Sonny's Corner: Why Christians and environmentalists cannot support animal rights


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Sonny Foster"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.

By Stephen Vantassel

As webmaster for the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, I educate people about identifying, preventing and responsibly resolving damage caused by wildlife. For instance, if raccoons are raiding your garden or squirrels have entered the attic, I will provide informational resources to help you stop those problems. People are generally intrigued by my line of work but become unsettled upon learning that I am also a minister with a Ph.D. in theology. They seem puzzled that a minister would be teaching the public about techniques that involve shooting, trapping and killing wildlife. After all, aren’t they God’s creatures? Shouldn’t ministers be about peace and love and harmony?

Unfortunately, what they fail to understand is that there is no fundamental contradiction between responsibly killing animals, supporting scientific environmentalism and being a Christian. In fact, the contradiction lies with those who reject our right or need to kill animals on the grounds that such actions are anti-environmental or non-Christian. To put a sharper point on the matter, I argue that for Christians and environmentalists to accept the ideals of animal rights is the logical equivalent of saying that one can be a Christian-atheist or environmentalist-litterbug.

Before providing evidence for this bold assertion, I need to clarify some terms. By Christian, I mean one who believes in the person and work of the God-Man, Jesus Christ as the exclusive Savior of the world (John 14:6) and affirms the historic creeds and mores of the Church. I use the term “environmentalist” to refer to those who believe that science can provide insight into how humans can responsibly use the earth without causing irreparable harm. I recognize that to many, “environmentalist” carries much negative baggage as environmentalism has been co-opted by the extremists who constantly provide dire apocalyptic predictions that this or that behavior by humans will cause the world to end. I actually prefer the term ecologist, but since it is less well known, I am stuck with environmentalist. I define “animal rights” as that point of view which denies that humans have any moral authority or right to eat, ranch, hunt, trap, fish or otherwise interfere with animals living out their lives. In other words, humans would have to essentially grant animals the same kinds of rights afforded our fellow humans. Animal-rights activists are not suggesting that animals have the right to vote, but they do believe that the right to life and noninterference is fundamental and humans must respect that in order to be properly moral. Just as you can’t walk into your neighbor’s house without permission, so you would not be allowed (from an ethical perspective) to sport hunt or fish or eat a burger. To an animal-rights activist, eating animal flesh is morally analogous to cannibalism; it is an extreme expression of a lack of respect for the animal’s life. Just to be clear, animal-rights activists believe that self-defense does provide justification for killing an animal. If a mountain lion attacks you, animal-rights activists believe you are justified in using lethal force to protect yourself.

Animal protectionism takes a slightly more modest position as adherents argue that humans may kill animals only if there were overriding reasons for doing so. In other words, animal protectionists deny that humans have a prima facie right to kill or harm animals. For example, an animal protectionist would say that birds threatening the safety of passenger liners around an airport could be morally killed if other, less lethal methods failed to work. In contrast, an animal-rights activist would say that perhaps the airport should be shut down or the birds would need to be humanely moved to a new location of similar worth and value from the perspective of the birds. As can be expected, animal protectionists’ views fall in a spectrum. Some are so extreme that distinguishing them from animal-rights activists would be difficult indeed. I just want you, the reader, to ponder how life would be different if every time you wanted to kill an animal you had to provide overriding evidence of need.

