Animal cruelty at times may seem to cause more outrage than human cruelty.
It’s not that one being is valued more than the other.
Rather, it’s a matter of feeling — “What are they going through?”
Cruelty to animals may seem to us worse because animals don’t have the power to rationalize. Humans do. We can figure out why we are being treated cruelly.
A teenager growing up near Chicago used to get beaten by his father regularly. The teen was outraged, but he didn’t know a healthy way to react. He simply took it out on others. He would beat up other kids. That teenager grew up to be the famed linebacker for the Green Bay Packers — Ray Nitschke. It was Nitschke himself in his later years who figured out why he was such a bully as a teen. If he had sat down with a good counselor, the counselor also would have been able to figure it out.
We can rationalize why cruelty occurs. Understanding it helps. We can understand why it happened to us. We catch ourselves from passing it on to others. We can understand that it’s not normal — we can seek help.
Animals can’t do that. We can only imagine — all they feel is pain and bewilderment. They don’t have resources to help them — like being able to call the police — like our bruises being noticed the next day in school — like talking it over with a friend. All that animals know when being abused is — pain and bewilderment and no escape. We cringe to imagine what they’re feeling, what they’re going through.
We do feel the same outrage over human cruelty when it happens to an infant or a toddler — somebody who can not yet figure it out — who only feels pain and bewilderment. Today in the news there was a story about a woman who gave birth, put the infant in a plastic bag and tossed the bag into a dumpster. A teenage boy passing by heard crying. He jumped into the dumpster and found the baby.
I can never get over the stunning photo from August 28, 1937 that appeared in Life magazine: A Chinese photographer captured a moment from the Japanese bombing of Shanghai. The photo showed a baby girl, blackened from smoke, sitting all alone outside of a destroyed train station, helpless and crying. The helplessness is emphasized by the fact that there is not a single other human being in the scene. It’s a wide-angle photo — but not another human being can be seen. It’s just the baby girl, sitting amid the debris, bewildered, bawling for all she’s worth.
That kind of scene matches or surpasses any feeling of outrage we have over the abuse of an animal — like the Facebook post showing a teenage girl in Croatia gleefully tossing puppies into a river. Neither human nor animal experiencing such cruelty can figure it out. They’re simply wild with fear and pain.
The cringe that we feel is a combination of fury and compassion — a combination of what Jesus means when He says, “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness” — thirst is a desperate desire — it contains an element of reaching as mightily as we can for something; and “Blessed are they who mourn,” for we mourn that life can be so cruel. We mourn to the point of being moved.
Sometimes I hear of a teenager getting a cat or a dog, and I hear the parents saying how having a pet has changed the teenager — who now seems more compassionate, more caring. I always respond by observing: “How our animals make us more human!”
But it also works the other way around: “How our humanity makes us care for animals.”
No other American has ever been regarded as a better example of humanity than Abe Lincoln. One of my favorite stories of Lincoln’s humanity is how he treated animals. One time, when he was a roving attorney on the Illinois prairie, Lincoln was dressed in his finest, riding a buggy in the evening. He came across a little pig who was stuck in the mud. The pig was squealing wildly. Lincoln considered his fine clothes, and regretfully passed on. In a little while, he turned the buggy around. He climbed down, got deep into the mud in his fine pants, and pulled the pig to safety.
Lincoln said he imagined that the pig was crying for help, and further imagined that Lincoln himself was the pig’s last chance. Abe’s humanity was such that he projected human feelings into the life of the animal, and thus he could no more ignore the pig than he would have ignored a person.
“How our humanity makes us care for animals.”