when he died days later.

Who did cry, though, was the game farm’s owner. She, like many, did not recognise Solly as an allegory for our times. All the best allegories have been invisible to those who ought to see them. Instead in Solly the nation saw a distraction from dark and troubled times, and the game farm’s owner saw a helpless animal that needed rescuing. On Solly she heaped all the compassion and empathy and love her dear heart could muster. For Solly she rallied rescue teams, caretakers and a vet, whom she later tearfully blamed for the hippo’s death.

As a fellow animal lover, this reaction—shared by many of my countrymen and women during a week of grieving for 44 human lives—fascinates me. While it may be a false dichotomy to say the case of Solly demonstrates the existence of greater compassion for animal life than human life, it’s not an entirely useless exercise to contrast the two. Why would animal suffering elicit such a great outpouring of unmitigated compassion whereas human suffering came with caveats and a commission of inquiry into a tragedy that no matter which way you slice it points to a dysfunctional social system?

For one, no human said, “Regardless of how desperate Solly was, he should have known better than to jump into a pool he could not get out of.” Anyone who’d have said that would have been met with ridicule.

But to the 34 dead Marikana miners, many said they should have known better than to believe a sangoma could immunise them against bullets. Others said the miners should have known that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a trade union not recognised by their employer could not negotiate wage increases on their behalf. And some said the miners should have known that asking for their salaries to be bumped up to R12,500 (gross) in an industry with shrinking margins and falling demand was a fool’s errand.

The argument appears to be that Solly, like other non-human animals, cannot be expected to know better. He is not aware. He lacks consciousness—or at least a human being’s level of consciousness—thus when he lands up in trouble, he is not really to blame. This then provides the freedom for us, human beings, to be compassionate without qualification.

The game farm owner, finding Solly swimming in her pool, did not feel obliged to act as Groblersdal farmer Petrus Swart did when he found a group of boys on his property. Swart, catching the boys fishing in a dam on his farm, shot at them, injuring a 17-year-old and killing a 14-year-old.

“They should have known better,” I imagine Swart saying as he wrote the court-ordered cheque for R100,000 to the families of the two boys.

Attributing consciousness, it seems, qualifies empathy and with empathy qualified, the foibles of the human condition—irrational reactions, misplaced faith, frantic desperation—can be seen through the unambiguous, yet blinkered, lens of right and wrong, either or, they should have known better. That’s fine, I suppose. I’m just really worried for the animals.

Scientists have recently signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which declares publicly that “non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours.”

To this io9’s George Dvorsky asked if attributing a quintessential human quality like consciousness to animals will make us treat them more humanely. Quite the contrary, I think. It appears it’s been the supposed lack of consciousness—the lack of the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours—that’s protected animals from the treatment we mete out to other human beings. With that gone, who knows what we’ll do to them.

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* Update: It was R12,500 net, not gross, apparently. They really should have known better.

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