Recently (as the current story goes), an Abbotsford dog walker left six dogs in a vehicle, under the cruel supervision of a hot west coast day, and returned to find them dead from heat stroke. Consequently, she dropped her victims off at a local ditch, and told the police and the owners of the deceased that the animals had been stolen.

This story will cause most compassionate humans to shudder. Along with my own participation in this collective sadness, I’m also troubled by the human-centric language that has arisen from this story on talk radio. Consider the following:

(1) Many people calling themselves dog lovers have phoned in saying that their hearts break for the owners of the dead dogs. I have no objection to such compassion, but I’m perplexed as to why their first concern goes to the animals’ friends and not the animals themselves, the beings who suffered the most.

(2) One of the owners of the animals (along with many radio callers who were imagining what their feelings would have been in the same situation) said that they could have forgiven the dog walker for her mistake if she hadn’t lied about it. This baffles me. Let’s look more closely at the competing crimes:

(A) A professional caretaker neglected her primary duty to ensure the well-being of the animals she promised to watch over, and left them in a dangerous situation to the point that they died suffering.

(B) A professional caretaker realized that she could get in trouble for betraying her duty to her clients, so she lied about it to protect her own hide.

It should be obvious—when comparing these two ethical breaches side by side—that the pain of the animals is far worse than the indignity experienced by the humans who were lied to about it. The crime of neglecting sentient creatures (especially as a professional who surely knows better) is ethically deplorable, as it demonstrates a preference for one’s small convenience over the resultant suffering of creatures under one’s care; in contrast, lying about one’s crime to protect oneself from punishment is at least understandable. Most people—even good people—will do a lot to avoid prosecution, whereas no good person with a patch of compassion would leave animals in a car in the hot sun. I’m not saying that lying to the police, causing vital resources to be wasted, is okay; that was selfish and immoral, and it should be punished by the law; nevertheless, it is understandable, given there was no longer anything she could do for the animals, while her career and reputation was in a precarious position.

The fact that so many humans are more worried about humans being lied to than deadly animal neglect is, I think, a symptom of how we under consider the experiences of our fellow earthlings.

(3) Several people have said that they feel that we should show compassion for the dog walker; after all, her life is now ruined because of an “accident.” I’m all for kind consideration even for the most vicious in our society; however, I think we must be clear on the terms of this compassion. This was not an accident. It was cruel act of negligence that any professional dog walker should have known was dangerous or at least painful for the creatures in her care. That’s not a simple error that anyone could make; it’s a crime of indifference.

Perhaps our society and justice system could use more compassion for its offenders, but so long as we live in a culture that demands justice from those who mistreat humans, I see no reason why we should not expect the same from those who tread so cavalierly on the experiences of animals.

4 thoughts on “ANIMAL WRONGS”

  1. Dear Sethblogs,

    This property-based perception of pets today reminds me in some ways of the language used in the legal categorization and widespread popular view of people as chattel in the American south during slave times, where the injury, neglect, or death of a slave was often viewed purely from the perspective of the owner’s property damage or loss, with little to no consideration of the slave’s pain and suffering. As a result, slaves, with no legal recourse, were (like animals at the time, and, to some extent, still today) at the mercy of their owners for their protection and care. As Harriet Beecher Stowe argued, a system in which rights and humane treatment of people relies solely on the discretion of individual owners is dangerous as it is so easy to abuse the system and the victims. While I’m not saying that animals and people are the same, and that animals can and should enjoy the same degree of freedom and self-determination as humans, they should enjoy a comparable level of humane treatment and protection from inhumane treatment, both from the public and the law. It is precisely because animals are defenseless and at the mercy of their owners that cruelties/abuse of any kind should not be tolerated. While many forms of animal cruelty are against the law now, general public perceptions don’t appear to be keeping up when it’s not a more obvious case of physical violence, in spite of the existence of animal advocacy organizations.

  2. Thank you, Natalie. Profoundly put. While, as you say, animals in painful conditions may not be the same affront to dignity and compassion as humans in slavery, they are analogous in terms of the dominant culture’s self-centric thinking towards the abused, and also, I suspect, in regard to the status quo’s resistance to improving the rights of those under their charge.

    Yesterday, for instance, I heard an interview on CBC in which the interim leader of the Green Party of BC put forth an argument that all aspects of rodeos which are cruel to animals should be banned. The CBC interviewer, Stephen Quinn (perhaps playing devil’s advocate) seemed to be rolling his eyes in reply; while he acknowledged that he cared about animal treatment, he suggested that the proposed changes could be so damaging to the rodeo industry (and thus small town economies) that it may not be feasible. I understand that the economy is important for everyone’s well being, and we should do all we ethically can for it, but if something is morally abominable then it should be banished regardless of its benefits to our general financial health. I’m sure that, when abolitionists first argued to end slavery, they were met with similar rolls of the eye from their opponents who probably argued that the practice was vital to their economy.

    I’m not a historian, so I can’t vouch for my above suspicion, but my point is that most moral victories that have been been won in our history likely seemed inconvenient in their own time, but eventually we adapt to them, and are better for it.

  3. While I agree with (almost) everything you say here, my feeling about the errant dogwalker is that she simply made a thoughtless mistake. Reprehnsible, yes, but whoa … It seems to me that the sentimentalization of animals, dogs in particular, and endowing them with human charateristics is a luxury brought about by our better-off lower and middles classes, members of which can now own dogs and cats, treating them as a part of the family. This is very good and appropriately progressive. However, what about children? I hear a greater outcry over the mistreatment of a dog than I do about the deplorable mistreatment of and abuse of children. Well, yes, dogs are more tractible and cheaper to feed than kids, and you don’t have to send them to university.

  4. Thanks Tom. Interesting analysis. I’m not convinced that dogs receive a greater outcry when harmed than children. (Recently, after a man shot his former boss at a Vancouver coffee shop and then fled toward Science World, the institution and its many patrons – including many children! – were put on lockdown; no one but the gun shot victim was harmed, and yet CKNW’s Simi Sara spent the majority of her talk show discussing how scary the incident was because there were children present, barely spending any time on the fact that an adult human being was in critical condition.)

    However, even if you’re right that animal victims do receive as great an outcry as child victims, I think part of the reason would be because many of us feel that animals have fewer legal and institutional protections, so they have a greater need for such a response.

    You may be right that some people anthropomorphize their pets, but that doesn’t mean that the animals’ pain is any less.

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