In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk mentions an aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood which I recognized in my own early development, an innate sensitivity. Shenk adds that this sensitivity extended beyond the realm of solely human interest:
He also took up a popular cause among sensitive people, the welfare of animals. Some boys found it fun to set turtles on fire or throw them against trees. “Lincoln would Chide us – tell us it was wrong – would write against it,” remembered one of his neighbors.” (pg. 15)
Lincoln’s condemnation of his peers’ sadistic play reminded me of an eerily similar confrontation about a century and a half later, recorded by Jeffrey G. Sobosan in Bless the Beasts: A Spirituality of Animal Care. Sobosan was on his way to a little league practice as a boy, taking a shortcut through the woods, when he saw a teammate up ahead by a stream, holding a bat and apparently swinging at stones he’d tossed into the air. But as Sobosan got closer, he noticed a strange color on the otherwise clean bat, and realized that his teammate was swinging at a clutch of baby turtles, one at a time: “Most he had killed instantly; all that was left of them was bloodied white tissue clinging to broken shells. Others were still alive, squirming on the ground yet unable to move, hacked and battered and beaten until death was only minutes away.”
After admitting to ripping his teammate’s bat away and clubbing him in the shoulder in fit of brimming rage, Sobosan remembers checking to see if any of the creatures stood a chance of surviving:
None did, so I left them, never being able, as the saying goes, to put an animal “out of its misery.” But before I did … I was leaning over to examine the still living (and) I swear to this day I heard a sound coming from them. It was like a low pitched wail, without melody, a confused and rambling song, a dirge of disconcerting tunelessness weeping a final word on life. (pg. 15-18)
Witnessing such acts as Lincoln and Sobosan did, and the resulting agony of noble and harmless creatures, would have been hard for me to process as a child well. I don’t know that I would have reacted more approvingly of explicit cruelty as I grew into adolescence and something resembling adulthood. But I do know that the deep-seated fascination and heart which I had for the animal kingdom as a boy was replaced with a practical indifference to their existence, and wellbeing.
Whereas I used to pore over animal books and encyclopedia articles, and agonize over the unfortunate deaths of pet goldfish and hamsters, I’d hardly become a teenager when I would have been hard-pressed to divert a few minutes attention from school, sports and computer games, and friends who were similarly occupied. For some reason I continued to keep a couple of miniature turtles, and the lack of care which I showed them, along with the family rabbits, bordered on the cruel and almost certainly led to their short demise. For several years after, virtually the only contact I had with animals was occasional interaction with other people’s pets.
If it weren’t for the unexpected adoption of a moody but captivating calico kitten during my first lonely year out of college, and others that followed, I would have remained largely oblivious to animals.
I would have paid less attention to those thriving in the wild around me in Chicago suburbia, as well as the regular carcasses I passed alongside back roads, including the beautiful doe that bounced off my windshield like a ping pong ball one winter night and lay crippled and trembling until 3 gun shots put her down. I would have been unaware of the plight of countless homeless dogs and cats in our throw-away society, 3-4 million of which are given the blue serum of ultimate abandonment every year. Certainly I would have remained unconscious and/or unmoved about the institutionalized misery of more than 10 billion animals raised each year in factory farms, in conditions which very few of us could stomach let alone recognize as animal husbandry. And yet this is how the vast majority of animal products reach our tables.
One of the arguments for enabling or tolerating animal cruelty is that we’re doing no worse to them than they would do to each other if left to their natural environments and instincts: the primal animal violence. At the same time, a common (and sometimes justified) critique of animal advocacy efforts is that they attempt to blur the distinction between humans and animals. But as another animal advocate once wrote, we can’t justify our behavior by comparing it to the animals’ on one hand, and then bemoan the uniqueness of our humanity being compromised on the other.
In both instances we need to recover what true humanity, true humaneness, means. As a Christian, I believe that God’s image which we as humans so undeservedly possess does in fact denote a significant difference between ourselves and animals. But it is one of steward to fellow creatures of our God, a calling of care, compassion and affirming engagement with all animals, great and small as the hymn goes. There is no place, or permission, for violence against animals in this sacred task. It’s the first we were given, in fact.
Ben DeVries lives in southeastern Wisconsin with his wife Cheryl, toddler son Jadon and three adopted cats. He founded Not One Sparrow, a Christian voice for animals after completing his seminary capstone project on a biblical-theological foundation for animal welfare. Ben also blogs at With Those Who, a journal of empathy, and welcomes communication by email as well as Facebook and Twitter.
For resources on Faith and Animal Advocacy, go here.