The Life of an Animal

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the case of Brown v. Battle Creek Police Department, in which the Sixth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment for the defendants in a suit brought under federal civil rights law.  The plaintiffs in the case sued individual police, the city, and the police department after police killed the plaintiffs' two dogs while carrying out a search of the plaintiffs' home pursuant to a warrant.  The main claim was that the police violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures by shooting the two family dogs to death.  In the column, I suggest that the plaintiffs should have prevailed and that the Sixth Circuit was wrong to affirm the grant of summary judgment to the defendants.  The life of a dog, even according to the Court of Appeals, is worth more than a piece of furniture, yet the court did not demand very much of the police as a precondition to their decision to kill the dogs.

In the course of discussing Brown, I note that many of the same people who would share my outrage at the police officers' decisions that led up to their killing the two dogs routinely participate in the torture and slaughter of sentient animals--animals who have as much capacity to feel pain, to enjoy life, and to experience emotions as a dog--by consuming products like meat, dairy, and eggs.  Let me emphasize here that the two positions held by people in this (very large) camp are completely inconsistent.  On the one hand, they fault police for killing dogs when there are other alternatives that could equally serve the objective at issue, here to protect the safety of the police officers.  On the other hand, they permit themselves to consume the products of animal harm and killing--typically more than once a day--when there are other alternatives that could equally serve the objective at issue, namely, to nourish oneself with delicious, nutritious, and filling food.  Because judging others (here, the police) is involved, this inconsistency amounts to hypocrisy.  (Though I am not sure of the derivation of the word "hypocrite," I would guess that it has something to do with being less than adequately--hypo--critical, by being critical of others while sparing oneself the same critique).

Would I prefer that such people be fine with police shooting of household dogs during searches because then their positions would be consistent?  No, of course not.  The expression "hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue" applies here.  If someone couldn't care less when a nonhuman animal is unnecessarily killed, whether by police officers or in response to demand by animal-product consumers, then there is little potential there, little to work with.  Being critical of the police means that the person's moral intuition tells her that it is wrong to kill an animal if there is a less restrictive alternative method for meeting the same need (assuming that it truly is a need, which--in the case of police protecting their own safety and in the case of consumers feeding themselves--it is).  Once a person acknowledges the moral intuition that unnecessarily killing an animal (that is, failing to employ an available less restrictive alternative means of meeting a need) is wrong, then that person is in a position to interrogate her own behavior and examine whether it is in keeping with her own values.  This is not an easy thing to do, of course, because people prefer to do things the way they're used to doing them, but it is a worthwhile endeavor, and a news story--like the story of police shooting two family dogs during a search--can usefully trigger the raw materials for that endeavor.  It was experiences like this that helped lead me to become vegan.  I deplored cruelty to animals, and when it was pointed out to me that I was paying people to be cruel to animals, I came to realize that my behavior did not match up with my own sense of right and wrong.

What makes cruelty to dogs an important "teachable moment" is that close to half of the households in the U.S. have a dog, so people are familiar enough with dogs to understand that dogs have feelings and thoughts and can suffer in many of the same ways that human beings can suffer.  People have direct access to dog sentience in a way that they lack such access to the sentience of cows, chickens, pigs, and fishes, along with the other animals whose flesh and bodily secretions make their way to most Americans' plates.  This could be why people sign petitions condemning the consumption of dogs in other countries while happily consuming other animals (and their secretions, obtained with the same or worse cruelty as flesh) themselves.  It could also explain people's outrage at dog-fighting. It is also true that people are not invested in viewing dogs as food or as "fair game" for the infliction of pain and slaughter in the way that they are invested in viewing cows, chickens, pigs, and fishes in this way.  Take the "otherness" of farmed animals coupled with the investment in seeing them as "suitable for slaughter," and you have the ingredients for resistance to the notion that it could be wrong to eat the muscle tissue or hormonal output of a hen or a calf.

Resistance is a powerful thing.  Resistance motivates people to come up with all sorts of ways of distinguishing between the behavior that they condemn and the behavior in which they regularly engage. Such arguments as "dogs were not bred for slaughter but pigs were" are weak and unimpressive but feel very convincing to someone who wants to believe that what they are doing and what they believe are not in fact in conflict (even when they actually are).  The fact that someone was brought into existence for an immoral purpose (taking their lives away while they are young and hurting them terribly before that point) does not do anything to magically make that purpose moral. Imagine if someone told you that he was selling his son into the sex trade but that it was okay to do that because the only reason he and his wife decided to conceive their son in the first place was for the purpose of creating a sex slave for them to sell.  That hardly redeems their behavior.  (For more arguments people make to defend the consumption of animal products, along with responses to the arguments, check out Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans).

So I am glad that there are people who find police killings of dogs morally troubling, both because I share their view on this subject and because they thereby reveal their commitment to a moral principle that ultimately commits them to ethical veganism (even if they do not realize it or believe it just yet).  My hope is that more and more people who care about dogs will come to realize this truth if people point it out often enough.