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The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy
By Matthew Scully
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Matthew Scully
All rights reserved.
THE THINGS THAT ARE
"And what is this God?" I asked the earth and it answered: "I am not he," and all the things that are on the earth confessed the same answer. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things with living souls, and they replied, "We are not your God. Look above us." I asked the blowing breezes, and the universal air with all its inhabitants answered: "I am not God." I asked the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, and "No," they said, "we are not the God for whom you are looking." And I said to all those things which stand about the gates of my senses: "Tell me something about my God, you who are not He. Tell me something about Him." And they cried out in a loud voice: "He made us."
SAINT AUGUSTINE, THE CONFESSIONS, X:9
Whether of natural or supernatural origin, the moment that humanity acquired reason and language we were set apart forever from the natural world, and nothing was ever the same. How amazing that for all of our boundless power over the animals, so many of us still care about them, delighting in their companionship, admiring them from afar, and feeling their hurts whenever one of them is actually before us stricken and needful.
I am not, I confess, a particularly pious or devout person. But animals have always awakened something in me — their little joys and travails alike — that, try as I might, I find impossible to express except in the language of devotion. Maybe it is the Lord's way of getting through to the particularly slow and obstinate, but if you care about animals you must figure out why you care. From a certain angle it defies all logic, often involving, as in the case of pets or the strays who find our doors, all sorts of inconveniences and extra worries one could do without. And the only good reason I know to care for them is that they are my fellow creatures, sharing with you and me the breath of life, each in their own way bearing His unmistakable mark.
I know that they do not have reason comparable to ours. I know that their lives and place and purpose in the world are different from ours. I know that theirs is an often violent world, "nature red in tooth and claw" as Tennyson described it. But I also know that whatever their place and purpose among us might be, it is a mysterious one beyond any man's power to know. Whatever measure of happiness their Creator intended for them, it is not something to be taken lightly by us, not to be withdrawn from them wantonly or capriciously.
Some readers will say that animals awaken fantasy, if not heresy, in those who attach moral significance to them. Yet often I think it is the more violent among us who are living out the fantasy, some delusion in which everything in nature is nothing and all is permitted.
As sentimentality toward animals can be overindulged, so, too, can grim realism, seeing only the things we want in animals and not the animals themselves. They do us a service if only by inspiring now and then a sense of wonder and humility, for if not even a sparrow falls without His knowing then we are not too important to notice it ourselves. This is probably why many young children have such a natural attachment to animals, seeing things fresh, without the years to refract all the miraculous new images coming at them, all these remarkable animate beings racing and barking and panting and chirping in their midst. Animals also share with children a tie of profound vulnerability. Both, too, are usually the first to feel the brunt of human callousness.
My earliest recollection is of coming upon some rabbit tracks in the backyard snow. I must have been three or so, but I had never seen a rabbit and can still recall the feeling of being completely captivated by the tracks: Someone had been here. And he left these prints. And he was alive. And he lived somewhere nearby, maybe even watching me at this very moment.
Four decades later, I do not need to be reminded that rabbits are often a nuisance to farmers and gardeners. My point is that when you look at a rabbit and can see only a pest, or vermin, or a meal, or a commodity, or a laboratory subject, you aren't seeing the rabbit anymore. You are seeing only yourself and the schemes and appetites we bring to the world — seeing, come to think of it, like an animal instead of as a moral being with moral vision. Just one little varmint among billions to be found scurrying and hopping and burrowing all over the earth. Their enemies like the fox and wolf snatch them up in a bloody flash, and that's that. People raise them in cages by the millions for food and medical research, with bigger and more pressing matters on their minds than the meaning of one little rabbit's place in creation. In the grand scheme, not much. And yet, we are told, each one is counted and known by Him, and I believe it.
Desmond Morris in his 1967 bestseller The Naked Ape describes seven stages in our human view of animals, all reflecting different phases of our own psychological development. At one end, for example, is the infantile phase, "when we are completely dependent on our parents and react strongly to very big animals, employing them as parent symbols." After this comes the infantile -parental phase, when we perceive smaller animals as symbolic child substitutes. At the other end is the post-parental phase, when animals again figure as child substitutes, followed last by the "senile phase" in which one feels a heightened concern for endangered animals:
They have to be "saved." The symbolic equation involved here is obvious enough: the senile individual is about to become personally extinct and so employs rare animals as symbols of his own impending doom. His emotional concern to save them from extinction reflects his desire to extend his own survival.
The popularity of animal-protection causes among younger people arose, he theorized, from heightened fear of nuclear incineration, "so that now we all have an emotional need for animals that can serve as rarity symbols."
Doubtless there is some truth to Morris's purely evolutionary and psychoanalytical view that animals serve as symbols for us, and I hate to think what he'd make of my rabbit story. Animals certainly show up throughout our art and literature over the ages, representing everything from temptation to virility to dread to wronged innocence. In place of the imminent threat of human annihilation Morris posited, we might today, I suppose, substitute a widespread sense of estrangement from the natural world as a source of anxiety over "rarity symbols."
Missing, however, from Morris's view of "the naked ape" is man the creature of conscience, the ape who may every now and then catch a glimpse of things beyond his own physical and psychological needs. As in all such theories, Morris could find only scientific or aesthetic reasons to protect any creature or species, by means of "controlled cropping" and the like — the protection in both cases carried out for our own self-interest. I think he over looked a phase: that empathy stage in our lives when we may begin to see even the commonest animals on their own terms, fellow creatures with their own needs to meet and hardships to bear, joined with us in the mystery of life and death — and frankly, for all of our more exalted endowments, not all that much less enlightened than the sagest of naked apes about the meaning of it all.
That kinship is to me reason enough to go about my own way in the world showing each one as much courtesy as I can, refraining from things that bring animals needless harm. They all seem to have enough dangers coming at them as it is. Whenever human beings with our loftier gifts and grander calling in the world can stop to think on their well -being, if only by withdrawing to let them be, it need not be a recognition of "rights." It is just a gracious thing, an act of clemency only more to our credit because the animals themselves cannot ask for it, or rebuke us when we transgress against them, or even repay our kindness. We are going to need a little mercy ourselves one day. The way I figure it, I cannot expect mercy if I am unwilling to give it.
I felt a similar sense of wonder — to share a less heartwarming story — when I was twelve or so and killed a bird. I was strolling along one day with our family dog when suddenly I heard a peeping noise. Looking over a bridge railing, I saw in the stream below a little robin splashing and flailing about. Just a fledgling, he was badly injured, bleeding from a severed wing and, as I assumed, not long for this world. Perhaps a cat had done it. The memory of what I did then still comes back to me sometimes. I lifted him from the stream and set him on an embankment, I tried to stroke him, I talked to him a bit, telling him how sorry I was for what I had to do, and then to end his misery I crushed him with a large rock.
The stone must have weighed twenty pounds. In the splatter I saw his little heart, and was horrified at the bluntness of what I had done, obliterating this beautiful tiny creature so finely made who tried so hard to live. At the time my action seemed the only alternative, as it often does when man brings his crushing force into an animal's world.
I have always seen pets from this angle of abject dependence upon the master's forbearance. The first pets were probably the young of our prey captured in the hunt and led back to camp, for not even those first bold slayers were immune to the bleats and whimpers of the orphans. Today, for many of us our last real link to the animal world, these pets still seem to me like ingratiating foreign visitors to our world (or, as they themselves often seem to think, foreign dignitaries), comically out of place, pretending to fit in, to be one of us, trying not to be found out and deported. I still laugh sometimes when I see dogs trotting purposefully around city streets, as if they really had any business at all being there in the middle of civilization, or zipping by in cars with their heads poking out the window in unbounded glee at the scents and the wind.
We are urged by some animal rights advocates to avoid such words as "pet," but I think pet is a perfectly worthy and honorable title, exactly right in capturing the creatures' utter reliance on our goodwill, and indeed their sheer, delightful uselessness to us apart from mutual affection. "Companion animal," the suggested alternative, has a slightly false ring, as if our dogs and cats, if the relationship wasn't working out, could go out into the world and set up for themselves somewhere else. That dependence and the trust it instills are the whole point, the fun of it.
Exactly what the world is like for a robin or rabbit or wolf or elephant or any animal we can only guess, a mystery that science may approach but never really grasp, like the mysteries of our own heart and mind. Those creatures given longer lives, such as the ape and elephant, do seem to have some sense of their own mortality, though to say they had an understanding of it would be a stretch. Surrounded everywhere by human achievement and progress, human striving and brilliance, our fellow creatures just go on as they always have, rarely looking beyond the day to take command of their fates, untroubled, so far as we know, by any of the deeper problems of existence and just as clueless about its deeper meanings. For animals, except in the starkest evolutionary terms, there is no such thing as history and no such thing as progress. Theirs is a world of fear and desire, equally raw, and for them whatever happiness life offers seems to lie in those intervals between danger when they can feed, play, or be at peace. We ourselves call these the creature comforts. It is part of their charm, this contentedness with the things of the moment, and how often do we look upon them and recognize something of ourselves.
