Pets, food, and fur: Exploring our affinity for animals can get complicated

When religious leaders and lawyers challenge your ethical and emotional instincts, your thinking evolves.
Crosscut archive image.

What's this cat worth?

When religious leaders and lawyers challenge your ethical and emotional instincts, your thinking evolves.

Oregon has some of the most animal-friendly attitudes and laws in the country, with Portland ranked in the top three American cities for its humane nature. OK, so we're not really at the top of the list. But chances are if you're a chicken enjoying roomier digs at a progressive Oregon farm or a cat rescued from a home crammed with 10 other cats, you're feeling just fine about being third on the Humane Society of the United States list behind San Francisco and Seattle. This respectful view of things furry, feathered, and finned doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing. One sobering reminder of the volatility of the animals issue resurfaced in news stories on Schumacher Furs, a longtime Portland business that recently filed complaints against the city of Portland, animal-rights groups, and individual demonstrators, seeking an injunction to keep threatening protestors away from the store, customers, employees, and Web site. The fur fight, for all its film-at-11 potential, is similar to abortion-rights battles in that one side is rarely converted by the other. These issues are often framed by activists and mainstream media in ways that compress a highly nuanced discussion to a crippling degree. That makes it easy for us to take a yea or nay stand on a single question and feel we've crafted a larger belief system. Arguing whether ranch-raised minks should become coat sleeves or if the morning-after pill should be sold over-the-counter are legit conversations, but left on their own they do not move larger ethical discussions forward. So what's a thinking person to do? For one thing, keep eyes and ears open. Every now and then, a forum opens up that provides some food for introspection. One came along last week, in the unlikely guise of a continuing-education seminar for lawyers, hosted by the Oregon Law Institute (an arm of Lewis & Clark Law School) and the Institute for Judaic Studies of the Pacific Northwest. The seminar, "Codes and Commands: Emerging Law and Religious Traditions in the Treatment of Animals," assembled a panel resembling the start of a good joke: "So a priest, a rabbi, a Muslim, and a bunch of lawyers go into a conference room ..." In fact, quite a bit of humor did surface during this day-long event, a miraculous outcome in itself. Content ranged from updates on law governing treatment of pets and livestock to the common ground shared by Abrahamic religions on animal welfare. No one would claim scriptural unanimity, but responsible care and less painful methods of killing livestock are endorsed in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian writings. Vegetarian diets, these religious leaders agree, are a good way to live within religious dietary laws and tread lighter on the Earth. (And, of course, with their own version of focus-group data that long precedes the Other White Meat sales pitch, two of the three say a firm "no" to pork. You know who you are.) This comparative religion approach is more than an academic exercise. Acquaintance with ritual observances involving animal treatment is crucial for thoughtful people on all sides of the issue. When a Conservative rabbi, an Episcopal priest, and an Islamic educator trace the roots of their faiths' restrictions and reverences, the foundation beneath current laws and social mores is illuminated, and that's a very good thing. Such knowledge reveals how changing times force evolution of protective laws. The admittedly facetious bumper-sticker philosophy has some merit here. By asking, "Today's Factory Farms: What Would [fill in your chosen venerated figure's name here] Do?" we might find a way to talk about the present realities without escalating immediately to paint throwing. To heat up the discussion, enter one of the seminar's most thought-provoking speakers: Geordie Duckler of Portland's Animal Law Practice. (Who, by my calculations, has spent almost as much time earning higher degrees in law and science as I have watching Law & Order reruns.) Duckler's practice covers virtually any legal issue involving an animal, from those doing the biting to those being bitten, you might say. He appears wary of any knee-jerk answers about animal-treatment issues, whether emanating from humane society or a beef producer. Case law on human-animal relationships is broad and isn't the first place most of us non-lawyers go in evaluating our stand on ethical treatment of animals. Although it is comforting to know that New York's State v. Garcia found stomping on goldfish in front of a child to be unlawful. In part – who says the law has no heart? – because kids tend to name such a pet, making it a beloved friend clearly deserving of protection. At the conference, Duckler highlighted case-law examples, then led listeners through an exercise to assign monetary value to one's favorite animals, as might be done for the loss of a human companion in a wrongful death lawsuit or other legal pursuits. There's nothing quite like assigning dollars to pain to make one think about the strengths and weaknesses of a body of protective law. A second exercise was even more revealing. Each of us is set up with a virtual breadbox containing a mystery animal. We receive clues about its species, genetics, market value, place in society, and behaviors. After each clue we can revise our initial assessment of the animal's worth. Do we value something more because it can reproduce? Because it can form thoughts? Does its life span affect its value to us? Do we love it more when it can be trained to pass through a hoop or when we can eat it? How does its price tag influence us? At the end, our breadboxes, presumably filled with virtual water, were said to contain a single goldfish, market value about 50 cents. Most of us in the room had ended with bottom lines totaling hundreds of dollars. The real grist, though, comes in seeing the variable reactions to clues, prodding one of us to increase value where another person subtracts. (This was unsettling enough to cause some audible shifting of wingtips in the room.) I'd wager that most of us talked about this exercise, and the larger issues explored at the seminar, around dinner tables that night, maybe even coming up with a new thought or two over our respective Tofurky or veal entrees. Resources Picking Web sites and blogs that represent religious viewpoints on this (or any other issue) is like bailing the Pacific with a teacup. I'll risk immediate corrections and additions from readers by noting just these three:


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors