I’ve been pondering the death-row status of Bill and Lou, beloved Oxen that Green Mountain College had been using to pull plows until one became lame. The college now plans to kill both and eat them as part of their “sustainability” project. I have finally found the words to express why their impending execution is so disturbing to me.
Think of the greatest humans…who comes to mind? Not just those with attributes we aspire to have, but those whose most admirable characteristics we’d like to see embodied in more people, knowing that if they were more prevalent, the world would be a much better place? This lens leaves out many celebrated athletes, musicians, and entrepreneurs, but here are several of the first people who pop into my mind — Pete Seeger, Lucretia Mott, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mahatma Gandhi.
If I had to sum up what one characteristic these individuals share, and which appears to have been what most motivated them to act, it is compassion. Further, it is an expansive compassion – one that compelled them to see beyond the prevalent paradigms of their time/culture and to extend justice to individuals that most of those around them, or else those who held the power did not consider worthy of such justice.
The history of humanity clearly shows that we are making moral/ethical progress, and extending our circle of compassion from my family, my community, my religion, and my race to those whom we had seen as very different. Although human population growth and dwindling resources, may challenge our moral fortitude as never before, we have come a long way! Cannibalism is universally abhorred. Human slavery, although not yet eradicated, is illegal just about everywhere. The equality of women is recognized in more and more places. And most countries prohibit the exploitation of children.
Yet it is still legal and common for almost any animal to be treated in ways that cause them unimaginable agony — even for the most trivial of human desires. We can torture or kill certain animals for no other reason than our own amusement. (fish and animals in circuses) Food animals can be beaten, shocked, deprived of food and water, and confined their entire lives in egregiously small spaces. Highly innervated body parts are routinely removed without anesthetic. Nursing bovine mothers who are clearly as attached to their babies as human mothers are to theirs, have their babies violently taken from them. Like the children of Southern slave-owning whites in the early 1800s, we have grown up accepting these norms, and perhaps even seeing our own comfort and way of life as dependent upon their continuation.
Imagine this: You live next door to an elderly couple who have a friendly dog who the whole neighborhood loves. The dog gets the newspaper for this couple every morning and does other useful things for them as well. But as she has aged, she is going blind and is no longer so useful – but is still in good health and good spirits. Now supposing the couple’s cultural background makes them comfortable with the idea of eating dogs, and they love dog meat – but have been deprived of this pleasure since coming to the US. They have let it be known that they are planning on having their dog humanely killed and butchered so they can eat her. Another family in the neighborhood is begging to have this dog and let her live out her life with them, well cared for, but this couple refuses, saying they are really looking forward to eating “dog” after having not had any in so long – and further they have been feeding her a special diet, planning that eventually she would be consumed. How would you feel about this? How would feel about the possibility that others in your neighborhood, might even say, “Well it IS just a dog…and I’d like to see what it tastes like too.” How would you feel at the thought that such practices might grow to be more widely accepted? Would it bother you if others on your street started eating and raising dogs for meat? What if people started thinking this was ok for cats too? Would you consider such changes to be good for society? What if your own children suddenly told you that they’d like to see what their beloved cat or dog tasted like, and had no qualms with he or she being killed – as long as it was quick and relatively pain free, in order to have this experience of eating them?
If you are like most people, just thinking about this is very disturbing, I challenge you to consider why? I believe it is because in our heart of hearts, we know that cats and dogs are self-aware beings, like us, who also want to live. We recognize that there is something dark about a person who could form a relationship with an animal, and then disregard that and harm them. If you don’t find the scenario disturbing, it is likely that you are someone who has already been enculturated to be numb to this sort of thing –probably by being raised on a farm.
In the highly acclaimed book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author describes how prior to the legal requirement of “informed consent”, hospitals would experiment on patients without their knowledge. At one hospital where doctors were instructed to inject cancer cells into unknowing patients, all but three doctors (who just happened to be Jewish) complied. But the Jewish Docs argued that the Nuremberg Convention prohibited this. They were widely ridiculed by their colleagues who dismissed their perspective because they were Jews and the Holocaust had just happened and they were seen as overly sentimental. Looking back, most of us today are shocked that so many educated, thoughtful people could have failed to appreciate the perspective of the three Jewish doctors. So we should ask ourselves, what injustices are we blind to right now, that in the future will be seen by most as so obviously wrong?
Every day in America, millions of sentient creatures are killed after living lives with far more suffering then Bill and Lou have endured. In terms of what it means for us humans, I am especially concerned about Bill and Lou’s fate. If they get slaughtered, in spite of people who care about them pleading to take them to a sanctuary, it will be akin to the beloved neighborhood dog being killed to be eaten. Only the collateral damage won’t be the dimming of compassion in just the neighborhood children, but will potentially infect a great many more people, because of these animal’s notoriety.
I want Bill and Lou to be saved, not just because I believe they want to live as much as any of us, but also because doing so is most consistent with our human kind’s highest ideals and is one more step in the direction of creating a more just and compassionate world for all of us. As humanity grapples with population and environmental challenges, one thing is clear – We need more of our population to be people whose hearts are open, and who are not numb to injustices that others may have learned to ignore. Compassion is the basis of morality and we all benefit from practices that bring it more and more to fruition.