What Do We Owe Our Furry Friends?
There are many ethical quandaries that we face in our modern lives.Some of these problems may be small in scale and limited to our ownpersonal universe, while others are vast in scope and affect not onlyour lives, but the planet itself. Unfortunately, much of our civicdialogue on ethics and morality tend to get stuck on a few big issues,like abortion and equal rights.
Against such a backdrop it is understandable, perhaps, that animalwelfare gets short shrift. And when issues pertaining to animals docome up they tend to be part of a larger conversation about theenvironment. Or, as was the case a couple of years ago, some horrificincident of animal cruelty brings light and attention to our forgottenfriends.
The discussion that I would like to have focuses on two separateissues pertaining to animal welfare. First, I would like to tackle thetreatment of animals in zoos and circuses, which can be quite inhumane.Next, I will take up the debate over factory farming and eating animalsin general. I should warn the reader- unlike many of my arguments, thisone will not have neat answers and will leave many questions unanswered.
For the vast majority of Americans, their main contact with animals(outside of domesticated pets) is through circuses and zoos. [One pointof clarification- I would lump petting zoos and other things of thatnature in with circuses, as their mission is very different from standalone zoos.] Thus, these institutions provide a valuable service inexposing people to nature. This does not apply only to urban andsuburban residents, as zoos and circuses contain animals that are notnative to the area. The thinking is that such exposure will morefavorably incline people towards supporting conservation andenvironmental policies.
I assume that many people are already aware of the deplorableconditions in which many circus and petting zoo animals are kept. It isdisgraceful and inhumane (in Massachusetts there has been a movement tobar the use of chains and hooks that circuses use to handlepachyderms). This seriously undermines any positive value derived fromproviding people access to animals they would not otherwise encounter.
Zoos are a different story, however. Their missions usuallyencompass not only exposing people to animals, but educating the publicand managing breeding programs to ensure the sustainability of species.As such, zoos are more invested in handling and managing their animalsin a healthy and humane manner. Yet, there still is the question--should we capture (or breed in captivity) wild animals and place themin cages or enclosures, deprive them of a natural life, in order to getmore humans to support species conservation? Where one comes down onthis issue really depends on personal philosophy. If you're aconsequentialist, zoos raise no major ethical problems as the end good(more conservation of species and habitats) outweighs the bad(emotional duress of the animals). If you're a deontologist, like me,there is a very real concern about the morality of caging and confiningwild animals, regardless of the potential benefit. [full disclosure:when I lived in St. Louis, I was around the corner from the zoo andwent there weekly.]
The issue of factory farming raises these same issues of animalabuse and cruelty. It is no secret that factory farms can be brutal.The mistreatment of animals in such places has been well documented,therefore I will not cover it again. Suffice to say that if you thoughtanimal testing of cosmetics was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet.
But what can consumers do, short of turning vegan? One might thinkshe's doing the right thing by purchasing cage free eggs or chickens.But cage free does not mean that these hens are running freely around ayard, living humane chicken lives. It just means they are not caged!So, cage free eggs could, and do, come from chickens roaming around aconcrete floor in a factory. She might also think that buying onlyorganic meat and dairy products means that the animals are treatedhumanely. Wrong again! Though many organic farmers do treat theiranimals with care, as demand for organic products has increased the bigagri-businesses have entered the market. Should we trust that the samecompany that produces inhumane non-organic milk is going to treat theirorganic cows with tender loving care? One option consumers do have isto purchase their meats and dairy products locally, from farmers whosetreatment and conditions they can view. Or, there are reputable onlineretailers of cruelty free products.
Of course, the other option- the more pure, some would say- issimply to become vegan. I say that this is a more pure option becauseno matter how humanely animals are treated, they are still merecommercial products that will be killed for our consumption. Whichraises the question-- is there an ethical way to consume meat (asidefrom hunting and killing your own wild animals)? I am not convincedthat there is such a way, yet I remain a fairly voracious meat eater.
Regardless of where one comes out on these issues, it is importantto keep them in mind. To be apathetic about the rightness of animalwelfare is one step away from ceasing to care about human suffering.
(crossposted at my blog)