The Sunday Edition

Michael's essay: Re-thinking our relationship with animals

“It may have started years ago when I interviewed Peter Singer, the philosopher and professor at Princeton University. His argument was simple and stark: human animals and animal animals are equal because they can each suffer pain and experience enjoyment.”
(Pixabay.com)
Listen4:28

For years, Toronto householders have been complaining about raccoons. As the raccoon population grew and grew, so did the complaints.

The coons were getting into wet garbage, spreading it all over the property, generally enjoying a nightly buffet. City Hall boffins tried everything, including new raccoon-proof green bins.

They managed to outwit the raccoons for about half an hour.  Back to the drawing board. The experts came up with a state of the art green bin with a handle lock which has to be turned in order to unlock the bin. The mayor was very proud of the new foolproof design.

Well, there is now on YouTube, a video showing a very clever raccoon approaching the bin, climbing on top, very carefully turning the coon-proof locking device, opening the lid, and digging down inside.

To be honest, I've never thought very much about animals. There was my dog Daisy, a goofy old English sheepdog and one or two quarter horses.

Growing up in the middle of a large city, I had no contact with larger animals outside an urban zoo.

I knew there were animals we ate and there were animals who lived in the wilds of Africa or the Rockies.

The suggestion that perhaps animals have feelings not unlike our own and that we have a responsibility in the shared ownership of Planet Earth would never have occurred to me.

Lately though, I've begun to rethink my assumptions. Or perhaps  more accurately, discover some new ones.

It may have started years ago when I interviewed Peter Singer, the philosopher and professor at Princeton University.
Philosopher Peter Singer and friend. ( © 2006 derekgoodwin.com)

His argument to me was simple and stark: human animals and animal animals are equal because they can each suffer pain and experience enjoyment.

Years later, I read about something called the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which followed a meeting of the world's greatest neuroscientists and biologists.

Its conclusion: "Physical processes associated with consciousness can be found in many creatures including insects and molluscs."

More reading, more understanding, bit by bit.

Learning that animals can demonstrate empathy, kindness and love.

They cope with death and mourn in ways not unlike humans.

Anybody who has ever owned a dog, knows they have distinct, individualized personalities.

Last year, I interviewed Peter Wohlleben about his book, The Hidden Life of Trees. This year, he has moved into a new book called The Inner Life of Animals.

In it, he compares the human and animal traits we have in common. The effect is startling. We know more now about their inner lives than we've ever known.

On top of which, I've long followed the arguments of Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star.

A political affairs columnist, his other passion is the ethical treatment of animals and how insouciant governments are about their welfare.

"The fundamental problem is that animals are treated under Canadian law as mere property whose lives are at the mercy of their owners."

Exploring the spectrum of animal rights, invariably leads to inevitable ethical questions.

What should our relationships with fellow animals be? Do we have an actual, viable kinship with them? Does that extend to responsibility to some extent for their well-being?

Does it mean because of the slaughter of millions of pigs worldwide every day, I should not eat bacon? I don't know.

I do have a sneaking idea that I'm going to lay off chicken.
Chickens stand in their cages at a farm in Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
The experts all tell me that the gravest form of animal abuse is carried out against battery caged chickens.

The whole matter of animal rights is one of those tendentious issues like abortion where everybody has an opinion. And likes to shout it out.

I don't want to get in the middle of that.

What I want to do is seek out more ethical questions. And in the doing, perhaps stumble over a few answers.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay.