Do animals have rights?
Does God give us sacred laws on how to treat animals under our care?
We ask these questions because we know there are people who abuse pets and who have no conscience about how they treat domesticated animals. We’ve read stories about professional athletes who ran dog-fighting operations or cock fights and then went to jail for those crimes. We see television ads about dogs and cats who are held in captivity by human beings that show unspeakable cruelty. I am so offended by these actions that I can barely watch them.
Admittedly I am a dog owner and, like many of us who love our pets, am disgusted by the way some people show no respect or regard for the value of animal life. The Torah gives us plenty of scripture about how to treat animals. One would think that would be enough to protect animals, but it doesn’t seem to work for a certain segment of the society we live in.
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In Genesis, we see that God assigns to human beings the stewardship of the animal world. In fact, the first human being Adam is charged with the task of naming the animals in the Garden of Eden.
The story of Noah demonstrates that God wanted us to care for animals of all kinds, not just the typical pets we love today. In Genesis 9:3-4 God tells us that a person cannot cut off the limb of a living animal.
In Exodus, the Ten Commandments reminds us that we are supposed to treat animals with respect and care, particularly those who work our lands. When it comes to the laws on the Sabbath, not only are humans commanded to rest and not engage in any form of work, but animals, too, are exempt from work as well. “For six days, you shall do all of your work, but the seventh day is God’s Sabbath; you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter or your servant or your animal, or the stranger who is in your midst,” (Exodus 20:8).
The Torah gives examples that emphasize the ethical treatment of animals, such as Deuteronomy (22:6) with the commandment to send a mother bird away before taking eggs or chicks from her nest. In the book of Proverbs it is written, “A righteous person knows the needs of his beast, but the compassion of the wicked is cruelty,” (Proverbs 12:10).
In the vision of Isaiah for a world where there will be peace for human beings, he invokes the animals who will represent that wonderful dream when adversaries will join together.
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion. ... They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.”
These are just a few of the examples from the Bible of how humans are supposed to treat the animals under their care. There are many more issues than we face today such as animals used in medical experimentation and slaughtering of animals in stockyards.
Organizations such as the Human Society of America and many others devote themselves to education and advocacy on behalf of animals who have no voice in how they are treated. These groups especially focus on those animals who are abused or neglected. Folks who decide to be vegetarians and vegans are part of the movement to show reverence for the animals with whom we share our existence on this planet. Even global warming studies claim that many species of animals are threatened with extinction, such as caribou, reindeer, penguins, polar bears, musk oxen, and cold water fish such as salmon who live in the Pacific Northwest.
There are, unfortunately, many more animals in the waters and on land who are reported to be threatened because of the way we live. Obviously there are big issues here that tie into the politics of our society which impact on so many levels the survival of animal life on our planet.
Who will be their advocates if not us?
If the prophets taught us to care for the most vulnerable of the human community, such as the poor, the widows and the orphans, then how much the more so are we obligated to pursue justice for the animal world.
Whether the animals are our “pet children,” work animals or animals in the wild, they have a right to life.
Don’t we, on the other hand, have a moral duty to report injustice against them and to treat animal life with respect?
Mahatma Ghandi, the great revered leader of India, is reported to have said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Once again we learn that making a nation great is not just about its economic or technological prowess but also about its compassion for its citizens and for animal life, too.