The ethics of ebola and Excalibur.

Last week a mixed breed dog named Excalibur was killed in Madrid by the Spanish authorities. The dog belonged to Teresa Romero Ramos and Javier Ramos, the former a nurse who contracted ebola and the latter her husband who was put into quarantine in case he too had contracted the virus. Excalibur, their brown, mixed-breed dog succumbed to the wisdom of the Spanish government based on very scant evidence that dogs can carry the virus and display no symptoms.

Excalibur Spanish Ebola Dog

Excalibur, the Spanish Ebola Dog.

The internet’s response was one of disgust and indignation that this could be allowed to happen, an innocent dog killed based on the low and unproven likelihood of its carrying a virus. Teresa Romero was diagnosed on Monday, Javier quarantined on Tuesday, by Wednesday notoriously intense and aggressive Spanish animal rights campaigners unsuccessfully attempted to blockade the apartment complex in which the dog was living while twitter was spewing global outrage. Excalibur is now dead.

It is understandable for people to have a visceral reaction to the death of a dog. If we have owned a dog then we can very easily imagine our own put into the same situation; innocently relaxing at home, wondering where its owners are, as a team of government officials breaks into the apartment and rips it away from this world. He’s the first dog to die of ebola and, in all likelihood, he didn’t even have it.

My own cross breed shelter dog, Marvin.

My own cross breed shelter dog, Marvin.

Usually animal activists get upset that people can’t seem to see that the suffering of dogs, cats or dolphins is just as saddening as the suffering of cows, pigs and chickens. But this case is interesting because of the West’s infamously unsympathetic attitude to the death and suffering of thousands of West Africans. All we seem to be worried about is whether or not the virus will reach our shores and not whether or not we can do anything to solve the crisis as it’s actually happening in Africa. Defeating the disease at its source would be a much more effective and longer term solution than simply letting it spread in Africa while trying to protect our own borders. In this case we care more about the suffering of one dog than we do about thousands of people.

The outrage at the death of Excalibur demonstrates simultaneously our great human capacity for empathy and our gross failure at executing it and it demonstrates it in a way that I’m sure many people can understand. But if we step away from an immediate emotional response and look at the situation with cold rationality then, one would hope, our empathy would be activated and the appropriate conclusion would be reached. We should prevent the death and suffering of those in Africa, we should never kill a dog or human except in cases of self defence and we should not kill cows, pigs or chickens except in cases of self defence.

Most people would read this and say that we can’t prevent all suffering and I must be some kind of ‘bleeding heart’ for suggesting it, the solution is so simple that it sounds ridiculous. But that’s exactly the point, what is ridiculous is to express our empathy selectively. Our compassion knows no bounds, why on earth should we impose boundaries upon it?

End racism, end speciesism, end carnism. Rest in peace Excalibur.