Animal Cruelty?

If there is any aspect of Pokémon that has been controversial, it is the perceived animal cruelty inherent in the concept. People compare Pokémon battling to cockfighting and pose questions like, "If you were kidnapped from your family and forced to beat up your own kind, would you like it?" Even among Pokémon fans, there are many who take this grim view of Pokémon training, think that it is perfectly comparable to cockfighting but just shrug it off with, "Well, the Pokémon aren't real, so you just don't think about it." And a sizable portion of all Pokémon fanfiction features wild Pokémon who are torn from their homes by antagonist trainers and abused and coerced into battling alongside others who have no choice.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone that this is not what the audience is meant to take away from the actual Pokémon canon. The games and anime both repeatedly explain that Pokémon battling is about cooperation and teamwork, that there are strong bonds of friendship between Pokémon and trainer, and that any trainer worth his salt will treat his Pokémon with love, trust and respect and receive the same in return. But as it happens these people don't take these messages very seriously. They argue that all the talk about love and trust is just sugarcoating a dark, bleak world that, realistically, is actually abusive and cruel, with humans patting themselves on the back by pretending it's all about love and sunshine and rainbows. And so, let us bend over backwards for a moment and see if this view of the Pokémon world works out as well as its supporters claim.

At its core lies the unwarranted assumption that Pokémon are easily comparable to the roosters used in cockfighting. In some ways one could say they are, but there are especially two crucial differences. The first is that as Pokémon are portrayed in the Pokémon anime and films, they show clear signs of intelligence that warrants a second look. Those Pokémon that have been given a voice we can understand express themselves perfectly coherently and sapiently, with no signs of their intelligence being anything but a match for that of humans. Even those Pokémon that cannot speak directly to us are shown to have a flawless understanding of human speech throughout, without the need to first teach them to recognize certain commands like one would for something like a dog. In general they engage in various clearly intelligent behavior, including the obvious capability for advanced communication of complex thoughts to one another (one episode even subtitled their speech), logical decision-making and human emotion. The second difference is that while roosters are rather small compared to humans and have a very limited ability to harm their captors, Pokémon are often bigger and stronger than humans, and even the smaller ones almost invariably have powers that would put them at a very distinct advantage in a fight over your average unarmed human child.

What could this mean for the animal cruelty argument? Quite a lot, as it turns out, if you follow these differences to their logical conclusion. Being obviously intelligent, Pokémon must be well aware of their situation, know if they would wish for it to be different, and are conscious of their own power. That power also means that if the Pokémon knows that it is being forced into something it does not like - such as being caught, if advocates of the animal cruelty theory are to be believed - it will have an easy time of forcing its way out of it.

So why on Earth don't they?

Imagine that you are a Pokémon. You know what humans do with other Pokémon - you must have seen it and been told of it a thousand times before - and, apparently, you find the thought of it horrifying. A human kid confronts you somewhere in the wild and, by some means, manages to capture you in a Pokéball. You are then sent out in a battle by this same human. What do you do - do you shrug and do whatever the kid wants you to do, or do you breathe fire in the kid's face, destroy the Pokéball you came from and run for it? (Alternatively, if you're not violently inclined, just sit down and refuse to fight until you're peacefully released?) An unarmed human child simply does not have the power to force a Pokémon to do anything it doesn't want to - and yet, Pokémon never seem to just rebel against those pesky trainers unless they do something particularly awful, despite supposedly hating the idea of being caught in general. This does not seem to make a lot of sense.

Those relatively few times advocates of the animal cruelty idea think this far, they usually propose one of two possible explanations. The first is mind-control, that something in either Pokéballs or badges suppresses a Pokémon's free will and forces it to obey and adore its trainer. The second is one Pokémon against many, that the trainer threatens the Pokémon using his other Pokémon, which would be able to hinder escape attempts and punish disobedience. On the other hand, the alternative hypothesis is that the Pokémon aren't being forced into it to begin with: that as a rule, they genuinely don't mind being caught, genuinely enjoy battling, and genuinely like their trainers.

So which hypothesis does the evidence support? In order for the mind-control theory to be true, we ought to observe that Pokémon obey and love their trainers almost without exception, and when they don't, they ought to behave like victims of mind-control who have momentarily shaken it off - but we don't observe any such thing. On the contrary, we see disobedient Pokémon relatively frequently in the Pokémon anime, most notably Ash's Charmeleon and Charizard, and this disobedience is coupled only with mild contempt and perhaps superiority complex - there are no hints whatsoever of despair or real desire to get away.

