Christianity has much to say about our relationship with one another, but what about our animal neighbors? How are we to treat them? What constitutes exploitation and abuse? These questions have puzzled minds since Aristotle. Perhaps the first step towards the ethical treatment of animals is defining our relationship between us and our fellow creatures. In Genesis 1:28 God tells us, “Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, and all the living things on Earth” (TNIV). One may see this as a license to exploitation or as an arrogant statement of human superiority. I think it means neither.
When we think of the word master we usually think of slavery and forced servitude. Yet, it doesn’t have to be a one way relationship. Nor must it be a cruel one. Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, describes the animal-human relationship as a mutual trade. The clearest examples of this are with our pets and farm animals. We provide our dogs and cats with food, drink and frequent petting. They, in return, provide us with comfort and warm our hearts on days when we are down. Similarly, farmers depend on cows, pigs and sheep for their milk, eggs and even their flesh.
This last idea of animals giving their flesh and body to us is disturbing to many animal welfare activists. Philosophers like Tom Regan call for the abolition of scientific testing, animal agriculture and game hunting. He believes that animals should be granted their rights to “life, liberty and bodily integrity.” Animal death and pain seem to have no place in his animal utopia. Yet, it must be admitted that the methods of animal experimentation are quite gruesome and inhumane. They include isolation, hind leg beating and the immobilization of certain body parts. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have documented similar horrors of factory farms in which animals are beaten and clubbed.
So we should abandon eating meat and let God’s creatures live happily ever after, just like nature intended, right? Not so fast. Nature, for one, is not a Garden of Eden. Animal pain and death occur every day in the animal kingdom in far more gruesome ways than the butchering we see on factory farms. The task then facing us is to kill the animals in a way that minimize suffering. This means exacting a swift and painless death. Looked at in this way, caring and killing animals are not necessarily inconsistent with one another. Farmers can shelter, feed and care for their animals and then allow them have a more peaceful death.
Pollan notes that in our fast-food world we have become separated from the animals we consume. We walk into stores and buy Big Macs forgetting that the meat patties came from living, breathing animals. This change has marked a decline in ceremonies surrounding the eating and killing of animals. Even my family rarely says their graces at the table. We just dig in. Animals are rapidly turning into things, rather than beings. Who now performs mystical or spiritual rituals before and after he makes a kill?
In conclusion, as masters over the animal kingdom, we have a duty to treat animals with the respect that they deserve. This means appreciating them for what they provide us and not taking them for granted. We should be thankful for the companionship of our dogs, the beauty of the birds that come to our bird feeders and the meat of the chicken on our plate. Hunting, animal experimentation and farming may be unavoidable necessities. Yet, because we wield so much power and control over the lives and fates of animals, we have an obligation to treat animals as humanely as possible. We should care for them in life and honor them in death.