This weekend we had to say goodbye to one of our pets. It’s never an easy decision to release a loved friend from their pain, even though one knows it is for the best and most dignified way to set them free. Studies indicate that often the grief of losing a pet can feel as immense as losing a family member, and if one considers how integral pets become in the fabric of a family, it’s no wonder. In Pakistan, one notices that many people have a strange love-hate relationship with animals and pets, and it’s worth considering why.

In Punjab perhaps it is a by-product of being a largely agricultural province, where animals are seen as labour—donkeys and horses pull carts and tills, buffaloes are to be milked, chickens lay eggs and dogs keep strangers and cats away from the chickens. One cannot afford to have personal relationships with one’s farm animals; otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to get any work done. That is patently untrue, though. Animals are sentient, conscious and feeling beings and just like humans, always perform better when properly fed and rested, and looked after kindly. If it was just a matter of productivity, then being kind to your animals makes the most sense in terms of returns on investment.

In urban centres where animals are less needed for subsistence—there are hardly any tongas on roads now, that need horses to pull them and the average city house has no green space for chickens or a goat, for example—they are seen as nuisances. Stray dogs and cats are seen as pointless, even though they mind their own business most of the time. Birds aren’t noticed much; otherwise, perhaps more people would have noticed that vultures have vanished from Lahore because the trees that were their habitat have all been cut down without a thought for where the vultures would go then.

But here’s the thing: not everything has a quantifiable utility that makes them deserving of attention or earns them value. And this is the root of our general uncaring attitude to animals (and the environment) in this country. People think it’s perfectly all right to casually throw a rock at a dog that is just walking along a road, or torment a cat, or pull leaves from a bush in passing. Many people think animals don’t feel pain, as if only human pain were the only benchmark for it. Many people think it’s fun to torture animals, and if you know someone like that, please remember that the first manifestation of sociopathic tendencies is usually the sadistic torture and murdering of small, helpless animals. Sociopaths and murderers often begin their careers with chicks and rabbits.

So in memory of our lovely, gentle Tamsin, let me say: animals are intelligent. Animals feel pain and happiness, anger and despair. They respond to kindness and love the same way any sentient, living creature does. Animals experience trauma, and with care and attention, can be rehabilitated. You don’t have to love dogs or cats or birds or donkeys to know this, and you don’t have to keep pets to understand this. All you need to do is be in touch with your basic humanity, that kernel of empathy and respect inside us all. I won’t say that the kernel makes us different from beasts because I have met many beasts that were nicer than some humans, but you understand what I mean. Pets are special animals; they are friends whose moods, quirks and expressions you know; they know yours as any friend would.

But an animal doesn’t have to be a pet to deserve kindness, and a society that reviles animals and actively harms them is a society that is deeply disturbed and disconnected from civilizing emotion or basic decency. In a country where people are ill and homeless, why do you care about animals, people scoff. One cares because someone should, because if you can’t even pass a cat without kicking it, what on earth are you going to do when you interact with a human? A child? Anyone who annoys you, or is different? As humans with so much power, shouldn’t we have the generosity of spirit to extend it to the vulnerable and voiceless? It’s not just animals. It becomes a metaphor for us all. Animals and plants part of the ecosystem of our existence; all of us are living creatures inside that sphere. If you can put out a bowl of water for a thirsty knot of birds, if you can save a tree where kites nest, if you can give a hungry cat a bowl of scraps—if you can, then there’s hope for all of us.