Inklings of Truth


The Nature of the Beast

By Audrey Stallsmith

People spend thousands of dollars for veterinary care these days.  The animal doctor whose book I just read was pretty frank about that--and unapologetic.  As he pointed out, veterinary science has advanced considerably since the days of James Herriot.  And, to many modern couples who don't have children, their pets are their children.

That last part seems pitiful to me.  I must admit to spending too much on my Border Collie recently, after she nibbled on rat poison.  But, at no point have I ever considered her even remotely equivalent to a child!

Granted, she can be demanding, dependent, sulky, and independent by turns.  Like a child.  So I must constantly remind myself that she lacks the child's ability to know right from wrong.  She will look guilty if I catch her stealing food, but simply because she knows that's one of those inexplicable things that humans don't like.  To a dog, taking food where she can get it is a perfectly natural and praiseworthy activity. 

Perhaps due to all those movies we've seen where the animals talk, we are prone to read human emotions in them.  "What do they mean?" Elisabeth Elliot asks in Love Has a Price Tag.  "Why are they there? What did God mean by making them? When He made man, He made him in His own image. When He made animals, His imagination ranged wide and free. But we confront them, we breathe the same air and walk the same earth and live and move and have our being in the same Creator. So we seek to understand them, and quite naturally we ascribe to them our own passions and needs."

By doing so, we limit our sense of delight in the mystery of beings who are "not us." Fortunately, as a farmer's daughter, I've had to adapt to the fact that animals remain completely different creatures from humans.  They run on the instinct implanted in them rather than on emotion or logic.

"We talk of wild animals," Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, " but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever un-domestic, either as a profligate or a monk."

In other words, although they may seem unpredictable to us, animals simply do what they were born to do.  And the fact that those animals sometimes seem indifferent or even actively cruel--either to us or each other--is in large part because they've had to learn to live in a world that we corrupted.

I've also been reading a book about a guy learning to be a farmer.  He was somewhat dismayed to discover that a sow (female hog), who accidentally lies on a piglet and kills it, will sometimes eat that dead piglet afterwards. 

I'm not sure whether that can be attributed to the fact that pigs are omnivores--will eat almost anything--or just that they are also somewhat fastidious.  Despite their preference for rooting through mud, they tend to keep their "bathroom" area separate from the rest of their "living" area, for instance.  And having a rotting youngster about the place could definitely muck things up, and probably even endanger the health of the sow's other young.  Animals can be relentlessly practical as well!

Another disillusioning aspect of country living is that hens, that symbol of clucking domesticity, will sometimes peck one of their own to death.  This is less likely to happen among birds that have been raised together and have already established their "pecking order."  But, if you attempt to add a new bird or birds to the flock, or if one of the birds already there develops a sore of some sort, watch out!  Animals seem to have a distrust for anything new or different and a penchant for eliminating the weakest member of a group--another survival stratagem, no doubt.

That new farmer probably also learned that males of the animal world can get nasty and aggressive towards humans.  Roosters--especially the smaller breeds like bantys--will often attack with their spurs.  And I once had a bull paw the ground and shake his horns threateningly in my direction.  Fortunately, I also had a little brother, who took swaggering pride in facing said bull down.  (Granted, there are some similarities in cockiness between human and animal males!) 

Pig farmers frequently put raised bars around the perimeters of the pens, so that the piglets can safely duck under those when their mother is in the process of lying down.  And smearing an injured hen with some foul-tasting substance will often cause the other birds to cease and desist their pecking at it.  A good farmer, after all, knows he bears a certain God-like responsibility for looking after the livestock he raises.  And for curtailing some of their more objectionable practices.

This does not, of course, rise to keeping the animals in the type of hyper-sterile environment that  activists often appear to think necessary.  That isn't even natural for the human species, let alone animals!  And, as science has recently pointed out, it can actually weaken both.     

From all indications, however, the beasts  were originally vegetarians and will--apparently--return to that state during the more ideal world of the millennium.  I suspect there was also, in the beginning, plenty of room and no need to fight for one's territory.  But we now live in a fallen world, which has literally become a dog-eat-dog one. 

