When we abuse animals we debase ourselves

What qualities associated with the best in mankind aren't expressed by animals?

Moving a cow by chaining it to a tractor and dragging it by its leg says a lot about how we perceive and value animals. When the Humane Society video that showed this and other brutal slaughterhouse treatment made the rounds on the Internet a few weeks ago, it caused public shock and led to a federal investigation. But there's a deeper lesson that all of us – whether or not we eat meat – need to take to heart: we degrade ourselves when we degrade animals.

Much as bullies demoralize themselves when they dominate or ride roughshod over those who are meek, vulnerable, or defenseless, it should be obvious that human beings are the ones demoralized by the commission of inhumane acts.

Over the years, many have been caught up in the debate over what is, or is not, man's obligation to animals. But the debate is transcended by the growing realization that neither our civilization nor our planet will survive unless human beings grow richer in moral qualities like mercy, kindness, compassion, and temperance.

Yet in order to establish a platform for speaking out against cruel and painful laboratory experiments and slaughtering techniques, animal rights advocates are often asked to prove that animals have a moral sense and can feel physical and emotional pain.

But even if animals could be proved amoral and immune to pain, human beings would have no basis for even careless treatment of them. Most of us were taught as children to take good care of inanimate objects, even though they feel no pain and have no moral sense. We are taught to treat fine books with virtual reverence. We are taught that it is actually a crime to vandalize buildings, cars, and other inanimate objects.

But even setting aside the degradation brought upon the humans who commit acts of cruelty, research has consistently revealed evidence of the morality and sentience of the nonhuman world. By now documentaries abound in which we can see earth's creatures disciplining members of their own species for "crimes" within their communities. Conversely we've also seen them care for each other, as well as for members of other species, in the most intelligent, unselfish, courageous, and tender ways.

This evidence of morality in nonhumans tells us that mankind and "creature-kind" are inextricably woven together, not separate "worlds" attempting coexistence.

We may not be linked by trunks and tusks, wings and beaks, but I have yet to think of a single quality associated with the best in mankind that is not expressed by animals and often – as with loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, and forgiveness – more perfectly.

Our differences appear to lie more in the complexity with which we express our commonly held qualities. In fact, the caring, thoughtful observation of animals has taught, and can continue to teach, vital lessons about what we ourselves are and what we can accomplish.

We learn from an elephant, for example, that power and gentleness are not incompatible. We learn from any gazelle the naturalness of grace. Our dear canine or feline friends teach us that happiness doesn't come from outside ourselves – from the act of acquisition – but is something we bring to the simplest object or experience. From birds, we've learned the concept of flight. And from any animal we can learn that we don't outgrow childlikeness when we enter maturity, because childlikeness is a quality of thought, not a condition of age.

In fact, when we abuse childlike qualities in animals – when we take advantage of trust, sweetness, simplicity, or innocence, for example – we are well on our way to the abuse of children. For decades researchers, child and animal protection professionals, and educators have been pointing to the correlation between the treatment of animals and the treatment of children.

But it's perhaps the almost inexplicably deep love that we're able to share with creatures that explains what a magnificent symphony we can be. Symphonies aren't composed of inferior and superior tones and passages. Their beauty is in the unity of the simple and complex, the obvious and subtle, the audacious and demure. What matters in music is that each tone or passage be allowed to contribute its full value, however meek that value.

In the same way, our moral obligation toward animals isn't a question of what a superior being owes an inferior one. Unselfish affection takes the simple and complex, the bold and the meek in creation, accords each creature its full value, and blends all into a single symphony. Treating animals with the utmost dignity and respect is really the "Golden Rule" of conduct toward all species.

Barbara Cook Spencer is a writer who lives in Brookline, Mass.

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