The Difference Between Animals and Us


April 03, 1991|By JON MARGOLIS

CHICAGO. — Chicago.-- Among the smaller pities of life is that the organized opposition to the ''animal rights'' movement is being led by furriers and butchers.

Their leadership makes it too easy to dismiss their case as mere greed, and among the larger pities of life is that the ranks of those of us who find greed preferable to earnestness have diminished. The nice thing about people motivated by greed is that you can cut a deal with them. People motivated by earnest conviction are dangerous.

However they are motivated, and however unconvincing some of their slogans (calling mink a ''renewable resource'' is stretching things a bit), the furriers and the butchers are right. Animals, as all true animal lovers know, can have no rights.

Only human beings can have rights because only human beings can have responsibilities, among the most basic of which is to treat animals with kindness, or at least without cruelty.

Certain animals can be trained to exercise limited, operational responsibilities. There are guide dogs and beasts of burden. But animals face no moral choices, and therefore exercise no moral responsibility. This is a qualitative difference between them and us.

Seeing a bird hopping about nearby, a cat does not pause to consider the ethics of the situation. He pounces. Nature offers no protection of the bird's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when weighed against the cat's pursuit of food.

Or, quite often, of fun. Extremists among the animal rightsniks insist that only human beings kill for enjoyment, a proposition which no minimally observant cat owner can accept. Cats who have just had a full meal will grab a bird or mouse, torment it as long as possible and then proudly bring the not-quite-dead victim to the front door to show what great hunters they are.

The cruelty done to animals by people pales beside the cruelty one animal commits against another, often of its own species. The bass you fool with your popping bug may not like being caught on your hook. But neither did several thousand of his own children like being his supper just minutes earlier.

Or consider, if you've a strong stomach, chickens. They do not form a harmonious community. Should one of them get a small sore, her flock-mates will be all over her, pecking wildly and tearing at the flesh until the poor thing is dead. Chickens are stupid and despicable creatures, worthless but for being the source of tasty and nutritious meat and eggs.

Animals have feelings, which is why we ought not treat them cruelly. What they lack is consciousness of their own existence. Those of us who have raised goats know that one method for people who want to milk a goat is to blindfold the doe just before she begins labor, and then to spirit her newborn kid out of her sight. She will not know that she has given birth and will not object when her owner, rather than her offspring, begins milking.

If she sees the kid, the doe will lick off the placenta, nurture her newborn and act in a manner which resembles, and may be, a mother's love. But this is instinct, not consciousness. In a few weeks, when the kid is weaned, its mother will not recognize it as her own. A creature which does not know when it will create life does not know that it will die, even if its instinct impels it to fight death. We all know we will die. That's why we created psychiatrists, martinis, meditation, poetry and (perhaps) religion.

Animals are our dependents. It makes no difference whether or not God gave us ''dominion'' over them, as the Bible says. We have it anyway, by dint of our natural (if not always physical) superiority. This applies to the lions in the jungle as much as to the kittens and parakeets in the living room. It's another reason we're obligated not to mistreat them, but also another reason why they have no rights. Rights accrue only to the independent, because only the independent can be responsible. All societies restrict the rights of children, who are not yet independent. Animals are like children who will never grow up.

Like most extremist political movements, the animal crusade is as correct in several specifics as it is wrong in general. To make veal, it is necessary to kill calves. Until then it is not necessary to chain them so tightly that they cannot move. Injuring animals or making them sick to find cures for disease is one thing. Blinding rabbits to test cosmetics is quite another.

The animal-protection movement performs a service when it points out how frequently people fail to meet their responsibilities to animals. It damages its own case when it tries to invest ''rights'' in creatures that lack moral sense. Next time someone calls you a ''speciesist,'' thank him for the compliment.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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