What We Owe Animals

Lessons from the Farm

Even as a child growing up on a farm, I always had an uneasy relationship with animals. This uneasiness began with a horse named Jack, the gelding half of a team named Jack and Jill. When I was five years old, I stood on a feedbag in front of Jack, who was eating grain from his manger. I attempted to feed him from my hand, while at the same time covering his grain box so he couldn’t feed himself. I knew how to flatten the palm of my hand so he wouldn’t chew on my fingers; what I didn’t know was that his anger at being kept from eating at his own pace would cause him to suddenly open his mouth, bare his teeth, and bite the lobe of my left ear. When I screamed, my father picked me up and carried me into the house with blood streaming down my neck. I was rushed to the doctor, as much as one could rush in a 1931 Model A truck. Seventy years later, all that remains of Jack is the imprint of his teeth on my ear. 

On that same dairy farm where ornery Jack was given room and board for his labor, my father’s cattle were stuffed with silage and hay to give us milk. But in order to give a steady stream, they had to produce a newborn calf at least once a year. At about the same time as my encounter with Jack, I decided to adopt a recently born calf. From time to time, I sat in the straw next to the baby animal and patted it on the head. Then one day a truck driven by a cattle dealer appeared and took the calf away. I was saddened, though not grief-stricken. Raised on a farm, I accepted the fact that animals were in the service of our family’s needs, not the other way around. Calves consume milk, and the amount of milk we took each day to the dairy in town determined our income. Thus calves were sold for veal soon after they were born. Ours was a subsistence farm, with a garden and an orchard providing vegetables and fruits, and animals providing meat and of course milk. Shoes, coats, coffee, paying down the mortgage, and giving money to the Catholic Church were necessities the land couldn’t provide without exchanging milk for cash. My father believed tithing to the church was as necessary as making payments on his mortgage.

My father’s moral sense in his treatment of animals was an expression of his religious beliefs. He never treated an animal cruelly. I witnessed other dairy farmers losing their temper and hitting cows repeatedly with a wooden milk stool or any available cudgel—all because the cow kicked at a fly and overturned a pail of milk—and as a teenager I was tempted to do the same. But though I could see that my father was angry when it happened to him, I never saw him hit his animals in anger. All were treated humanely: kept clean, pastured on sweet grass in spring and summer, and sheltered in cold weather. Still, when cows were too old to provide milk and horses too feeble to pull the grain binder, when chickens stopped laying eggs, they were all sent off to be slaughtered—at the glue factory or the soup company. We lived too close to the edge of poverty to provide them with a retirement home. 

When I purchased a home after leaving the farm and the profession of farming, I still chose to live in a rural setting. I bought an old, rundown property that had never been a very successful farm even in its best years. Many fields were grown over with brush and woods. But it didn’t matter to me. I only wanted a garden, and a few acres of pasture for a horse, a pony, and a dozen chickens. What I didn’t count on were all the critters that infested our scrubby fields. The woodchucks burrowed under my garden fence to eat my lettuce and broccoli. The raccoons lay in wait, climbing over the fence to eat my sweet corn. The whitetail deer munched on anything in sight. And fox, hawk, and coyote threatened my chickens day and night.  

I reacted the way my father would have reacted. I shot the intruders. I also opened the woodlots every fall to local hunters to thin the deer population. Didn’t I have a right to a fresh egg or a fully ripened tomato? I had done the work: sowing, cultivating, weeding, and cleaning the coop. My wife kiddingly told me that if I were to sell my produce I would have to charge five dollars per tomato and ten dollars per egg to break even. But as I grew older and my neighbors grew younger, I began to notice their disapproval. They had grown up in the animal-rights era and were mostly from urban backgrounds, living in the country on weekends. Their only previous contact with animals had been at the zoo and with their pets: dogs, cats, turtles, hamsters, even snakes. They loved to see the deer gambol on their lawns. The baby woodchucks were cute, they said. I soon began to feel as though I were some kind of moral leper for fending off the onslaught. For the first time in my life, I questioned what I had been taught growing up: that while animals are not to be mistreated, they were created to serve our needs. Did this make me an immoral, rather cruel old man?

Adopting animals as if they were members of the family was not how life on a real farm worked. Like their children, my parents also developed attachments. My mother was very proud of her chickens. She raised them as chicks, carefully nurturing them through the cold spring weather. She fed them every day and prized the eggs she collected. But when the time came for the hens that had stopped laying to be taken away by a dealer, she would slip into the chicken house in the dark with a kerosene lantern and do the culling herself. Chickens didn’t interest my father. But he was very fond of his horses. Still, I remember him keeping only one horse longer than she was useful, a gray mare named Cora. And that was only for one summer, when she was given sole possession of the shady pasture under the apple trees. At the end of the warm season, she too was taken away. No matter how many years of useful service they had given us, or the affection my parents had for them, we could not afford corn for old chickens or hay and oats for a useless horse.

