“A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure, to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentalities.” Joel Salatin in Food, Inc.
When I read about the abuse and killing of animals, when Sarah McLaughlin sings as the images of neglected pets move across my television, when a dead hummingbird turns up behind one of my potted plants, I am deeply moved. And, that sense of loss and desire for the health and life of animals exists in a very real tension – aren’t there more important, more worthy causes related to human suffering to care about, donate to, and shout to the whole world on Facebook?
Over time I have discovered that this tension is perceived and propagandized, the result of a false dichotomy. Sure, if I had to choose between rescuing a child or a pet from a burning building I would choose the child. Rarely, however, is that a choice we are forced to make. Human life is valuable. Animal life is valuable. Let’s stop measuring these things to somehow justify our own inaction, political leanings, or distorted interpretation of ancient and religious texts.
The first time I realized how much animals matter was when I was very small. I had been sent to my room and in my young mind no one was for me. I was alone and unjustly accused (which probably was not the case, but it sure felt that way). Then my cat showed up and sat purring with me the whole excruciating five minutes. And then the timeout after that, and after that, and so on until the only day I saw my father cry during my childhood, when sweet Woolybear grew old and ill and needed to be sent on her next adventure. I learned early that animals connect and care deeply and unconditionally, and we are capable of doing the same.
It wasn’t until much later in life, shortly after college, that I came back to that understanding and just how essential it is for a healthy life and a healthy society.
I had developed very strong opinions, based mostly on slanted facts and anomalous situations, about the value of animal life. I thought, “Animals are here solely for human use” (note that at the time I would have written “benefit,” but I see now my views were far from beneficial). We can hunt them and kill them whenever we please. We can keep them in atrocious conditions because they only exist to be slaughtered for food and don’t know any better anyway. We decide which species are useful and which are not; which ones survive and which do not; which ones to love and which to despise. We manipulate their genes and their diets. Their characteristics and their purpose. We don’t understand our connectedness, so we assume they exist simply to meet our needs. I am not a vegetarian by the way. I understand that one of the most profound relationships we have with animals is that their flesh provides us life-giving nutrients. I also understand the following.
The way we view any form of life affects the way we view every form of life.
Joel Salatin taught me that when I watched Food, Inc. He reminded me how deeply connected we all are and that all means all. I was studying humanitarian efforts at the time. Aid and development work in the most extremely challenging conditions of poverty, disaster, child abuse, corruption. I had worked myself up in my commitment to alleviating these issues to the point of discrediting any effort to make a difference in this world if it fell outside of those realms. Extinction on the horizon for a species? Does that really matter more than children dying from preventable diseases? Neglected cats and dogs? Seriously, you really would rather donate money to them than to starving communities?
The truth is, one of the great privileges we have in the developed world is choosing for ourselves what matters, where we will give our time and money. With that privilege comes IMMENSE responsibility. We can give where we choose. Yes, those choices are influenced by the media, our upbringing, marketing campaigns, and more. Choosing wisely within that cultural reality is a topic for another day. Choosing responsibly is what I want to talk about here. Having the power to decide what matters demands that we acknowledge that more matters than what matters to us individually.
Cecil the lion and the debates he has spurred matter. Our pets and those being neglected and abused matter. The extinctions of species halfway around the globe matter. The pesticides and fertilizers I choose to use in my garden matter. They matter because when my respect for life diminishes so does my ability to connect and to care. When our collective value of life diminishes in the least so does our collective ability to respond first with compassion. Cecil the lion matters because he has reminded many of us what we knew to be true when we were very small, and before we shift quickly to our criticisms and debates (most definitely writing to myself here), it would do us some good to sit in the experience of connecting and caring with one another about a beautiful life so that we can more compassionately live, recognizing the value of all life.