Are Some Lives More Sacred Than Others?

In the American classic novel, Animal Farm, author George Orwell famously writes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I first encountered this novel in the 1970s. I believe it was on most high school ‘required reading’ lists at the time. It was the absurdity of the statement that struck me as a girl in my mid-teens; now, some 40 years after first reading it, I only find it absurd that I found it absurd.

I recently read a newspaper article in the July 6, 2014 New York Post by Maureen Callahan titled “Is Your Dog Mentally Ill?” The article begins by discussing world-famous Gus, the polar bear, who in 1986 was diagnosed with a “mild neurosis,” and prescribed Prozac, an [human] antidepressant. Callahan then introduces us to a new book by Laurel Braitman: Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. Braitman’s thesis: Animals’ emotions run the full spectrum of human emotion. Callahan writes: “Increasingly, research is showing that animals – from flies to falcons, emus to elephants – have feelings, behaviors and rituals that we humans would recognize, from joy to OCD to burial rites.” So, if this is the case, could it be problematic that we treat animals… like “animals,” and other people worse than animals?

Callahan also writes about Culum Brown, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who published a paper on the complexities of fish culture. Not only do fish have a culture, but they also feel pain! Could it be that chomping down on a fishing hook is not truly the fish version of water skiing? But what really ‘got’ me was reading about David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay, “Consider the Lobster,” in which he questions the ethics of boiling lobsters to death. Yes! Ethics! Callahan comments on Wallace’s “logical observation” based on comparative neuroanatomy:

The lobster, when placed in boiling water, scratches and thrashes and attempts to get out. “In other words,” Wallace wrote, “[it] behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).”

No, I have not yet retrieved Wallace’s essay, but I plan to do so once I am able to remove this wincing grimace from my visage, so as to re-enter the world of gentlefolk less obtrusively. And the lobster being unable to scream shall be my jumping-off point.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If dogs, cats, deer, and fish cannot speak our language, and we cannot immediately understand theirs, does it mean that we are superior to them, or that they couldn’t possibly have languages? Are poor people, who can’t afford to retain high-powered attorneys, less likely to see justice? And when a woman, who is permanently bedridden, possessed of limited speech capacity, and unable to feed, bathe, or otherwise take care of herself, is forced to engage in sexual intercourse with several men, has she been gang-raped? Yes, there’s something to be said for being able to articulate one’s needs in ways that others can easily understand.

Callahan further quotes Braitman’s book regarding our treatment of “non-human animals”:

It’s inconvenient for a lot of our daily life,” she says. “If we really internalized this idea that other animals are as complicated and individual and as quirky as we are, there are things we’d have to change that would be really uncomfortable.

Many children learn about responsibility, reciprocity, and love, by taking care of animals. Other children use the same opportunity to express their potential for becoming serial killers. If, as research has revealed, even fruit flies have emotional lives, Laurel Braitman’s assertion that we might have to change our lives in some very “uncomfortable” ways could be true. I thought about this the other day as I observed a young mother watch her 10-year-old daughter use a stick to bat some type of ‘roly-poly’ bug back and forth at the bus stop, and later stomp on it for “fun.”

Of course, we don’t all mistreat animals. I’ve seen tiny animals, riding in Gucci handbags, wearing little outfits much more fashionable and ornate than anything I’ve ever owned. I’ve seen dogs eat steak off of dinner plates, and grown men and women eat ground mystery meat from dumpsters. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in pampering an animal we love. It’s pleasurable to have someone so ‘into’ you. They hang on our every word. They lick our faces. They rarely argue with, or contradict us. And if we run out of room to house them, or time to take care of them, we can always drop them out the car window as we truck on down the highway, or leave them locked in the garage when we move. If only wives, husbands, and children could be so… convenient.

For Buddhists, the first precept, admonishes us not to kill because  all  life is sacred. But it’s not as simple as that. It’s usually not the person with 150 cats living in her house who’s a ‘people person.’ We worry about keeping creatures, with fur, warm during winter months, while the authorities are, quite literally, recovering the frozen remains of human beings from back alleys and abandoned buildings. It’s possible to kill both people and animals by doing nothing. It’s possible to kill opportunity, hope, dreams, and visions, too.

If bugs and animals are so much more complex than what we’d imagined, or had been willing to admit, could the same be true for human beings? It’s an arbitrary and dangerous practice to deem some lives as more valuable than others. De-valuing someone, or something, is always the first step towards domination, degradation, and in some cases annihilation. This was true for the antebellum American South, Nazi Germany, and more recently, the Rwandan Genocide. The difference with animals is that once they’re near extinction, we almost always initiate some type of conservation effort.

How perplexing it is to note that when we take care of animals, we are, at once, at our best and worst. We are so much the better for taking care of helpless creatures; yet, so much the worse for not being capable of extending the same mercies to other human beings. I seriously doubt that we can fully love each other until we reconsider the value of life — from insects to pachyderms. This is not to say that should we find ourselves in a lifeboat, having to decide between saving a cockroach or a human being, that any extended period of deliberation need take place.

“All [beings] are equal, but some [beings] are more equal than others[?]”

Namaste.

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