As noted above, animal-rights activists, along with extreme elements of the animal-protectionist movement, deny that humans have the right of dominion over animals. I also stated that Christians cannot affirm that position. Let me provide just a few reasons for this. First, Scripture clearly says that God gave dominion to humanity (Genesis 1:26–8). Note I say humanity, because God granted dominion to both genders, men and women. Dominion does not mean despotism. Humans were to govern the world in service to God as managers run an apartment block for the interests of the owner. Genesis 2 explicitly relates God’s command to work the garden and to protect it. The evidence suggests that God wanted humans to protect species from extinction. Individual animals did not receive that protection. If you have any doubts, ask how our lives would be different if Adam and Eve decided to express dominion over the Serpent rather than listening to it. Adam and Eve failed to protect the garden because they failed to eject, or dare I say kill, the Serpent for its blasphemy. In short, they failed to express dominion over the serpent. The Old Testament provides additional support for humanity’s authority over creation through Psalm 8, which interestingly enough is treated as a Messianic Psalm in the New Testament (Hebrews 2:7). Christ also affirmed humanity’s authority over creation (and the animal kingdom) through his words and his actions. Christ expanded humanity’s dinner menu by declaring all foods ceremonially clean. In one fell swoop, Christians were no longer bound to follow the restrictions of Kosher Laws (Mark 7:19) and could enjoy the flavors of pigs and lobster with divine blessing. Christ’s actions toward animals are even more telling. He allowed demons to drown pigs without ever bothering to run into the Sea of Galilee to save them (Luke 8:33). He even helped the disciples kill more fish through the miracle of the fishes (John 21:6).

The problem of cruelty

Some of you may agree with my comments so far but are concerned that my position actually provides justification for people to be cruel to animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we must first be clear on what constitutes cruelty.

Animal rights and animal protectionism start from the position that humans do not have a right to utilize animal resources. So from this assumption, anything that interferes with an animal’s freedom can be considered a violation of its being and therefore cruel. To an animal-rights activist, keeping a lion in a zoo is cruel because the lion loses its ability to “enjoy” the great outdoors, hunting its prey. Christians believe that zoos are an appropriate expression of dominion over creation, provided the animals are treated properly (i.e., zoos that provide proper sanitation, care and treatment of the animals).

But what about something more controversial, such as sport hunting or, say, fur trapping? Aren’t these expressions of human greed and selfishness? They certainly can be, but that would depend on the individual sportsman. Sport hunting and fur trapping are not by definition instances of cruelty. Why? Because God put animals on the earth for human enjoyment, and enjoyment can range from deer watching to deer hunting. Christ never condemned the disciples’ fishing with nets, devices where fish can actually die by being crushed. It isn’t that Christ wasn’t concerned with animal suffering as he clearly was (Luke 12:6, 13:15). The difference is animals under our direct control, such as pets or livestock, require a higher level of attention than animals in the wild. I believe if the apostles had a more humane way of capturing fish that didn’t unduly hinder them financially, Christ would have had them use it. But we need to distinguish between capture techniques and euthanasia. I suggest the view known as animal welfare provides the biblical balance of respect for animal suffering and human need. Animal welfare seeks to treat the animal in a way to minimize its suffering, while recognizing that it is an animal. Hunters who employ good shooting practices and trappers who choose their sets carefully are each exhibiting the best qualities of animal welfare. Trapping and hunting are capture techniques, not euthanasia techniques. Capturing free-ranging animals is very different than dealing with an animal in a controlled environment. You treat your dog differently than a deer, because a dog is under your control—a deer is not.

Foothold trapping is perhaps the most demonized sporting activity in the U.S. People are regularly shown images of injured animals, while being asked to support banning foothold traps. Regrettably, the public, deceived by images of footholds from Saturday cartoons, is only too eager to support such foolish and anti-environmental legislation. What the animal-rights activists won’t tell Nebraskans is how footholds play an important role in the state’s ecology, such as with the reestablishment of the river otter in Nebraska. That’s right. Footholds are actually being used to capture river otters as part of a study to better understand this rare Nebraskan species. Why don’t we use cage traps? Simple—footholds are more humane and more effective. Footholds also help capture coyotes, raccoons and skunks, which in turn help protect livestock, game birds and ripening corn stalks. In the 2006–2007 season, Nebraska trappers caught over 160,000 raccoons. I defy anyone to provide any evidence that the raccoon is in danger of extinction in Nebraska by this activity. By utilizing this renewable resource, Nebraskan trappers improved our economy by selling pelts and paying the state through license fees, all without damaging the state’s ecosystem. As an activity, trapping and other sporting activities are about as green as an industry can be. Unfortunately, there are too many people who mistakenly think that environmentalism and trapping are incompatible.

