How We Treat Animals Matters. Christian Faith And The Ethical Treatment of Animals

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Chapter 5 from my book on ethical consumption.

A few years ago I was guest speaker at a youth camp set on the shores of a beautiful lake on the north coast of NSW. One afternoon I saw a group of adolescent campers knee deep in the water herding puffer fish into seaweed. I watched as a young man excitedly grabbed a trapped fish by the tail and lifted it from the water. The fish’s defence mechanisms kicked in – as the name suggests, the fish puffed itself up into the shape of a large spiky ball. This is supposed to frighten off any would be attacker. But our adolescent captor was undeterred. He tossed the fish high in the air and as it descended another camper smacked it as far as he could with a cricket bat. They then began searching for another puffer fish to belt. When I suggested this was horribly cruel, the campers simply shrugged and replied “But it’s only a puffer fish.”

Is it ever right to say, “It’s only a puffer fish”? Isn’t that puffer fish God’s handiwork? Isn’t it true that when the fish puffs itself up it displays the glory and wisdom of its Creator? Isn’t it true that God loves all his creatures, including that puffer fish? If so, doesn’t that demand a better response from us than, “it’s only a puffer fish, so it doesn’t matter that we batter it?”

We share this planet with millions of creatures, creatures that God made and loves. Some of them are our pets; some of them are our neighbours – the birds in our backyards, the spiders on the roof; some of them provide us with food and clothing – milk from the cow, meat from the pig; some of them provide us with clothing – leather for our shoes, wool for our jumpers; and some of them are untamed wild creatures. We live on a planet alive with millions of different types of creatures filling every ecological niche and with whom our consumption habits bring us into contact on a daily basis.

Just as there is a dark side to our consumption when it comes to our fellow humans, so there is a dark side to our consumption when it comes to our fellow creatures.

Destruction of Habitats and Extinctions

Under the weight of human demand on their environment, plant and animal species are being made extinct at 100 to 1000 times the natural rate.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, rainforests are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used in a variety of products including margarine, soap and cosmetics and demand for this resource has increased tenfold since 1960. Rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra that are being converted into palm oil plantations are also the only places in the world Orang-utans are found. With the loss of their natural environment Orang-utan populations are plummeting and the Orang-utan is now a threatened species.[i]

What is happening to the Orang-utan is happening to thousands of animal species across the world. I write this paragraph on November 11, 2011. Just yesterday the western black rhino, hunted for its valuable ivory horn, was declared extinct by the world’s leading body on animal populations, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The IUCN lists 25% of mammals, 13% of birds and 41% of amphibians as endangered in 2011.[ii]

And even where animals are not endangered, there are significant population declines occurring. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Index, for example, shows a 30% decline between 1970 and 2007 in over 2000 species that have been monitored.

Industrial Scale Farming and Animal Welfare

Beyond the impact of human consumption on the survival of species, consumption also impacts animal welfare. When we think of farming, many of us imagine family farms with a relatively small number of animals roaming freely across the countryside. The reality is very different. For most of human history animals were too expensive to be regularly slaughtered and so meat-eating was something enjoyed on special occasions. Our affluence however sees us demanding meat on such a regular basis that every year Australian farms produce for slaughter 5.5 million pigs, 8.5 million cattle, 30 million sheep, and 465 million chickens. In addition to this our farms provide us with 2.4 billion eggs and 2 million dairy cows produce 10 billion litres of milk.[iii] This scale of farming has seen a decline in the traditional family farm and the emergence of massive factory-like farms where important questions arise about the treatment of animals.

Take the bacon and eggs you had for breakfast. The piglet slaughtered to provide the bacon was probably born to a sow in a shed full of sows that will never see sunshine. The sow will be kept pregnant most of her life and will spend some or all of each sixteen week pregnancy in a sow stall, a metal crate two metres long and sixty centimetres wide. She’ll be unable to walk more than a step forward or back, unable to turn around, unable to fulfil her powerful instincts to explore, forage, socialise and nest. This highly social, intelligent animal will grow bored and aggressive and will probably see her muscles and bones deteriorate, making it painful to stand and sit. She’ll have her litter and soon after the process will start all over again.[iv]

