It was well over 200 years ago now that Jeremy Bentham asked about animals, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?'” It was a rhetorical question even then. Obviously animals can suffer; obviously animals feel pain.
Last week the Internet, the news media, and Minnesotans publicly shamed a Bloomington dentist who shot a lion in Zimbabwe in July. The animal’s name was Cecil — yes, he was given a name — and he lived in Hwange National Park. The lion was lured from the safety of the park by hunters with food. The American dentist, a big game hunter, shot Cecil first with a bow and arrow. That didn’t kill him. The dentist tracked him for two days before finally finishing him off with a rifle.
Much of the world has been justifiably appalled.
I’ve been a vegetarian most of my adult life. My wife is, too. So is our daughter.
Often when it comes up in conversation that I’m a vegetarian, people ask whether I eat chicken or fish. My answer? “No. I don’t eat anything that had a parent.” I could say, “I don’t eat anything that feels pain,” because — recall that classic Bentham quote — that is the real reason. But I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or self-righteous. (Alas, I probably sound a little of both this morning. Forgive me.)
There are issues here that demand books to explore. Vegetarianism is merely one point along the lengthy spectrum of animal rights. In other words, millions of people around the world who eat meat mourned the death of Cecil the Lion. I imagine a great many Vermont deer hunters were disgusted. And yet, somehow, it seems to take more imagination for humans to identify with animal suffering and (for instance) the staggering cruelty of the meat industry than it does for us to conceive of cloning or space flight or nuclear fusion.
But make no mistake, it hurts a deer every bit as much as it hurts a human being to be shot. Likewise, a mother pig is no happier living her life in a cramped metal crate than any other mammal. Even the lobster — an animal I have christened an earwig on steroids — most likely feels pain. (In other words, that’s not just a reflex you are witnessing when you drop one into a pot of boiling water.)
I can’t say if we would behave better as people if we did not eat meat, but the world itself would most certainly be a better place. According to a 2006 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, our demand for meat causes more greenhouse gases than either industry or transportation. The report found that meat production results in somewhere between 14 and 22 percent of the greenhouse gases we create every year: producing an eight ounce hamburger results in roughly as much greenhouse gas as driving a car ten miles.
My sense is that so many of us were outraged by Cecil’s murder (I have chosen that noun with care) because the animal had a name, was known in its community, and was a big furry lion. We like big. We like lions. We like animals we have named. Also, the fact that Cecil was murdered by a dentist is an irony that has to be factored into our thinking, since a lot of people like lions considerably more than they like dentists — though I happen to like my dentist a lot. Moreover, we hate poachers.
In other words, we were more upset by the death of this one lion than we are by the death of the 110 million pigs killed every year for food.
But as a vegetarian, I see promise in the indignation and sorrow people were experiencing. Cecil’s death was not the Disney Circle of Life ending we expect for creatures this majestic and regal. (Of course, Disney also gave us Bambi; I’m not going there.)
Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Cecil the Lion was not slaughtered for naught. Let’s see.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 2, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)