Saturday, October 25, 2008

Killing Pets... and Other Cross-Species Interactions

The September 19, 2008 issue of People Magazine contained an article entitled "The Puppy Saver," about Bill Smith in Pennsylvania who is committed to saving puppies from "puppy mills," Puppy mills are locations where dogs are bred in large numbers solely for the financial profit of the owner. These puppy mills are often places where the dogs are kept in squalid crowded conditions, without exercise or necessary care. The article says... "It is a dirty secret that picturesque Lancaster County is also the puppy mill capital of the United States - and that the otherwise gentle Amish and Mennonite farmers who live in the area dominate the trade." The article says that "Some of the largest Amish operations can produce annual profits of upwards of $500,000. The Oprah Winfrey Show also recently had an episode that focused on puppy mills and also featured Bill Smith.

The People Magazine article reports that one puppy mill owner, on finding out from a kennel inspector that he might be fined as much as $300. per puppy for inadequate care, shot and killed 80 dogs. The article goes on to say the following: "But the Amish see their involvement in puppy mills sanctioned by a higher authority as well. They interpret the Bible as giving them dominion over animals. "That's in Genesis, " says one Amish kennel owner, who asked that he not be named. "They are not people; they're animals. So they can be kept in cages."

As a Mennonite who grew up in Lancaster County I would like to look a little closer at the belief expressed by the anonymous Amishman who says that it's OK for people to keep animals in cages. (Actually, for the record, we also keep people in cages, especially the United States, which has one of the largest incarcerated populations of humans in the world). I recognize the comment by the Amishman as somewhat representative of the traditional beliefs of some, (hopefully a minority), Amish and Mennonites. Having dominion over animals has never meant abandoning the responsibility to be good stewards. We are still required to treat and relate to other species in a wise and respectful manner. In much the same way that "render to Caeser the things that are Caeser's" does not mean that we give Caesar anything that he asks for, likewise the instruction to "have dominion" over the plants and animals does not mean that we can do anything we want to other species. The arrogance that humans show toward the rest of God's creation is not limited to Amish or Mennonites in their treatment of dogs, but to some extent permeates all societies and is demonstrated by the disappearing habitat for other creatures, and the increasing number of species facing extiction.

I remember frequently seeing, in Lancaster County, country roads covered with dirt and mud where farmers cultivating their land, either with horses or tractors, would work the soil to the very edge of the pavement, and then turn their equipment around on the road to return to the field. If asked, they would probably tell you that they were simply practicing good stewardship by using all the possible soil for cultivating, but I suggest that such a practice is actually an act of greed. Why? Because the Bible makes it clear that some of the land must be preserved for the birds and animals. Landowners have a responsiblity to not use all their land for their own purposes. It's also true that in many parts of this country it is only in those extremely narrow strips of land between cultivated or grazed fields and highways, that native species of plants are able to survive.

From the time I was very young I was aware of the condescending attitude that people have toward other species of animals and plants. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the belief that it 's wrong to let another, especially domesticated, species suffer. So if a dog, horse, cat, or some animal suffers a serious injury, they are euthanized, or more accurately, executed, to end their suffering. This happened to a cat in my family on at least one occassion. We never spent any money on vets or treatment for injured animals. Perhaps my parents could not afford it. This belief was and is widespread throughout the country. The novelist Harry Crews, in his superb 1978 autobiography, "A Childhood: The Biography of a Place," writes about slaughtering hogs: "Animals were killed but seldom hurt. Farmers took tremendous precautions about pain at slaughter. As brutal as they sometimes are with farm animals and with themselves, no farmer would ever eat an animal he had willingly made suffer." Although Crews was writting about growing up as the son of a sharecropper in Georgia, at least a small part of his experience and mine overlap.

The belief that it's better to kill an injured or sick animal rather than let it suffer is another example of the arrogance people display toward other species. We don't even know what other members of our own speices want in that kind of situation. That's why we have living wills and advanced directives. Yet we are arrogant enough to pretend that we know what an individual from another species would want! Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesing that letting them suffer is a good idea, or that I have a better alternative. I don't. I'm simply saying that pretending we know what's best for them or what they would want, when we don't even know what other members of our own species want, is extremely arrogant. At least we need to recognize and acknowledge that fact.

Not all Amish or Mennonites act in a disdainful manner toward other creatures. Although I know of a Mennonite pastor who, when I was a boy, foolishly cultivated a hedgerow between two of his fields thereby destroying the nests of several ring-necked pheasants and numerous other animals and birds and also subjected his sloping fields to more erosion and loss of topsoil, I also remember another Mennonite farmer who while cultivating a field with a large tractor and disk carefully circled and preserved a killdeer nest with its four eggs.

The misinterpretation of Biblical passages on having dominion, and the selfishness of humans toward the creation is not evident just in Amish and Mennonite puppy mills. It's a part of our entire human culture and mainfests itself whenever a marsh is drained, wildlife is poached, and whenever air or water is used as a storage for some kind of toxic waste. It's also evident in the actions of "developers" who drive other species off their land in order to build homes for humans, (and the people who buy those homes), rather than using land already available by building more compact cities and towns. It's evident in the transfer of fertile farmland into suburbs, and rain forest into farmland. We see it every time a law has to be passed to protect an endangered species because people don't care enough to do it on their own. It's also visible in the absence of large preserved ecosystems and in the non-existance of wildlife corriders which make it possible for wildlife to have access to water and normal traditional migration patterns. Actually it would be difficult to find, anywhere in the world, a sensitive and responsible pattern of humans relating to other species, although it's true that some countries do it much better than the US.

Amish and Mennonite puppy mill owners who cage their animals, never allowing them to get any exercise and depriving them of needed medical care and proper nutrition, should be accountable for their abuse. However the foundation of their misbehavior, based on the idea that humans have dominion over the rest of the creation, and their failure to realize exactly what that means is a problem that most people, especially in this country, seem to have. Plants and animals, other than humans, are "good," independant of any human use or utilization. Their value as part of the creation is not dependant on how much they benefit human beings. The most important lesson we can learn from the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis is that the creation - all of it - is worth preserving and saving. We have an obligation to preseve and protect other species and their habitats. It's wrong to simply see them as having value only for the ways in which people can use them. Extinction of plants and animals also threatens humans. Most species of plants and animals can get along perfectly well without people. In fact most of them would be better off without any humans on this planet . But people need plants to simply survive. They don't need us, but we definitely need them. We need to remember that Planet Earth belongs to God, and it doesn't need people.

1 comment:

Nicola said...

wow Leonard, i really enjoyed reading that. I'm a huge animal right's person, and i appreciated reading your thoughts on puppy mills, especially since you grew up in Lancaster County. Its amazing how people interpret scriptures to fit/suit their needs. You are a very articulate writer!