May 28 2015

The Value of Animals

A response to, and further exploration of, John Sutter’s, “The argument for eating dog”. This article originally appeared on Medium with editing by Ian Thomas.

A couple of weeks ago John Sutter released a brilliant CNN Opinion article titled “The argument for eating dog”. If you haven’t read that piece please go do so now. In Sutter’s article he makes this statement:

“If we think dog shouldn’t be eaten — like, ever, regardless of how clean the trade is and how quick the kill — then maybe we should think about the other animals we eat, and if and why we don’t feel the same way about them. Is it because we spend so much time with dogs — looking into their eyes, talking to them, walking them, picking up their crap — that we understand that they are living, breathing, feeling beings? Would we feel that way about other animals if we could hang out more?”

That particular paragraph made my brain scream, “YES! He gets it!” On a number of occasions I’ve lain down beside my companion animals and marveled at how alike we are. I’ve gazed into their eyes, felt the breath rise in their small bodies and heard the exhale from their noses. We both need food & water to survive. My companions and I both seek shelter from the elements and a warm place to sleep. All of us seek comfort and attention whether it’s a warm bed of straw or pressing our bodies against a loved one. We breathe the same air and drink the same water that’s so necessary to our livelihood…sometimes we even share the same foods. I have no doubt that given the time and appropriate conditions I could forge the same bonds with any other living animal.

I’ve often joked with my friends, “If I start eating meat again, my dog will be the first to go!” It’s a joke that can’t be taken at face value, a joke that carries some philosophy with it. If I believe that the bond I have with my dog could be replicated with any other living animal, and I chose to begin eating meat again, then there would be no sound reason for me to not start with her. Obviously I will never eat my canine companion, but it gets back to Sutter’s point.

What I believe Sutter is getting to is that in our culture we have a stumbling block in how we determine the value of animals. The stumbling block is in the previous sentence: WE are determining the value of animals. We’ve decided that without us animals are pointless. We’ve decided that their only purpose on this planet is to serve us. After all, we are the masters of this world! That view is incredibly ethnocentric and damaging. It reminds me of how we’ve treated other human animals in our past (slavery, eugenics, LGBTQ persons, etc.).

If we believe that the only value non-human animals have is strictly dictated by us then I suppose we’re doing everything right. Keep the factory farms open, keep the killing floors flowing with blood, keep the chickens cooped in a cage the size of a sheet of paper, remove their beaks, destroy the male chicks, fatten the turkeys until their legs break, keep plucking the angora rabbits, keep the cows constantly pregnant, throw their young to the veal house, and let’s change nothing.

However, and I think most of us would agree, we’re not doing everything right. I believe that our society & culture is in desperate need of a shift in how we view the value of animals. There is an entire ecosystem out there that arguably existed before human animals ever came to be. Whether you’re a Creationist or Evolutionist it’s clear: the animals were here first and were doing just fine without us. They had a value all their own before we ever entered stage right.

When we have these conversations about small farms, and local farms, and dystopian futures where if you want a wool sweater you’ve got to grow the sheep yourself, or if you want cheddar on that burger, you’ve got to grow the cows yourself, maybe we should take a step back. Take a step back and remember that the value of these animals doesn’t exist because we exist. Animals have value simply because they exist.