When we abuse animals we debase ourselves
What qualities associated with the best in mankind aren't expressed by
By Barbara Cook Spencer
Moving a cow by chaining it to a tractor and dragging it by its leg says a
lot about how we perceive and value animals. When the Humane Society video
that showed this and other brutal slaughterhouse treatment made the rounds
on the Internet a few weeks ago, it caused public shock and led to a
federal investigation. But there's a deeper lesson that all of us
whether or not we eat meat need to take to heart: we degrade ourselves when we degrade animals.
Much as bullies demoralize themselves when they dominate or ride roughshod
over those who are meek, vulnerable, or defenseless, it should be obvious
that human beings are the ones demoralized by the commission of inhumane
Over the years, many have been caught up in the debate over what is, or is
not, man's obligation to animals. But the debate is transcended by the
growing realization that neither our civilization nor our planet will
survive unless human beings grow richer in moral qualities like mercy,
kindness, compassion, and temperance.
Yet in order to establish a platform for speaking out against cruel and
painful laboratory experiments and slaughtering techniques, animal rights
advocates are often asked to prove that animals have a moral sense and can
feel physical and emotional pain.
But even if animals could be proved amoral and immune to pain, human
beings would have no basis for even careless treatment of them. Most of us
were taught as children to take good care of inanimate objects, even
though they feel no pain and have no moral sense. We are taught to treat
fine books with virtual reverence. We are taught that it is actually a
crime to vandalize buildings, cars, and other inanimate objects.
But even setting aside the degradation brought upon the humans who commit
acts of cruelty, research has consistently revealed evidence of the
morality and sentience of the nonhuman world. By now documentaries abound
in which we can see earth's creatures disciplining members of their own
species for "crimes" within their communities. Conversely we've also seen
them care for each other, as well as for members of other species, in the
most intelligent, unselfish, courageous, and tender ways.
This evidence of morality in nonhumans tells us that mankind and
"creature-kind" are inextricably woven together, not separate "worlds"
We may not be linked by trunks and tusks, wings and beaks, but I have yet
to think of a single quality associated with the best in mankind that is
not expressed by animals and often as with loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, and forgiveness
Our differences appear to lie more in the complexity with which we express
our commonly held qualities. In fact, the caring, thoughtful observation
of animals has taught, and can continue to teach, vital lessons about what
we ourselves are and what we can accomplish.
We learn from an elephant, for example, that power and gentleness are not
incompatible. We learn from any gazelle the naturalness of grace. Our dear
canine or feline friends teach us that happiness doesn't come from outside
ourselves from the act of acquisition but is something we bring to the simplest object or experience. From
birds, we've learned the concept of flight. And from any animal we can
learn that we don't outgrow childlikeness when we enter maturity, because
childlikeness is a quality of thought, not a condition of age.
In fact, when we abuse childlike qualities in animals
when we take advantage of trust, sweetness, simplicity, or innocence, for
example we are well on our way to the abuse of children. For decades researchers,
child and animal protection professionals, and educators have been
pointing to the correlation between the treatment of animals and the
treatment of children.
But it's perhaps the almost inexplicably deep love that we're able to
share with creatures that explains what a magnificent symphony we can be.
Symphonies aren't composed of inferior and superior tones and passages.
Their beauty is in the unity of the simple and complex, the obvious and
subtle, the audacious and demure. What matters in music is that each tone
or passage be allowed to contribute its full value, however meek that
In the same way, our moral obligation toward animals isn't a question of
what a superior being owes an inferior one. Unselfish affection takes the
simple and complex, the bold and the meek in creation, accords each
creature its full value, and blends all into a single symphony. Treating
animals with the utmost dignity and respect is really the "Golden Rule" of
conduct toward all species.
Barbara Cook Spencer is a writer who lives in Brookline, Mass.
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