Respect of animals would lead to more empathetic human society

As co-chairman of the Animal Protection Caucus and senior member of the Interior and Environment Appropriations subcommittee, I’ve had the privilege to work for countless animal protection causes in Congress.

Many have been successful: banning cruel animal crush videos, closing a labeling loophole on fur garments, strengthening prohibitions on animal fighting and ending the slaughter of horses for human consumption. I’ve also championed forward-thinking legislation yet to be enacted, including bills to regulate the traveling circus industry and to phase out the use of animal testing on cosmetic products.

My support for these policies comes from my deeply held belief that humans have a moral obligation to all animals — to treat them with respect, prevent wanton cruelty and afford them living conditions, whether in captivity or in the wild, that allow them to lead full and healthy lives.

I recoil at the mindset, still espoused by some in Congress, that animals are mere property rather than sentient beings. It is that perverse worldview that led to mass exterminations of whole species throughout history. Even today, it justifies the killing of wildlife, deplorable conditions for agricultural animals, the avoidable use of animals in research and the indifferent treatment of captive animals.

As we learn more various animal species, mounting evidence is forcing us to reevaluate the stark division we once believe existed between humans and other animals. According to a recent New York Times article, “A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence.”

As a result of these findings, prominent animal researchers issued a statement in 2012 proclaiming, “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”

These scientific revelations, which imply animals have emotions and are self-aware, force humans to reconsider our treatment of animals. But you do not need to rely solely on objective data to reach the conclusion that animals should be treated with respect.

All of the world’s major religions call for compassion toward animals. Numerous religious leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, the Reverend Billy Graham and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, emphasize the tradition of animal protection derived from their faith’s directives to protect God’s creations.

The humane treatment of animals is supported by both secular evidence and divine imperatives.

A famous quote, often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, asserts that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Besides the obvious meaning — that treating animals inhumanely undermines the moral standing of a society — the observation reveals an even more profound truth. Disregarding the health and welfare of animals makes it easier for us to disregard the health and welfare of fellow humans. It limits our capacity for empathy and constrains our ability to look beyond self-interest.

The treatment of animals can be a catalyst for a more just and compassionate society, or it can be a symptom of a society that has lost its moral compass.

It has been a privilege to help advance a greater respect for animals during my time in Congress. But just like every social movement, progress will be slow. Opponents will resist change. Setbacks will occur. Ultimately, success will not be measured by a tally of public policy victories for animals. The enduring impact of the animal welfare movement will be judged by its ability to educate the American public, alter entrenched cultural beliefs and heighten the awareness of animals in the decisionmaking of everyday Americans.

Moran has represented Virginia’s 8th Congressional District since 1991. He sits on the Appropriations Committee and is co-chairman of the Animal Protection Caucus.