ONE OF THE LOVELIEST passages in the Bible is Deuteronomy 22:6-7.
"If a bird's nest happens to be before you on the road, in a tree or on the ground -- containing young birds or eggs -- and the mother is roosting on the young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother, and take the young for yourself; so that it may be well with you and you will prolong your days."
There is a lesson here at once moving and pointed. The Author of the Bible, concerned though He is with matters cosmic and timeless, does not ignore the suffering of a mother bird who sees her young carried away -- and neither may we. As human beings, we are given the right to use animals for our benefit. We may ride them and work them, herd them and milk them, make leather from their skins and coats from their fur. We may even eat them. But because animals are living creatures, we may not hurt them needlessly. Not even to the extent of seizing eggs or chicks while the mother is looking on.
Several times the Bible repeats this principle. Oxen or donkeys may be set to hard labor but they may not be yoked together (Deuteronomy 22:10), for it would be cruel to force a larger and a smaller animal to pull the same load. An animal used to thresh corn must not be muzzled (Deuteronomy 25:4) -- so that it can eat freely as it works. Even the Ten Commandments make the point: "The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work -- you, your son, your daughter . . . your ox, your donkey, or any of your cattle." (Deuteronomy 5:14). Just as it degrades human beings to labor every day, it is degrading for animals, too.
What brings Deuteronomy to mind is the news from San Francisco, where a battle is raging between Chinatown vendors who sell live animals for food and activists who claim that the animals are mistreated.
"Every day," reports the Los Angeles Times, "Chinatown merchants sell hundreds of live turtles, frogs, lobsters, crabs, fish and birds to customers who share a belief that the best meat enters your house still breathing." It seems it is a Chinese culinary custom of long standing to eat only meat that is freshly killed, and many Chinese housewives refuse to buy dead meat.
But the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worries that creatures butchered at home die with unnecessary pain. And it points to inhumane conditions in the Chinese markets. "The SPCA's investigators witnessed fish gasping for breath in a couple of inches of dirty water," the Times story says, "merchants ripping the shells off live turtles, butchers chopping live fish in half, and frogs and turtles piled in bins without food or water."
The Chinese vendors argue, with reason, that there is no more cruelty in selling a customer a live chicken to strangle at home than in selling her a cut-up, plastic-wrapped bird that was slaughtered on an assembly line in Arkansas. The animal-welfare complaints are "ludicrous," declares one combatant, Rose Pak of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. "These are not pets -- they're for human consumption."
Many of the hard-working merchants suggest that if the bleeding-hearts need a cause, there is a lot of human suffering they could turn their attention to.
The suspicion that animal-rights zealots are really misanthropes with no compassion for human beings is often justified. Ingrid Newkirk, who founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is notorious for her formulation that "when it comes to feelings, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." During World War II, Newkirk has said, "six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses." That sick mentality is reflected in the effort by some animal-rights groups to ban medical experiments on animals, even when they might save human lives or ease human pain.
But for most of us, the use of animals in medical research is an easy moral call. There are equally easy calls on the other side of the spectrum. Bullfighting is sadism masquerading as sport. Hunting for recreation (instead of food) is just an outlet for bloodlust. Veal calves are raised in cruel and grotesque conditions.
The Chinatown issue isn't so easy. The question it raises is not May we eat animals? but rather, What is our moral obligation to the animals we eat? The frog is going to end up skinned for its legs: Does it matter if its last hours are spent crammed in a tub with no air or water? The turtle is destined for the soup tureen: Does it make a difference whether its shell is torn off before it's actually dead? As Rose Pak notes, these animals are being sold for food, not house pets. Isn't there a point at which fastidious concern for their welfare becomes a bit absurd?
Deuteronomy says no. The well-being of another creature -- even one you intend to consume -- is not a trivial matter. It, too, is a living thing. And while you may take its life for your benefit, you must not prolong its suffering.
Perhaps it makes no difference to the frog or the turtle; it does make a difference to us. The Bible isn't preoccupied with the feelings of birds and oxen but with the behavior of men and women. The reason for being kind to animals is to train ourselves in kindness. Exactly what that entails is what they're debating in San Francisco.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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