Animals don’t have a voice, but we do

In 2002, a George W. Bush speechwriter named Matthew Scully published a book titled Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy that surprised a lot of his fellow conservatives. He argued that no matter your politics or religious preference, caring for the world’s animals is a unique human responsibility.

He was hardly the only one to make this argument, but there are a lot of lessons in the way he did it. As he beautifully, and very correctly, wrote in that book, “We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

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In other words, this isn’t a partisan question about which interest group wins or loses. Instead of rejecting animal welfare as an environmentalist niche cause or blowing it off as something conservatives aren’t interested in, Scully took the larger ethical view. We should all do the same.

Animals don’t have a political voice except the one that humans raise on their behalf. They don’t vote, they don’t lobby and they certainly don’t buy air time during campaign season. But they are just as important to our way of life as we are. Think hard about what Scully wrote and decide what kind of world we’d live in if survival of the fittest — in which humans have all the advantages — is really the only standard we want to set for the future.

Humans have the rare capacity to kill or mistreat other animals simply because we want to. We have outlawed animal cruelty for many years, but we still hunt elephants and polar bears for sport. We still look the other way as wild horses are harassed and sometimes unnecessarily rounded up. We take a wink-and-nod approach to troubling slaughterhouse conditions that by now are more thoroughly documented than steroids in baseball.

Seen as a whole, mankind’s approach to animal welfare paints an unflattering picture that has implications for political issues across the board. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to understand that animals don’t deserve to die at our hands for no reason. They don’t deserve to experience pain and suffering for our entertainment. More than anything, they deserve to live their lives in peace and be left alone as much as possible.

Recognizing this is one thing; putting it into practice is much more difficult and will bear much larger rewards. When we take a more humane view of animal welfare — whether farm animals, wild animals, endangered species or our own pets — we do ourselves and future generations a bigger favor than we realize. Over time, we’re going to have to treat the world around us less as an obstacle or a source of wealth and more as the only place we have to live.

Biodiversity, endangered species preservation and treating animals well have somehow become politically complicated and controversial. It shouldn’t be. We’re not in a competition with one another, and we’re certainly not in the political race to the death some people seem to think. Painting animal welfare as somehow anti-human — as though every endangered species we preserve costs us thousands of jobs — is not just scientifically wrong, it’s morally blind.

Our long-term success depends on us co-existing with the natural world. That’s not a fringe political position, it’s a fact. It’s why zoos all over the world are starting to focus more of their efforts on research and species preservation and less on entertainment. It’s why medicinal advances still come from the natural world as often as from a test tube.

When we send helicopters to drive wild horses into cramped holding pens, where they miscarry, panic and sometimes die, we don’t just hurt them — we perpetuate the mentality that they’re in our way. Combine that with our disregard for the welfare of animals, which we’ve come to think of strictly in terms of dollars and cents, and you can see why Scully’s argument is so necessary. Animal welfare isn’t about sharing power. It’s about recognizing that we have it all and deciding what we really want to do with it when the stakes are so high.

Grijalva, the ranking member of the House subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, represents Arizona’s 7th congressional district.