The inspiration for this article came in 2005 from my three adult cats. At that time the two oldest were 17 and 18 years old, which would be 102 and 108 in human years. The oldest, Simon Peter, was diagnosed with cancer, and shortly after, Maja, the 17 year old, was diagnosed with breast and lung cancer. My husband and I are very attached to our cats, but we do not equate the value of their life with the value of human life.
A few weeks after Maja’s diagnosis, she would not eat or drink. Her pain was so bad that we had to carefully place her in a basket to carry her up and down stairs. But she still enjoyed lying out in the sunshine. The time soon came when she could no longer do that or even go to the litter box. I prayed she would die naturally, but realized we have chosen to domesticate some animals and since these animals are no longer preyed upon in the wild when they are sick, hurt or dying; I pondered what “naturally” might entail for a domesticated animal. Simon Peter was alive and doing well for a couple years after the diagnoses. The “cancer” he was diagnosed with was probably a benign tumor because he showed no signs of pain or distress for a long time. At the end he was very old and died in the corner in the basement. We don’t know if he died of old age, cancer or both, but he went on his own.
Before Maja’s death (she had to be euthanized), when we told friends and family that our cats have cancer we would get one of two reactions. First, since I’m a pro-life advocate, and have been in jail for standing up for pre-born babies and vulnerable born persons, people assumed that I would not euthanize a hurt, sick or dying animal. So they wanted to know if, or when, we are going to have them put down. They said it in a tone as if they needed to convince me that this is “the right thing to do”.
When I explained upfront that when the time comes, we will have to put down our cats with cancer, then the other reaction was; “How can you be merciful to animals and not to people”? It’s difficult to explain to those who do not understand a sense of God or the natural order of the universe that euthanizing pets (but not humans) is not a decision based necessarily on mercy, but based on what God expects of us.
I am not a Bible quoting person, although I’m able to do so. But rather, I have a deep understanding for the words in the Bible and the ability to relay the Spirit of the message to others. In other words, it would be easy for me to quote what the Bible says in Gen. 1; 26;
Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.”
Then I could simply imply that this gives humans the “right” to do whatever they want with the animals on earth or the earth’s resources. Technically, I might be correct, but it would definitely be the wrong spirit of the message. As humans, we have grown throughout the ages in our understanding and knowledge of how the earth works and why, that is exactly why our responsibility for it has also grown. For example, we use the wood from trees to make paper products and to build houses for shelter. Also, trees produce oxygen that we breathe. When there were fewer people on earth, we used much less of the earth’s resources, so replanting trees was not necessary. But now that we understand that the earth’s resources are not infinite and we have the knowledge on how to make them last, God gives us the responsibility to do so. Now we have to replant trees as we use them. The Bible says; “To those who are given much, much more is required.” Luke 12;48.
The decision of having to euthanize my cats is not just a matter of discovering they have cancer and immediately putting them down because they have suddenly become an inconvenience or because it makes me sad to have a dying pet around. This decision is equally not based on keeping them alive because of the comfort their presence brings me. God, in making me in his image and likeness, has given me the responsibility to make this decision based on what is best for the animal. However, He did not give me this same right over human life, that is His dominion to decide the moment a person should die. As persons we are called to take reasonable measures to sustain life, but if death is TRULY imminent, then we should let nature take its course, keeping are brother or sister comfortable without hastening their death.
Only God owns the exclusive right over human life. When people want to control human life and death they are not trusting in God. Essentially they are saying “God doesn’t know what He’s doing”. Or, in their human condition, it seems contrary to their understanding of a loving God that He would allow suffering. When people speak of euthanizing other human beings, it is associated with the physical realm. For example; persons under consideration to be euthanized are severely physically limited (including the inability to use speech to communicate) and/or have physical pain. However, there are many other types of suffering such as; the pain of divorce, the pain of losing a child, depression, and spiritual agonies. Some people never recover from these, and are so dehabilitated they can’t even take a shower by themselves. But for some reason, society deems people with these types of pain, ineligible for euthanasia. Therefore, society in general says certain types of sufferings are allowable without any clear indication as to why this pain, and not that pain. My point is even society puts limits on what they tout as “mercy”, but for no reason..
When God made us in His image and likeness and gave us dominion over the earth’s resources and its’ animals, the animals were not just to use for are benefit, but also to help us become familiar with our likeness to God. In other words, just as God has dominion over us, we have dominion over the animals. However, unlike God, we are not perfect, so we have to learn and grow through are successes and failures over the centuries. We may wonder then, if it is a sin to purposely light a dog on fire just to see it burn? Secondly, assuming that using animals in experiments is done with the least amount of distress to the animal as possible, would using animals for experiments to find cures for human diseases be considered sinful? I haven’t found too much written about this from a Catholic perspective, but we do have St. Francis as a model of love and appreciation for animals. He considered animals as “friends” because we need them as much as they need us.
I never did quite answer the question of whether it is a sin, or not, to misuse or abuse animals, and for me at least, the answer depends on whether we are acting in the image and likeness of God. Hurting animals out of some self-pleasure or disordered sense of power to inflict pain on something weaker than oneself is not portraying the image and likeness of God, therefore, anything that would take us away from God is a sin.
If God indeed gave humans dominion over the animals, then it is true that we are free to use them as we see fit. We’ve chosen to use certain animals in experiments to improve the human condition, and doing so responsibly is not immoral or sinful. It’s possibly one of the reasons God gave us animals. We’ve also chosen to domesticate some animals such as cows, horses, chickens, cats and dogs for our use and comfort. Since they are no longer wild animals this puts the greater burden on us to feed, shelter and yes, even euthanize them when they are really hurt or sick. A hurt or sick animal does not last long in the wild because God did not give these animals the instinct, reasoning or means to protect and care for their weak, sick, or injured among them. This is the characteristic that makes human beings different from other animals; we have the instinct, reasoning and a large capacity to care for those who are weaker than us.
Also, according to Catholic belief, an animal’s suffering has no redemptive quality, so its suffering holds no meaning, it can not save souls, so euthanizing an animal is drastically different than euthanizing a human being. Euthanizing a human being (along with abortion, cloning and genetic engineering) is like taking a bite out of the “forbidden fruit”. When God gave us dominion over all the animals and resources of the earth, one of the things He required of us is not to play with His dominion – human life. But we’ve already taken the bite and now our eyes have been opened to its potential power. Is it too late to repent? Give God back the apple with a huge bite out of it, and somehow regain our innocence?