In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese people being napalmed daily by the U.S. military than they were about a dog being napalmed.
Comedian and anti-war activist Dick Gregory made a similar point around the same time when he proposed to end the war in Vietnam by drafting family pets instead of young men. People wouldn’t stand for that, he said; the war would end in a week.
This attitude toward animals is a form of sentimentality, i.e., the over-indulgence of easy emotions—and, inevitably, the avoidance or suppression of difficult emotions. It has been around for a long time. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, in his Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400), describes the Prioress as a nun who really would rather be a lady. Against convent rules, she wears jewelry and she owns pet dogs. She feeds her dogs with roast beef, milk, and bread, and weeps if anyone strikes one of them. She weeps similarly if she sees a trapped mouse bleeding, or dead. Her sympathies, in other words, are directed toward small, cute animals because the suffering of such animals does not require her to do much more than weep and express her sorrow. Her sympathies are decidedly not directed toward the hunger, poverty, and suffering of thousands of people all around her in medieval England, because acknowledging human suffering would require her to do something about it, and this would be difficult.
Animals are, of course, widely mistreated, especially those that are raised to be slaughtered and eaten. Notice, however, that very few people like to think about this, and even fewer decide to stop eating meat. A sentimental story about a pet rescued miraculously from some natural disaster, on the other hand, gets lots of people talking and clicking and ‘liking’.
In one respect, however, we really do treat animals better than we treat our parents and grandparents. When people are fatally injured, or terminally ill, or when they are simply too old to go on living without suffering daily, we extend their suffering for weeks, months, or even years by medicating them, by force-feeding them, by hooking them up to machines that keep their hearts pumping and their lungs inflating, and deflating.
However, when the family dog or cat is injured, or is ill beyond cure, or is simply too old to live without daily suffering, we do the humane thing: we put it painlessly to death.
Chaucer would appreciate the irony.