Giving animals the benefit of the precautionary principle

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
January 27, 2018 - 5:15am
Image Credit: Mel Rothenburger

KAMLOOPS — One snowy evening two winters ago, I happened to look out a window towards our hay shed, a couple of hundred steps from the house.

A motion-sensor light on the shed suddenly came on as a feral cat who’d been living there emerged from the hay bales and began playing with snowflakes, leaping high into the air and swatting at them, repeating the process over and over.

My heart went out to him at that moment, for here was a creature, living alone, with only himself for sustenance and company, finding genuine pleasure in a game of his own creation.

The incident came to mind the other day when I saw the news item about Switzerland’s ban on boiling lobsters alive. We’ve long comforted ourselves by insisting lobsters feel nothing, that the “screams” they emit in the pot are nothing more than escaping air, and that we are not the cause of suffering.

A recent study draws that assertion into question. The scientist who did the study believes it at least opens up the possibility that lobsters feel pain — in fact, thinks it’s “very likely” and suggests we should apply the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle basically states that if there’s a possibility of a negative or unwanted result from something we do, we shouldn’t do it.

Switzerland has opted in favour of the precautionary principle when it comes to boiling lobsters.

We get very concerned when we hear about dairy cows and chickens being mistreated, we abhor the cruel way in which horses and cows are slaughtered, and we’re saddened by the way in which pigs — a very intelligent and sensitive animal — are abused on their way to the abattoir.

We don’t question whether or not they experience pain and fear. Of course they do. Mammals are different from crustaceans but why would we not give any creature the benefit of the doubt?

Back to cats and dogs for a moment. I’ve always been intrigued by how members of different species can relate to one another. By some sort of magic, we’re able to communicate and share ideas and emotions.

I don’t need a study to know that dogs, cats, horses and other domestic animals can grow to trust us, just as we can grow to trust them.

Nobody can tell me that our faithful dog Jesse doesn't love us. Indeed, he’s never met another living creature he doesn’t like, except for marmots, and his attempt to make friends with coyotes nearly didn’t end well.

In his old age, he places his complete trust in us. He comes to us for help when he’s hurt or sick because he knows we’ll see that he’s cared for. We’re much more than just a meal ticket.

I doubt it’s possible to forge an emotional bond with a lobster, but don’t we as the stewards of all other living things have a duty to give them the benefit of the doubt when we throw them into a pot of boiling water? Isn’t that a measure of our humanity — when we care enough to not do something we’re not certain of?

Mother Nature, by design, is cruel. There was no way to plan a system in which every species gets along, only one in which they depend on one another for survival. That involves a food chain, but it should be the most humane food chain we can make it, whether it be animals on farms or lobsters in pots.

Ending a practice because we suspect, rather than know, that it causes suffering, is a good sign for humanity.

As for Barny the barn cat, he’s no longer feral. It took me months to gain his trust but he eventually came in from the cold and now he sleeps on my lap as I watch TV. He still makes up his own games, like flipping over the corners of rugs, and running full tilt up and down hallways.

He and I don’t agree on everything, but our inter-species relationship is working out pretty good.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops. He writes commentaries for CFJC Today and publishes the blog.