Q: My husband and I own three retired, unsound horses, only one of which (a 26-year-old mare) would be accepted at a retirement farm. A 31-year-old gelding has been crippled on all four legs for 19 of the 23 years that he has been with us. The animal now can walk very few consecutive steps without stopping and has no teeth. Although he is given pelleted feed every two or three hours, he is not thriving. Finally, I am the only person who can handle a 21 year-old-mare, which came to me from an abusive environment. After 12 years under my ownership and care, including almost daily grooming, she still regularly rebukes me. Since horses forget their owners after 10 days of absence, I am personally and frustratingly bound to this horse. My husband says that "harm to a horse, harms God," and he will not allow euthanasia. The last thing I need is to raise God's ire any further with sins against His animals. My question is: What is God's law for the euthanasia of animals, with any particular insights you can provide for the euthanasia of large animals such as horses, which cannot be done at the "last moment," because this act requires the scheduling of a veterinarian together with a hauler to transport the remains to a final resting place? Thank you for your consideration and for any answer you can provide. -- T, from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
A: You just touched a sensitive spot in my soul. My grandfather was a zookeeper. My wife and I have raised guide dogs for the blind for years and like many others, I am absolutely unable to watch even for the briefest time the ASPCA ads on television that show starving and abused animals. The combination of utter dependence upon us and the ability to shower us with unconditional love makes our bond to pet animals deep and nurturing for me. Wild animals also forge a link in my soul to God's Creation. Here on planet earth we are surrounded by such a rich diversity of animal life forms whose only threat seems to be from our disregard of God's commandment to work and protect the earth (Genesis. 2:15). I simply have never been able to understand my spiritual journey except partially in relationship to the animals and particularly to the animals under my care.
The Bible echoes your kind and compassionate heart. It contains many commandments intended to reduce the suffering of animals. Animals are included in the obligation to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12). An ox and an ass could not be yoked together because this would cause intense suffering for the weaker animal (Deuteronomy 22:10). Nor could an ox be muzzled while yoked to the threshing floor because the muzzle, in addition to preventing the ox from eating the grain, would cause great suffering to the ox by preventing it from opening its mouth to cool itself (Deuteronomy 25:4). Not only was physical suffering of animals under our care a matter of concern to God, the emotional suffering of animals mattered to God as well. For example, when climbing a tree to recover eggs to eat from a bird's nest, one is commanded to first shoo away the mother bird so that she would not have to endure the trauma of seeing her eggs taken right before her eyes (Deuteronomy 22:6). In the New Testament Jesus teaches that God knows about and cares about the death of even a lowly sparrow (Matthew 10:29-31).
This is the compassionate biblical background to your agonizing and heartfelt question about euthanizing your old and sickly horses. Strangely, the law concerning the euthanasia of human beings in our religious traditions offers the same wisdom as the law for euthanizing horses. The principle is clear, even though its application can be complicated. We are prevented from doing anything that would actively take the life of an innocent living being -- animal or human -- unless it is to kill an animal for food. If, however, the person or animal is already dying we mustn't prevent the arrival of death. Preventing death through medicine and care is fine. Interfering with imminent death through artificial interference is a sin. In addition, treating a person or an animal who is dying and thus increasing that being's suffering is also a sin.
Therefore, the mare who can be retired should be retired. The gelding must be allowed to pass and can be euthanized to avoid suffering. The 21-year-old mare who bears the mental scars of abuse is in your charge. Perhaps one day your care and love will calm her troubled soul.
May God protect the animals of our life and our earth and may we come to respect the Creation and the Creator by our loving care for them all.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2018 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.