And what of the eggs in your meal? They may have come from hens that are free to roam outdoors, from hens kept in a barn, or from hens kept in cages. If the eggs were cage–laid, the hen will have been housed for its entire laying life inside one of hundreds of cages stacked in rows inside a shed. The hen will share her wire cage with a small number of hens. Each hen will be allocated a space the size of an A4 piece of paper and unable to engage in instinctive behaviours such as foraging, perching and dust bathing.[v]

You may preference free range or barn laid eggs, where the birds are free to roam and nest. The large flock size however brings its own problems – greater occurrence of manure borne diseases, difficulty in identifying and removing sick birds for treatment, and higher likelihood of feather pecking, infighting and cannibalism.[vi]

Perhaps you skipped breakfast and grabbed a chicken burger at a fast food outlet. The meat most likely came from a chicken which spent her entire life inside a densely packed shed. Bred to mature rapidly, many of the chickens in the shed will put on weight so fast that their legs fracture, leaving them unable to reach food and water. Once the chickens have reached sufficient weight they are packed into crates and shipped to the processing plant. On the way some will die from heat exhaustion or from being crushed. Having arrived at the processing plant the birds are removed from the crates, shackled upside down and stunned in an electrical bath before having their throats cut by a rotating blade.[vii]

So having your bacon and eggs or that chicken burger can be ethically problematic. Is it cruel to treat animals this way? And if so, is it something Christians should tolerate?

Animal welfare issues are found not only with the treatment of pigs and chickens, but also with cattle in feedlots, sheep mulesing, live export of both sheep and cattle, the treatment of calves on dairy farms and more.

So how do we know what constitutes animal welfare? The RSPCA defines it in terms of five freedoms:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease: by prevention through rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

While some of these freedoms are protected on factory farms, in many instances a number of them are not. It is in the interests of a producer to keep their animals healthy and well–fed, but as we have seen for sows, layer hens and broiler chickens, farm animals are not necessarily free from discomfort, free to express natural behaviours or free from fear and distress.

Are Animals Objects or Subjects?

Does it matter if species are made extinct or the welfare of individual animals is compromised? When we ask these questions, we are confronted with a tension between seeing animals as objects and as subjects. An object is a thing that is owned, manipulated and used to suit the needs of the owner. Here a pig is no different to a piece of machinery or a puffer fish to a tennis ball. Viewed as objects, animals exist purely to serve the interests of humans – of the farmer for profit, the adolescent camper for pleasure, the cosmetics maker for a test subject. What we do to the animal matters little; it is “just” a pig, a puffer fish or a chicken. This perspective found stark expression in the words of theologian Joseph Rickaby in 1901:

Brute beasts, not having understanding and therefore not being persons, cannot have any rights… We have no duties of charity, nor duties of any kind, to the lower animals, as neither to stocks and stones.[viii]

When animals are viewed as subjects the focus shifts. A subject feels, has interests and demands our love and respect. Andrew Linzey, perhaps the world’s foremost animal theologian, notes that,

At the heart of the new – now increasingly worldwide – sensitivity to animals is a fundamental change of perception. That change can be described quite simply. It is a move away from the idea that animals are things, machines, commodities, here for our use, or means-to-human-ends, to the idea that animals as God-given sentient beings have their own intrinsic value, dignity, and rights.[ix]

Viewed as a subject, it matters whether an animal suffers, is free to live as God intends and is treated with love and care.

So should we treat animals as nothing more than objects, in which case there is no ethical problem with keeping sows in stalls or using puffer fish as cricket balls? Should we treat them as subjects, in which case we would avoid any activity that causes pain or suffering to animals and most likely question the validity of eating them? Or can we treat animals as both objects and subjects at the same time, and if so, which relation has priority?

Animals Matter to God

The first thing we can say is that animals matter to God. It is easy to think that human beings are the sole object of God’s concern, but that is counter to biblical teaching. The Scriptures declare that God loves all the creatures he made, human and non-human.

Consider the story of Jonah, in which the reluctant prophet is angry that God doesn’t destroy the city of Ninevah. In the final verses of the book God defends himself to Jonah.

You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right from their left – and also many animals?” (4:10-11)

It’s the “also many animals” that stands out to many modern readers. We know God is concerned about the people living in Ninevah, but animals? Yes, animals. God saved Ninevah because he loves people and animals.

Or consider Jesus’ teaching about the birds. How can we know God cares for us? By looking at his care of the birds.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God (Luke 12:6).

Perhaps the most important passage demonstrating God’s care for the animals is Psalm 104. God makes grass grow for the cattle (verse 14), provides trees for birds to nest (verse 17), assigns the high mountains to the wild goats (verse 18), provides all creatures with food (verses 27-28), and takes joy in all his handiwork (verse 31). The underlying theme of the psalm is that God is actively involved in the workings of creation to provide for the needs of all the creatures he made, human and non-human alike.

God’s Purpose for Animals

Genesis 1 & 2 picture humanity as vegetarian and the biblical prophets picture life in the world to come as free from human or animal bloodshed (Isaiah 11:6-9). This suggests that animals were created for purposes other than serving as a food source for humans.

The situation changes after the fall of humanity. Violence and bloodshed spread across the earth until God begins afresh with Noah and his family. When they leave the ark God renews the commission to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 9:1-11), but with one significant change: the animals will now fear humans (Genesis 9:2) and humans are given the animals as a food source – “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (Genesis 9:3)

The implication of this is that while it may be permissible to consume animals, we should not make this our primary framework for thinking about animals. God did not create animals first and foremost to serve as a source of protein for humans. They have other, prior purposes we must respect. Exactly what these are is never fully spelled out in Scripture, but we do receive some hints – we have already seen that the animals bring joy to God, a potential reason for their creation, and the Garden story (Genesis 2) suggests that the animals serve as companions to people, albeit not companions able to take the place of fellow humans.

Animals then should be seen first and foremost as fellow creatures we are called to love and in which we find joy as they exhibit their natural behaviour, just as God loves them and takes joy from them, and only secondarily as a food source. In other words, animals should be treated not only as objects but also as subjects.

Animals are Included in Salvation

This high valuing of animals is further reflected in their inclusion in salvation. In the last chapter we saw that God will redeem humans and the earth. We now need to broaden our understanding of salvation even further and recognise that in the teaching of Scripture it includes animals.

This is spelled out in Isaiah 11:1-11, which describes the work of the Messiah. Empowered by the Spirit of God he will bring righteousness and justice to the world. In this new world order,

the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Infants will play near the hole of the cobra; young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Here domestic beasts (lamb, kid, calf) exist peacefully with animals that are currently their predators (lion, leopard, bear) and humans likewise engage safely with animals that currently present a threat. While it is unclear how literally we should understand the image, the biblical perspective seems to be that the renewal of creation will include the animals. The image is repeated in the salvation vision of Isaiah 65 and taken up by Paul when he speaks of Christ not only creating but redeeming all created things (Colossians 1:19-20).

We are Responsible for the Welfare of Animals

In view of this high esteeming of animals it is not surprising that instead of seeing animals as objects to serve our welfare, the creation stories see us as responsible for their welfare. In the Bible’s first creation story God gave humankind responsibility to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:26). While this is often quoted to justify the right to treat animals as we please, that is in fact a misreading of the text. As we noted in the previous chapter, Genesis 1:26-28 employs the language of kingship and the primary responsibility of rulers is to secure the welfare of their subjects (Proverbs 31:1-9). Just as God, the ruler of all, seeks the well-being of the animals (Psalm 104; Matthew 6:26), so we, who are delegated rulership of the animals, should do the same. Indeed, the book of Proverbs enunciates this very principle: “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (12:10).

This suggests that although animals may serve as objects we use for food and clothing, they never cease to also be subjects. They have interests we should not only respect but that we should see as our responsibility to protect. Moreover if our primary responsibility as rulers is to the welfare of our subjects rather than our own convenience, the interests of animals as subjects should trump their value to us as objects.  We can never say, “It’s just an animal”.

Animal Welfare and Animal Rights

We began this chapter recognising that animals can be viewed as objects or subjects. These can be thought of as two ends of a continuum, with animals as objects at one end and as subjects at the other.

At creation and new creation animals are viewed as subjects. There is no predation and humankind is charged with securing the well being of the animals. After the Fall however animals are viewed not only as subjects but also as objects. God sanctions animals as a food source for humans, and so, as a food source at least, animals now serve the interests of humankind. Yet they don’t cease being subjects. God takes joy in the creatures he made, provides for them, and does not rescind the mandate to rule over the animals in a servant hearted way.