I've sometimes wondered why God allowed us to drag the animals down with us.  I suspect it's because the beasts had originally been put under our care.   Genesis 1:26 specifies that He said, "Let us make a man--someone like ourselves, to be the master of all life upon the earth and in the skies and in the seas." (LB)

"They [Adam and Eve] chose to deny their creatureliness," Philip Yancey points out in The Bible Jesus Read, "by reaching for more than God had granted them. Distrusting God, they brought the burden of the gods upon themselves."  In other words, we--like gods--became masters of beings weaker than ourselves. And, with authority comes responsibility.  In an ideal world the kind of loving responsibility that, like God's, does not turn away from His creatures even when they rebel against Him.  

In a recent PBS special, a conservationist appeared upset over having to shoot a grizzly bear that had tried to kill him.  The bear, of course, didn't know that the man was simply trying to help. 

When we show this much concern for the creatures to whom we owe responsibility, we are imitating God, who continues to love His creatures who did kill Him.  The difference being that those human creatures knew all too well what they were doing.  But, through the animals' fear of--and often resistance towards--us, we can get an inadequate glimpse of what it must feel like to be a rejected God. 

Although He could have taken the animals back after man's rebellion, God realized that we would need them, for food, consolation--and sacrifice.  Ever since Eden, animals have been dying so that we might live, both in this world and eternally.  Animals are considered innocent, not because they never do bad things, but because they don't realize those things are bad.  And, the wages of sin being death, something innocent had to die for man until the time that God could become the sacrifice Himself.

In the Old Testament, people frequently had to kill their sacrifices themselves.  Probably to drive home to them how their sins were responsible for those deaths.  Before the modern era, people who wanted to eat often had to do some killing themselves too.  Making them more fully aware of how much they owed the animals they slew. 

The system of sacrifices assumes, of course, that man is more valuable than the animals.  Which is, for most of us, an easy assumption to make.  People have died rescuing or trying to rescue their pets.  But, unless the person concerned was very abusive to the other humans in his/her life, I'm guessing they would rather have had their father, mother, brother, sister, etc. back than the Golden Retriever! 

As Chesterton writes, "Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head. . .Man is always something worse or something better than an animal."

I suspect some of those couples who prefer animals over children find the animals easier to cope with.  Although not entirely predictable themselves, domestic animals can almost always be counted on to return affection shown to them.  While relationships between humans are much more complicated!  

By loving us, instilling his spirit in us, God raised us to be something better than we were.  And our love for the animals can lift them to a higher plane as well. 

In Life Is Worth Living, Fulton Sheen writes that, "When man. . . takes. . .plants and animals into his nature, he practically says to them, 'Unless you die yourself, you cannot live in my kingdom'. . .But when these lower things surrender their existence, they are taken up into a higher creature that is a thinking, willing, and loving being.; they become part of a richer and higher kingdom."

Of course, here, Sheen is talking of animals that we literally consume.  There is something we need to remember, however.  God gives us a choice in whether or not we surrender to Him.  But the animals--unlike us--generally have no choice in the matter of how they are treated.  And, before we force on them what we consider important, we have to ask ourselves how moral that is.  Our experimentation on animals, for example, is often questionable at best.

"The higher your motive for it," George MacDonald writes about vivisection in Hope of the Gospel, "the greater is the blame of your unrighteousness. Must we congratulate you on such a love for your fellows as inspires you to wrong the weaker than they, those that are without helper against you? Shall we count the man worthy who, for the sake of his friend, robbed another man too feeble to protect himself, and too poor to punish his assailant? For the sake of your children, would you waylay a beggar? No real good can grow in the soil of injustice."

Vivisection is experimentation on live animals.  Which will, of course, generally cause pain to the subjects of the experiments.

As C. S. Lewis writes, "If on grounds of our real, divinely ordained, superiority a Christian pathologist thinks it right to vivisect, and does so with scrupulous care to avoid the least dram or scruple of unnecessary pain, in a trembling awe at the responsibility which he assumes, and with a vivid sense of the high mode in which human life must be lived if it is to justify the sacrifices made for it, then (whether we agree with him or not) we can respect his point of view."

As Lewis goes on to point out, however, many scientists are not Christian and see people as being only another type of animal.  In that case, those scientists really have no justification for vivisection, except a sentiment in favor of their own species. 