If trainers routinely threatened their Pokémon with their other Pokémon, we ought to observe this in the anime - not necessarily regularly, but at least when the Pokémon are disobedient - not that according to this hypothesis, Pokémon shouldn't be a lot more hesitant to disobey than they are. Additionally, in the aforementioned episode where Pokémon speech is subtitled (Island of the Giant Pokémon), Ash's Pokémon get separated from him (along with Team Rocket's Ekans and Koffing, in fact) - and their primary concern, in this perfect opportunity to run away together and never have to see Ash again, is reuniting with him!

The entire concept of the "one Pokémon against many" hypothesis has its problems, as well. For one thing, starter Pokémon have nothing to fear from their trainers, nor does any Pokémon when all the trainer's others have fainted in battle. For another, a lot of if not most Pokémon would be fairly easily capable of killing or knocking out a trainer before he manages to send out another Pokémon when alone with him - such as any time that they've been training against a wild Pokémon and have already defeated it. Finally, none of the Pokémon should have any motive to participate in the chain of discipline - if all the other Pokémon refused to obey the trainer, any one Pokémon has nothing to fear either, and it would be extremely easy for the Pokémon to organize themselves against the trainer if they had any means of communication at all.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that Pokémon participate in battling by their own free will, without any kind of coercion. There is all the aforementioned evidence named against the animal cruelty theory. There is how Pokémon in the games become happier when you battle with them to gain levels. There are the various Pokémon that specifically seem to approach trainers to challenge them, which would be monumentally stupid of them if they did not want to risk being caught. There is the way that Pikachu returned to Ash even after being released.

But, the animal cruelty theory advocates protest, that doesn't make any sense! Why would you like being ordered around to beat up your own kind? For one thing, Pokémon seem to have fairly amazing regenerative abilities, with most battling injuries taking a trivial amount of time to be healed at a Pokémon Center, and additionally they tend to resist attacks that would injure a human severely, which could suggest a better tolerance for pain and injuries than what we have. This changes the situation around Pokémon battling somewhat: it might not be quite as physically painful as we humans might imagine it. For another, this is not a reasonable comparison of creatures to begin with: Pokémon may not be roosters, but they are also not human, and there is no reason to assume that they must view the issue the same way that we would just because they are about as intelligent. It is easy to explain in a very reasonable manner why Pokémon might enjoy battling, be fine with being caught and not mind being commanded by their trainers.

There is considerable evidence that many or even most Pokémon are naturally competitive creatures that strive for power - not only how the happiness factor in the Pokémon games rises when they level up, but also how they are often depicted as challenging trainers and being determined to defeat strong opponents. While it might be difficult and dangerous for an individual Pokémon that desires to grow strong to travel to places with stronger opponents to face, doing so with a trainer is insurance that they will get treatment when they are beaten and food when they are hungry while reaching locations they would never have reached on their own. Additionally, teamwork with a trainer's other Pokémon, who have different strengths, ensures a greater strength for the team than the sum of its parts and lets the Pokémon fight even more skilled opponents while focusing on its strongest suits. Thus the general arrangement of humans traveling with several Pokémon is beneficial to the Pokémon, while to the human child, it is a memorable adventure and a relatively safe (thanks to the presence of the Pokémon) exercise in independence as well as a potential career.

It is also not all that far-fetched to consider that many or most Pokémon might have less creative initiative than humans (also a logical conclusion from the fact that despite their intelligence, Pokémon don't seem to be much for building or creating technology to assist their living). They might easily benefit from the human mind to help develop battle strategies and otherwise work out the best course of action, which could explain the arrangement of the trainer giving orders to Pokémon in battle. They might also tend to be less independent in mind than humans and find less or no humiliation in being ordered around - this could especially apply in species that naturally have one leader whose orders the rest of the pack follows.

The entire system of Pokémon training, moreover, seems to work as a game. The capture, rather than embodying a Pokémon being robbed of its freedom, could just as easily be part of it: if a Pokémon is to be caught, it wants to be caught by an already decently skilled trainer, and what better way to see that for oneself than to personally fight him and join him if he is good enough to 'defeat' you? Meanwhile, a strange trainer has to earn a Pokémon's respect by, for instance, having obtained badges, before that Pokémon will be ready to fight for him.

Now you might rear up and point out that this is all just fan speculation - and yes, it is. But unlike the mind control and one Pokémon vs. many theories, I believe these thoughts are easily canonically plausible, and really, the details do not especially matter - what matters most is that Pokémon canon strongly supports the view that Pokémon are generally perfectly happy with the current arrangement of training, and there is plenty of evidence that contradicts the idea that they are coerced at any point in the process. While I am all for fan creations involving alternative interpretations that do not take the details of canon literally and create darker, dystopic worlds, that is clearly not the world that canon suggests, and the Pokémon world we see depicted in the games and anime really does seem to be the happy utopia of mutual cooperation between humans and Pokémon that it claims to be.

Page last modified August 13 2016 at 02:34 UTC