Animals are not made in the image of God
Q: I wholeheartedly agreed with your recent column about dying and hospice. My dilemma is why is it different for animals? Why do we get to play "God" and end their suffering just because they are dying, have lost bladder control and are ruining the carpet? I have always felt that nature should take its course, even if my rug is at risk. We just need to accommodate pets so that they can continue to live until their time is up. But the many times I have had this conversation with other pet owners only drives home the point that humans feel we are "ending their suffering," and "it is the right thing to put them out of their misery." I know full well in some cases it's because the owner is tired of caring for and cleaning up after a dying pet. I may sound like a hypocrite now, but I do not agree with paying for an expensive pet surgery in hopes that it will prolong the life of my pet at the expense of my child's college savings account. By the way, I grew up on a dairy farm, so I experienced birth and death regularly. -- J
A: It would be easy, but it would not be true to say that we ought to have the same standards for treating animals at the end of their lives as we do with humans at the end of their lives. As hard and cruel as it seems, there is an irreducible moral and theological difference between people and animals, even pets. We do not eat people. We do not hitch people to plows. We do not put people on leashes, and we do not "put people down" when they are gravely ill, and yet we do all these things to the animals in our world.
The foundation of this belief that humans are on a higher moral and spiritual order than animals is the biblical belief that animals do not have souls. We are taught to believe that even though animals are made by God, they are not made in the image of God. Some cultures and religions, like the Jains, do not accept this Western religious belief, choosing instead to affirm the equal sanctity of all living beings. I understand and admire their compassion.
I personally believe, against the teaching of the Bible, that animals do have a type of soul and are loved by God. I believe that the grief a person feels at the death of a beloved pet is real grief -- as real as the grief for a beloved relative. However, I also believe that animals have been placed in our care and we have not been placed in theirs. Animals ought to be protected and healed if they are ill, however, just like people, sometimes what we are sadly called upon to do is to remove external impediments to death -- not kill -- but allow them to die. Medical treatments that have no therapeutic purpose or hope need not be initiated either for a human or an animal patient. I agree with you that we should "let nature take its course." The problem is that with animals we cannot know their desires and will. Sometimes the most merciful thing to do is to allow them to pass. With people we can know their will and try to treat them to the end in conformity to that will.
It is a challenging biblical belief that all living things are holy but all living things are not equally holy. There is a status and station in this world we humans possess that is not the result of speciesism but is the result of a reasonable and ethical and spiritual conviction that we are closer to God than the flocks of the earth. It may well be true and right and holy to eat without killing animals. I am deeply impressed with the spiritual logic of vegetarianism, but it still remains clear to me that eating a chicken is different on an order of magnitude than eating a person. In the end, I come down on the side of burgers.
The moral issues posed at the edges of life -- birth and death -- test our moral code most severely. I understand also how we try to justify with moral arguments actions that at their root are merely the result of selfish personal interest. That is a problem whether we are caring for a dying parent or a dying pet. The only way to come out of those narrow times is for us to ask ourselves repeatedly, "Am I doing this for them, or for me?" The only right answer is that we are doing it for them.
May God have mercy on us all.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2019 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.