"But the most sinister thing about modern vivisection," Lewis warns, "is this. If a mere sentiment justifies cruelty, why stop at a sentiment for the whole human race? There is also a sentiment for the white man against the black, for a Herrenvolk [Nazi] against the non-Aryans, for 'civilized' or 'progressive' peoples against 'savages' or 'backward' peoples. Finally, for our own country, party or class against others. Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men."

Some scientists and factory farmers make use of animals as if they were machines, when they are part of God's creation instead.  Of course, this isn't so surprising, considering the lack of respect those scientists frequently show for the rest of the natural world.  But that's  probably because many of them don't consider it a creation at all, but a matter of blind chance. 

The small farmer of days past--who knew all his animals by name--may be on the verge of extinction himself.  But that man, who often sang hymns while walking behind his horse and plow, remains an ideal to many of us.  Were he so inclined, he could see God everywhere.

"A world without God is not viewed with a sense of awe," Tony Campolo writes in How to Rescue the Earth without Worshiping Nature.  "A universe in which His presence is not felt is doomed to abuse. Such a world is primarily the creation of science. The theologians did not produce the chemicals that we have pumped into the air. Priests and rabbis did not create the plastics that clog our rivers and choke the dolphins. It was science -- or more specifically, a particular kind of science."

Not only have our advancements in science led to the pollution of the natural world, they have led us to treat the animals--the rest of God's creation--with a similar lack of respect.  "I am against the cutting-up of conscious dogs," Chesterton writes in All Things Considered, "for the same reason that I am in favor of the eating of dead turkeys. The connection may not be obvious; but that is because of the strangely unhealthy condition of modern thought. I am against cruel vivisection as I am against a cruel anti-Christmas asceticism, because they both involve the upsetting of existing fellowships and the shocking of normal good feelings for the sake of something that is intellectual, fanciful, and remote.

"It is not a human thing, it is not a humane thing, when you see a poor woman staring hungrily at a bloater [fish], to think, not of the obvious feelings of the woman, but of the unimaginable feelings of the deceased bloater. Similarly, it is not human, it is not humane, when you look at a dog to think about what theoretic discoveries you might possibly make if you were allowed to bore a hole in his head.

"Both the humanitarians' fancy about the feelings concealed inside the bloater, and the vivisectionists' fancy about the knowledge concealed inside the dog, are unhealthy fancies, because they upset a human sanity that is certain for the sake of something that is of necessity uncertain. The vivisectionist, for the sake of doing something that may or may not be useful, does something that certainly is horrible. The anti-Christmas humanitarian, in seeking to have a sympathy with a turkey which no man can have with a turkey, loses the sympathy he has already with the happiness of millions of the poor."

If animals could hold ill feelings in the same way that we do, I doubt they would bear a grudge because we use them for food.  They would consider that only natural, as they do the same to other animals or plants. 

The depredations of predators actually help keep things in balance and prevent the populations of some types of animals from becoming too large.  If it weren't for those predators, nature would have to kill off the excess herself, via the slower methods of starvation and disease.     

"What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin?" Jesus asks in Matthew 10:29.  "But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it."  He goes on to say that "you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows."  But it is obvious that God also values the rest of his creation, including the lowliest members of it.

One morning this winter I was talking at the phone in our kitchen, gazing blindly at the houseplants on the windowsill nearby, as one is apt to do when one's attention is elsewhere.  But I suddenly realized--with a shock--that there was a wild sparrow sitting on one of those tame plants and looking calmly back at me. 

Even after catching and releasing this--obviously rather elderly--bird outdoors, I felt awed.  As if, in this unexpected contact with the natural world, I had somehow received a message from God Himself.  And, in a way, I had.  Although sparrows look dull and brown at a distance, up close they are as intricately made as the more colorful birds.

"The Bible is quite clear that all of nature--animal, vegetable, and mineral--was created for the worship of God. . .each kind of creation reflects God's glory and lifts up praise to him in its own way." (Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point)  Like bad stewards, we have already lost many of God's greatest artworks.  And, by so doing, we have lost members of the "choir" created to worship Him.  Making for a less complete sound, as those now extinct animals and plants could sing parts that no one else can. 

The more we can maintain of God's original creation, the closer we can bring our earth to the original Eden.  We can't, of course, achieve perfection until such time as we are walking with God in his garden again. But we had better start reminding ourselves that it is His garden--and that we are going to be held responsible for how we maintained it.