Many scientists and philosophers still insist that such similarities are an illusion. In ascribing any conscious thought or emotion to an animal, we are guilty of "anthropomorphism," the attribution of exclusively human characteristics to animals. Even dogs, primates, and elephants, as author Stephen Budiansky contends in his study of animal intelligence, are programmed to "mimic" pain and enjoyment alike. Observing the unconscious neurophysiological reactions of animals to external stimuli, we are deceived, he believes, into supposing they actually had any thoughts or feelings at all. In the current jargon, it's all "hardwired," and the creatures themselves haven't the foggiest idea what's happening to them. Whatever pain they might display, argues Mr. Budiansky, a former nature writer for U.S. News & World Report and a defender of such practices as commercial whaling and elephant hunting, is "mere pain," not meaningful and profound like our pain, intriguing as a scientific matter but morally negligible.
If true, this would certainly simplify matters on the ethical end of dominion, for if there is no such thing as animal pain then there is no such thing as cruelty to animals. "The premise of animal 'rights,'" Mr. Budiansky argues,
is that sentience is sentience, that an animal by virtue above all of its capacity to feel pain deserves equal consideration. But sentience is not sentience, and pain isn't even pain. Or, perhaps, following Daniel Dennett's distinction, we should say that pain is not the same as suffering. ... Our ability to have thoughts about our experiences turns emotions into something far greater and sometimes far worse than mere pain. ... Sadness, pity, sympathy, condolence, self-pity, ennui, woe, heartbreak, distress, worry, apprehension, dejection, grief, wistfulness, pensiveness, mournfulness, brooding, rue, regret, misery, despair — all express shades of the pain of sadness whose full meaning comes only from our ability to reflect on their meaning, not just their feeling. ... Consciousness is a wonderful gift and a wonderful curse that, all the evidence suggests, is not in the realm of the sentient experiences of other creatures.
Of course, this is the kind of theory a man advances in academic journals and conferences before going home at night to fall to the floor in joyful reunion with his own dog or cat. If we followed Mr. Budiansky around for a day, doubtless we would find him contradicting his own theory with every animal he encountered, bestowing pats and praise and scoldings and other tacit acknowledgments of conscious life in animals. We all do this. Anyone who in the light of day tried putting this theory of consciousness into practice — as some do, like the occasional monster caught torturing cats or burying live puppies in the backyard — would be shunned, reviled, and reported to the authorities.
The theory, in any case, goes back well beyond Professor Dennett, though the phrase "mere pain" could have come only from the modern behaviorist laboratory. C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain makes the similar point that animals experience "a succession of perceptions" but not "a perception of succession" to confer meaning upon suffering. Lewis adds, however: "How far up the scale such unconscious sentience may extend, I will not even guess. It is certainly difficult to suppose that the apes, the elephant, and the higher domestic animals have not, in some degree, a self or soul which connects experience and gives rise to rudimentary individuality."
We might also ask how many of our own pains are felt on that grand, Shakespearean scale of tragic suffering that Mr. Budiansky describes. A kick in the shorts does not send a man into an existential crisis or exquisite agony of the soul. It just hurts, and like animals, we scream. When injured or abused, animals shriek, squeal, squawk, bark, growl, whinny, and whimper. Some shake, perspire, and lose breath when in danger. Others get listless and refuse food in abandonment and separation. For all we know, their pain may sometimes seem more immediate, blunt, arbitrary, and inescapable than ours. Walk through an animal shelter or slaughterhouse and you wonder if animal suffering might not at times be all the more terrifying and all encompassing without benefit of the words and concepts that for us, after all, confer not only meaning but consolation. Whatever's going on inside their heads, it doesn't seem "mere" to them.
Never mind, too, how this bloodless theory goes against our own everyday assumptions about animals. The very industries clinging to such theories employ cats and dogs and chimps and so many other animals in laboratory tests of analgesics and surgeries, a useless exercise unless they experience physical pain comparable to ours. Likewise, no one who works with animals feels the least hesitation in making such statements as "That dog is happy," "This elephant is sad," "The chimp is bored," or "The horse is lonely." Part of the skill in tending and training animals is to understand precisely these emotions and each creature's particular disposition and personality, as witness the stablemates kept close at hand to soothe racehorses and to comfort sheep during their shearing.
On top of that, we have many statutes prohibiting cruelty to animals, lightly enforced yet reflecting a consensus that of course animals feel pain and, of course, it is wrong to needlessly harm them. The owner of the largest factory farm or animal laboratory, were he to accidentally step on his own dog or cat's tail, would wince and probably offer a verbal apology: "Sorry, boy!" No one needs language or some elaborate theory of consciousness to understand what internal feeling or thought those shrieks or yelps are conveying: "Ouch — that's my tail!"
Excerpted from Dominion by Matthew Scully. Copyright © 2002 Matthew Scully. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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