10 April 2009

Can They Suffer?

A very interesting op-ed piece in Wednesday's New York Times has had me cogitating about the whole issue of animal rights -- an issue long near and dear to me. While I won't go so far as to equate non-human animals and human animals, I deeply believe humans need to learn to be nicer to other animals. (And nicer to humans, too.)

There was a time, thankfully long ago, when the prevailing theory was that non-human animals felt no pain, had no intelligence, and were put on this earth for the complete and total use of humans and no other reason. People felt it okay to starve animals, neglect them, even use them for vivisection. Over time, cooler heads prevailed and humans slowly came to realize that -- whatever their "purpose" on our planet -- animals could indeed reason, feel pain and were more than just "dumb." (Clearly, once Jane Goodall saw a chimpanzee alter a twig and use it as a tool, there was no turning back.)

This understanding is pretty much universal today; but what amazed me in the op-ed piece was to learn that the idea of animals being more than just "dumb" officially dates back more than 200 years, to the writings of Jeremy Bentham who, in 1789, posited that animals might actually have the inherent right to not be made to suffer. Pretty heady stuff for the late 18th century.

For most of my life I have respected animals without really knowing why. It just seemed fair to be nice to them. I think it was in the opening scene of the 1992 movie "The Last of the Mohicans" where some Indians were hunting an elk or some such large animal. After they killed it, they gave a prayer of thanks for the animal giving its life to them, and wishing the animal's spirit a safe trip to the afterlife. I was moved by that scene and, since then (call me crazy) whenever we have meat for dinner, I say a little prayer of thanks to the animal which gave its life for us. I like meat, I eat meat, I wish there were some way we could have meat without killing an animal to get it. There is no reason to make the animal suffer just for our dinner.

[Note: The op-ed piece mentions the animal rights initiative passed in California in November saying calves, pigs and chickens should be kept in cages where they can be more comfortable than current law demands. I am happy to say Arizona passed a similar law in 2006.]

You can read the op-ed piece here.

You can read more about Bentham here; and his seminal work "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation" here.

My two previous entries about animals and their rights will be found here and here.

The illustration of a seahorse is by famed naturalist Charles Harper.

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