Due to the benefits just mentioned, I contend that those who adopt an animal rights stance actually promote policies that will harm the environment, because they will have removed tools vital to our role as manager of nature. Of course, as a Christian, I am glad to belong to a faith that was from its beginning environmentally sound. If you want to read a more extended discussion of these points, I suggest getting a copy of my book, “Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations” (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2009). But I trust that if you are a Christian or an environmentalist—or both—I suggest there is no room for being an animal-rights supporter.



Submitted by Larry (not verified) on

Two comments: A. The paragraphs relating to cruelty seem to focus on trapping and hunting. What is not mentioned is corporations having animals simply for the use of testing and experimentation. I can somehow envison a cringe on Christ's face if he were taken inside an animal test facility to watch how much irritation and pain a mammal would suffer by spraying some chemical in its eyes. I can see it now. The animal wreaks in pain, and the corporate manager turns to Jesus and says, "Is this acceptable?" What reaction do we think Christ would have to this type of treatment to his own father's creation? JC: "Yeah, this is okay to do. Anything to help humans to not become extinct is fine. This is the dominion my father gave you." I doubt this is what he would say.

B. Although there seems to be an attempt to lump "environmentalists" together with animal rights activists, this is hardly the case in the real world. Most environmentalists I know will eat meat. Environmentalists are concerned primarily with the overall ability of the earth to function ecologically, as God intended in the creation when he said "It was good." Part of human dominion granted over the earth would be stewardship. The late E.W. Carswell (a newspaper editor in North Florida, hardly a bastion of environmentalism) once wrote a wonderful article about "husbanding" the land. He eluded to the fact of how a wise land owners once husbanded the resources of the land, thinking of his own family's future and of generations to come. He noted how husbanding had been replaced with exploitation for the sake of now.

Today, we in western society WANT it all (not need). This constant "want" is what damages the concept of husbandry. We lust after each other's resources, and even spouses. Think of it this way: Do you see what happens when husbandry is not practiced by a spouse in a marriage? Many parties are hurt, children are torn from parents, and look at the social price we pay. Our culture becomes fragmented, and we separate from God our creator. Now, imagine when we abandon husbandry of the natural world, including the animal kingdom. We take from places where we should not, abandon places we lay waste (mining is a good example, ask folks in any old mining town, Miami, Oklahoma comes to mind), and fragment ecosystems to the point that organisms and natural systems (that contribute to our own non-extinction) fail. If a Christian cannot support animal rights and ecological protection and conservation of resources, and if a non-Christian has to give up such support to become a Christian, well, you are asking people to make one heck of a choice. I believe God is big enough to handle being worshiped and loved by a human, and having that human care in his or her heart for the well being of animals that he himself created. I think God can love an environmentalist just as much as he loves a Nebraskan with a serious raccoon problem.

Submitted by kate b (not verified) on

Thank you for your article, it has certainly opened my eyes. I thought that I was a Christian, but you've shown me that Christ has no place at his table for the likes of me. Thank you again.

Submitted by J. R. Bowman (not verified) on

So Andrew Linzey is not a Christian? Albert Schweitzer would, I suppose, not be a Christian in Dr. Vantassel's opinion. I consider myself a Christian--even by the definition Dr. Vantassel gives-- though I would grant that statis to others who are more broad in their understanding than I. Never-the-less, I am a proponent of animal welfare--even animal rights, if by that is meant the right of animals not to be tortured by human beings. Dr. Vantassel does not mention factory farming, but he does say livestock deserve our concern. I wonder, does he eat these creatures, so cruely kept and slaughtered, or does he go organic?

Who are you, Dr. Vantassel, to pronounce who, in God's eyes, is or is not a Christian? Jesus said there will be surprises in this area. Perhaps one will be that he claims for himself those who have seen in sentient beings objects of our Creator's care and as worthy of ours in very specific ways.


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