Last night we enjoyed some quality Wyebrook cottage bonding time. Lexi, Amelia, Taylor and I watched Blackfish, the documentary about orcas in captivity, a.k.a. killer whales. Definitely worth watching (free on Netflix). It isn’t about farming so I won’t get into the details, but it got me thinking about how we view and treat animals.
It seems to me that we, as a society/species, view animals as inferior beings that exist only to serve our needs, be it as food, companionship, or entertainment. Is that true? Does a pig exist for the sole purpose of providing the world with bacon? Are chickens irrelevant to the ecosystem if they don’t lay eggs and make tasty soup? What is the point of a cow apart from milk and meat?
Don’t worry, I’m not going all PETA on you and I’m not becoming a vegan (or even a vegetarian). Animals are not human beings. As a Christian, I believe humans were created in the image of God; animals were not. Therefore humans are uniquely positioned in the created order. We are stewards of creation and were given dominion over the animals. Even if you don’t share my religious views, it’s hard to deny that humans are unique when it comes to the animal world. We have the power of logic and rationality. We can control, even suppress, our instincts in ways animals cannot.
But having authority over something does not make you superior nor does it mean the thing under you exists solely for your benefit.
Animals are not lesser people. They are animals. Contrary to King Louie’s song and dance in The Jungle Book, animals are not aspiring humans. A pig is content to simply be a pig. She doesn’t pass her days wishing she were a cow or a goat or anything else. She is content with her lot in life. And while a pig would make a lousy human being, she knows how to be a pig far better than I do. Who am I, a human, to tell her, a pig, how to best be a pig?
Take Beethoven. He was an incredible musician from a young age, likely surpassing his parents’ musical abilities early on in his life. His parents had authority over him as he was their child, but that did not make them superior musicians and that authority didn’t grant them divine qualifications to instruct him in music.
It’s not a perfect comparison, but you get the idea. We may have authority over the animals, but that doesn’t mean we inherently know what is best for them or how they should express their animal-ness.
Authority can be abused. When we start thinking our authority makes us superior, we start looking at the animals in our world in terms of their usefulness. What do they have to offer? We develop a utilitarian mindset towards food animals. Their purpose here on earth is to feed us humans. This end (cheap, convenient food) justifies all kinds of means (gestation crates, CAFOs, rBST, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, etc.).
That is why it’s important to remember that animals have a right to exist independent of any usefulness to humans. My old dog, Vanilla, was a yellow lab. A retriever. By human definition, her breed exists to retrieve things. She was the world’s worst retriever. I would throw a tennis ball and she’d just lay there and watch it bounce across the yard. She wasn’t fulfilling her purpose as defined by the American Kennel Club. Should we have put her down? Of course not! But that is how we treat other animals and that was the message of Blackfish.
The animal husbandry methods and techniques used by industrial agriculture show little respect for the nature of the animals being raised. Cows, herbivores by nature, consume grains instead of grass. Why? Because they grow faster. That means more food and more money. Pigs are kept indoors and denied the opportunity to root through the dirt and wallow in mud puddles. Why? Because it is easier. We raise animals in a way that is most convenient and profitable to the humans involved in the system with little regard to how these choices impact the animals.
The best way to respect the animals we “govern” is to give them the space and resources to express their natural instincts. We are asking these animals to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give their lives so we can eat. The least we can do is to allow them room to be who and what they were created to be during their lives. These are matters of life and death; convenience shouldn’t be a consideration.