This means that none of us can sit at the animals-as-objects end of the continuum. We can never see animals as nothing more than objects for us to do with as we please.

Some will argue that we should sit at the animals-as-subjects end of the continuum. They argue that in a fallen world our lives should reflect the values of creation and new creation, and that this requires a reordering of our relationship to animals. Within this group there may be a determination to treat animals as possessing rights, which might not only include the right not to suffer but the right not to be owned and the right to live out their lives to the full before God.

Others will argue that as long as the world remains fallen we can sit somewhere in the middle of the continuum, treating animals as both subjects and objects. Just as we continue to marry despite the fact Jesus taught there will be no marriage in the fully redeemed world, so we will continue to consume animals even though we will not do so in God’s new world. Nonetheless because we respect animals as both object and subject we will seek to secure animal welfare, ensuring for example that farm animals are treated humanely in both their rearing and slaughter and that wild animals and their habitats are protected.

In practise sitting at the middle of the continuum will be somewhat messy. Assuming there is some level of suffering for farm animals and some constraining of freedoms they would enjoy in the wild, where do we draw the line?

Putting it into Practice

Some people may want to adopt vegetarianism, believing that this witnesses to the way God created us to be and the way we will be in God’s new world and avoids the cruelties of factory farming. Most, however, will continue to eat meat. They will recognise that God has permitted this (Genesis 9:3) but seek to consume in a way that minimises animal suffering. They will seek to treat animals as both objects and subjects, preferencing animal products where animal welfare is safeguarded.

Assuming most of Christians will elect to sit in the middle of the continuum, some practical steps we can take to secure the welfare of animals are listed below.

Practise animal welfare around the home

Be considerate in the treatment of animals around your home – pets, insects, birds, reptiles, etc. Try to develop a culture of care for animals. Ensure your pets enjoy the five freedoms and, if they cannot, give them to someone who can ensure they do. Where possible, avoid killing animals around your home. Try to make your yard an animal as well as people-friendly place.

Purchase sustainably harvested products

This will help avoid the destruction of animal habitats and serve to avoid making animal species extinct. An easy way to do this is to buy products that bear the Forest Stewardship Council or Marine Stewardship Council certification logos. Another idea is to consult websites such as Worldwide Fund for Nature – www.wwf.org.au – and the RSPCA – www.rspca.org.au – to keep up with latest developments.

Purchase animal products that have been farmed  humanely

By purchasing animal products from farmers who maximise the freedoms of their animals, we can eat meat, support farmers and respect animals. A simple rule of thumb is to buy free-range products or products endorsed by animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA.

Participate in animal welfare advocacy campaigns

Animals have no voice, so their welfare will be protected only as we speak on their behalf. For campaigns in which you can participate see the websites of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the RSPCA. More ‘hardline’ animal rights organisations People for the Ethical treatment of Animals – www.peta.org.au – and Animals Australia – www.animalsaustralia.org.au – also run advocacy campaigns.

In these simple ways we can begin to reclaim biblical stewardship of the animals.

 


[i] WWF (2010), Living Planet Report 2010 pp58-59

[ii] www.iucnredlist.org/documents/summarysatistics/2011_12_RL_Stats_Table1.pdf

[iii] Figures from ABARE (2007), Australian Agriculture, Fisheries And Forestry At A Glance  2007 and http://www.daff.gov.au/agriculture-food/meat-wool-dairy/ilg/industries/chicken_meat

[iv] RSPCA, Accessed September 5, 2010  http://kb.rspca.org.au/?View=entry&EntryID=109. 2010

[v] Accessed October 26, 2011 http://www.choosewisely.org.au/individuals/about-egg-production/ Accessed October 26, 2011

[vi] Hen Welfare Advisory Group, http://www.hwag.com.au/

[vii] See http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-are-the-welfare-issues-relating-to-meat-chicken-production_85.html

[viii] Rickaby (1901), Moral Philosophy, Longman Press

[ix] Linzey (2009), Creatures of the Same God. Explorations in Animal Theology, Lantern Books Kindle Edition, location 518

 

 

 

 

 

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