When I was a boy, I heard nothing about animal rights. I guess that’s not surprising, as I also heard nothing about animal duties. In those days, the adults I associated with took for granted that duties and rights go together. As no one I heard of promoted animal duties, it would have seemed peculiar if someone had promoted animal rights.
I mention this because as a youngster I both approved and abetted the killing of animals and birds. Whenever my father, a travelling salesman, drove me on his rounds, I enjoyed counting the dead gophers on the highway. I especially enjoyed it when my father added to their number. Like bas-relief images on plaster, rodent remains on pavement appealed to my artistic sense.
Although I didn’t worry about the morality of cars challenging gophers, I wondered about the intelligence of gophers challenging cars. My parents and teachers had taught me that animals are dumb because they can’t speak. Gophers taught me that they’re dumb because they can’t think. Otherwise, why would they cross the road without waiting for a break in the traffic?
“To get to the other side,” I told myself, as I recalled the riddle about the road-crossing chicken. But the chicken had an excuse. Being flightless, it couldn’t soar across. The gophers had no excuse. Being burrowers, they could have tunneled across.
I also went with my father and his buddies when they hunted upland game. They didn’t have a bird dog. They had me. When they shot grouse or partridges out of the air, I chased and caught them on the ground. Felled by scattered buckshot, they nearly always fled on foot. After I retrieved a bird, the hunters delivered the coup de grace by wringing its neck.
My mother became an accessory when she skinned, dismembered and fricasseed the carcasses in butter and onions. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say the family that slays together stays together, but it worked for us.
Clearly, I was unprepared for the esteem in which animals are held today. When a motorist caused a multiple vehicle collision by hitting the brakes to avoid hitting a squirrel, I was amazed. When another driver caused a fatal motorcycle accident by stopping in traffic to help a family of ducks cross the road, I was dumbfounded. If they were firefighters, I wondered, would these Samaritans rescue a rodent ahead of a Rotarian, a bird ahead of a birder.
As animal worship was common among pre-Christians, I suppose its revival among post-Christians shouldn’t surprise me. The signs of a revival are everywhere, from pet fanciers’ adoration of companion animals to rights activists’ devotion to all non-human animals, extant or extinct.
Dog lovers alone spend billions annually to feed and clothe the objects of their homage and provide such luxuries as temperature controlled kennels and spas, diamond studded collars, artistic fur makeovers, aromatherapy, massages, facials, and plastic surgery, not to mention designer bags in which believers reverently collect relics of their idols when they venture outdoors.
Increasingly, rights activists consider the objects of their glorification non-human persons. As the only non-human persons I know of are angelic or divine, the promotion is telling. It’s also worrying. I can’t help wondering whether it’s related to the demotion of unborn and debilitated members of my species to human non-persons.
Whatever it is, rights activists seem intent on liberating animals from feeding, clothing and entertaining us, participating in research, medical or otherwise, on our behalf, and yielding their habitats to urban expansion, logging, mining, pipeline construction, road building and farming, among other invasive practices.
Why, activists even look askance at breeding animals as pets and pressing them into service as guide dogs and carriage horses.
For millennia, we’ve defined ourselves as rational animals. Being rational, we reasoned, sets us apart from other animals, which can’t define anything. They fulfill themselves instinctively, or necessarily. We do it intentionally, or voluntarily. If we don’t, it doesn’t get done. Hence, the notion of duties. But to comply with the duty to fulfill ourselves, we require the means. Hence, the notion of rights.
Because we choose how to fulfill ourselves, while other animals can’t, I never dreamt that anyone able to reason would grant them personhood, much less divinity. Well, it turns out that many post-Christians bypass reason, willingly and triumphantly. For them, preferences trump rational principles, allowing them to turn animals or anything else into whatever they like.
As for me, I’ll recognize animal rights when animals do.