Kindness to Animals

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1998)

I was much intrigued by a recent article in the National Post by Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife entitled “Minister to Target Animal Abusers.” The article informs us that “Anne McLellan, the federal Justice Minister, is preparing to reform the Criminal Code to crack down on animal abusers before they turn their rage against humans.” The article maintains that wide public support exists for the proposed changes, support that serves the best interests, not only of animal lovers, but also lovers of humanity.

Animal lovers will, of course, be gratified by the prospect of heavier sentences for abusers. But people lovers will be just as pleased. The sentence that really caught my eye and caused me to nod my head in response was the mention of a landmark study by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation finding that serial killers, prior to committing their decidedly horrific deeds, were frequently animal abusers. As children, the likes of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Mark Lepine had all been cruel to animals before gravitating to the sadistic torture and/or cruel murder of innocent human beings. The article also maintained a link between cruelty to animals and child abuse. Should we be surprised?

Beyond these positive legal moves, I offer these supplementary considerations. It must be recognized that a steady continuum links all forms of life, whether higher or lower on the bio scale. While a vast difference exists between the intrinsic value of a dog, however beloved, and a human being, both creatures are an expression of life and deserve our respect and consideration. It is highly unlikely — except for the lunatic, violent fringe of the animal rights movement — that any child who is raised with an animal(s), and more especially, who is responsible for the care and protection of an animal, would later develop a cruel streak or sadistic tendency. The natural affection that most children have for animals is a sound preparation for the perpetuation of that same affection that will later naturally spill over onto human beings. It’s all part of that same experience of the continuum of life forms and demonstrates that affection can be shared between creatures across the barriers of species.

While the nervous systems of certain animals and human beings differ widely and degrees of pain are felt and tolerated to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the species of animal or the pain threshold of the human, basically pain is pain. Both children and adults should grasp this fact. If you accidentally catch a sharp hook on a human hand or an animal’s thigh, the pain will be felt physiologically in the same manner. The same is true for hunger and thirst. Whether for animal or human, hunger and thirst will be felt first as deprivation, and at some point as weakness and pain. Little minds imagine that the pain of animals is somehow inferior both in quality and degree to that of the human. The inferior intelligence of the animal should not be confused with a diminished capacity to feel pain. It’s just as real.

Domesticated animals are largely at the mercy of their owners. This is true even of your dangerous variety of guard dogs or farm animals, such as bulls. However, some guard dogs such as Dobermans and Pit Bulls have been known to turn on their owners on occasion and frequently these canines viciously attack strangers. Only a foolish person would antagonise a dangerous animal but any warped individual can find a way to injure one, if the distorted desire persists in the first place. If an assailant beats me, I can protest, defend myself, cry out or charge the person with assault. In short, recover damages. This is not true of the animal who cannot even articulate its pain and suffering. At least we can voice our pain and explain the nature of the cruelty or the injury inflicted on us. And only humans have defined and can defend the rights of animals.

It is because most domesticated animals are defenceless against humans that there are injunctions in all of the world’s great religions to treat animals with kindness. The protection of “mother cow” as “holy cow” in Hinduism, however arcane to westerners, is legendary. Some of the saints, such as Francis of Assisi, had an infinite compassion for animals as tender creatures of the loving-kindness of God. It is also said of Henry David Thoreau that he had so won the affection of wild animals at Walden Pond that they fed from his table unafraid and that even venomous snakes would coil at his feet. Kindness to animals should assist in the practice of kindness to human beings and vice-versa.

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