than 90 years ago the author Anatole France wrote a novel titled
Penguin Island in which a blind
monk baptizes a flock of penguins,
mistaking them for a group of small people.
The monk's error
creates a crisis in heaven, as God and his
advisors debate whether birds should be given souls. They struggle with
the pros and cons of the idea before finally accepting Saint
Catherine's recommendation that birds be given souls, but only small
Personally, I've never
thought much about the souls of birds
or fish or
reptiles. Like most folks, I suppose, I've
accepted the idea that these
are "lower life forms"
incapable of the kinds of thoughts and feelings
we have in common with mammals. We humans stand at the top of the pile,
according to our philosophies, with dominion over all the other
however, implies responsibility. We can have our way with animals, but
are we really free to do with them as we like?
been thinking about this after reading Humans
and Other Animals, a book which
grapples with questions like: What
separates humans from the other animals? Are any other
animals conscious? What rights do animals have under the law?
suprisingly, there is no agreement on the answers to these questions.
believe animals are incapable of reason; others argue that their wants
and needs are as important as our own. Some people feel animals were
put on earth to serve mankind; others maintain that they deserve equal
rights. Some see evidence of individual souls in the eyes
of the creature world, while others do not.
most of us, our releations with animals are varied and
contradictory. Domestic pets are often treated like members of the
closely related wild creatures are treated as vermin. Cows and pigs are
to be slaughtered, while horses are often nurtured into old age.
rights activists campaign against cruelty to pets and livestock, but
rarely speak out for rats, shrews, starlings, voles or pigeons. Some
rail about the evils of hunting, but turn a blind eye to the sufferings
of abandoned pets.
As one of the writers in Humans
and Other Animals
points out, pets and livestock and zoo
animals are protected under cruelty laws in most
states, but wild creatures -- unless endangered as a species -- have no
such protection. As far as the law is concerned, caged animals have
rights than those running free.
by psychology professor Arien Mack, Humans
and Other Animals
collects the writings of legal scholars and scientists and animal
trainers that were presented at a recent conference on human-animal
The writers are no closer to agreement on the issues than any of us,
but one point becomes clear after reading their opinions:
animals learn to speak to us, or we learn to understand them, all
questions about their nature or their rights are human questions. It
matters not what animals think about us; it's what we think about them
that controls their destiny.
Here in rural America,
especially on family farms or small
most animals have it pretty good. Both pets and livestock are usually
well fed and have some room to roam. They are better off, I believe,
because we know them by name.
Juliet Clutton-Brock points out that until recently, most farmers lived
in close contact with their livestock.
"However cruel they may have
been at times, they treated their animals as individuals who could
suffer like themselves," she points out. "But it is inevitable
that once the numbers of animals owned becomes large, say in the
thousands, their individual identities are lost."
may not matter to a cow whether she is called "Bessie" or '"7a212-35,"
but it makes a difference to us, both in how we think about that cow
and how she is treated. Bessie may have a small soul, but 7a212-35 has
none at all.