I absorbed these lessons without objection, and they were reinforced when I took catechism class from the nuns at St. Mary’s parochial school. We had a soul as well as a body, we were told, unlike the beasts in the field. Humans were intrinsically better than animals. If we behave like animals, using only instincts or desires instead of Catholic morality as our guide, we debase ourselves. Later, when I studied philosophy at Marquette University, I learned that Aristotle believed in a hierarchy of living creatures as well. Humans were at the top, superior to all animals because humans were rational. Thus animals were subject to human needs. Thomas Aquinas agreed about animals being subject to humans, but he added one other condition. Even though animals were to serve humankind, and could be used for food and labor, we must not be cruel to them. Cruelty to animals, Aquinas taught, would breed other kinds of cruelty. My father, who had hardly heard of Aquinas, had absorbed that teaching through his strict Catholic upbringing. He complained about dairy farmers who were so intent on not losing a drop of milk to a suckling calf that they sent their calves to market the day they were born. He always kept his calves for several weeks before they were sold. He felt it was cold-hearted that the calf and cow would never make contact after birth—never suckle or be suckled. He also thought it was dishonest to sell the meat of day-old calves as veal, because veal was unfit for human consumption until it had been milk-fed for at least a few weeks. Like Aquinas, he knew he owed something to both the animals and the people he dealt with. The fact that his workaday farmer’s convictions dovetailed so neatly with what I was eventually taught in philosophy class made an indelible impression on me.

Of course, my current relationship to animals is very different from my parents’ dependence on them for survival in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The bright blue flowers of myrtle that the deer eat in spring are beautiful, but losing them does not threaten my survival. The five-dollar tomatoes I grow will taste better than the ones in the supermarket, but I won’t go hungry for lack of them. And what about the hunters I bring to rid us of those deer? They might eat the venison at home, but not because they couldn’t go without. Do the pleasures of the eye and table, or the thrill of the hunt, justify taking the lives of innocent creatures who are only following their instincts? No longer living on a subsistence farm, could I justify my willingness to kill animals for reasons other than real need?

As a society, our views on the treatment of animals have changed quite a bit over the past fifty years, and in contradictory ways. Technology and general affluence have resulted in much crueler farming methods, while at the same time heightening our concern for the welfare of animals in other respects. Ezra Taft Benson, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, thought the family farm was inefficient and advocated polices that helped destroy its economic viability. To be fair, Benson may not have realized how inhumane corporate-owned factory farms would become. Animals seem to be regarded simply as a sort of machine that produces milk, eggs, or meat, and are treated like inanimate objects. Cows never go to pasture. Artificially inseminated, they stand knee-deep in their own manure in holding pens, except when they are milked three times a day by workers on an eight-hour shift. Chickens sit confined for their lifetime in wire cages, with a trapdoor through which their eggs are dropped and then moved by conveyor belt to be packaged and shipped. The pens for pigs are so confining many cannot even stand up. Aquinas would recoil at the cruelty that has been bred into the men who own and operate these factory farms. 

Too many of us ignore how the food we find packaged in our supermarkets is produced. Yet at the same time, a growing number of us think that the rights of animals should carry almost the same weight as human rights. Americans are willing to spend $10,000 and up to keep an old dog alive for another six months. This practice is often encouraged by veterinarians who treat pet owners with disdain if they want to euthanize an old or sick pet. Other “animal lovers” run shelters that advertise blind and lame animals for adoption, implicitly making the pitch that caring for a blind, lame, or sick cat or dog is somehow as virtuous as caring for a sick human. With this sort of encouragement, Americans spend over $3 billion every year on their pets. Aristotle would scratch his head in wonder over such an attitude toward animals. Aquinas would think it blasphemous that we treat pets as if they were children who had a soul.

Most of my friends and neighbors who cherish baby woodchucks and spend thousands on their pets are not vegetarians. Meat that comes wrapped in cellophane is fine, but meat on the hoof or paw somehow repels. They seem almost unaware that the canned pet food they serve their beloved cats and dogs is some form of animal meat. Yet they protest that the deer and woodchucks they see out their windows cannot be touched. They believe in what I call a sentimental hierarchy of God’s creation. Unlike the more consistent Buddhists, who respect all forms of life because of their belief in the transmigration of souls, or the ancient and medieval philosophers who had a clear preference for human life over animal, they pick and choose.

When I roll my hand over the roughened edge of my ear where Jack’s tooth marks have softened but never quite disappeared, I think of my own relationship with the different animals that I have known. I called Jack “ornery”; an Airedale that threatened me on the way home from school I described to my father as “vicious”; a red-eyed Holstein bull named “The Duke,” who would gladly trample any man or woman that got in his way, was “a mean SOB”; and a chocolate-brown Labrador-mix named Hershey was “faithful.” As living things, animals engage us in unique and important ways. Still, we must remember that all animals are innocent, and that the rat that lurks in the sewer and may spread disease or bite a child is no more evil than the kitten unspooling yarn in the sewing box. As humans, we are the only ones who can make moral judgments about how to treat lesser orders of being. Husbandry is a word with a certain antique ring to it, but it hasn’t lost its evocative power, at least for me, when it comes to the complex relationship between humans and animals. Cultivation, management, prudence, and judgment are still the necessary virtues, on and off the farm.

Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: 

Paul J. Schaefer, a retired magazine editor, lives in Clinton Corners, New York.

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