A young male cat

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Many years ago, to train hunting dogs, trainers would throw a red herring in front of a dog to try to draw it off the trail. When properly trained, the dog would continue to follow the scent of its prey rather than to follow the red herring. Thus the “red herring” fallacy occurs when someone throws out an argument that is not relevant to the argument a person is making in order to change the subject, to draw the argument away from the real issues.

When I argue that human beings should treat animals in a humane way, and that the present system of animal welfare, especially concerning stray dogs and cats, is broken, some people throw out a red herring. The red herring is “Why do you worry so much about the treatment of animals when there are so many people in need? Do you care more about animals than people?”

This is an easy way for people to avoid the arguments I make in favor of animal welfare–that there are too many stray dogs and cats, that the pet population should be controlled by spaying and neutering, and that the killing of healthy dogs and cats at “animal shelters” should cease. I could also go into the issue of the treatment of chickens and hogs at factory farms, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit my focus to cats and dogs.

There are two strategies to use in answering this red herring. One strategy is to ignore it and continue giving my main argument: Cats and dogs, like other mammals and birds (and probably many other animals) are sentient creatures. That is, they are not automatons as Descartes and the behaviorist psychologists think (and even some Christian philosophers who want to get God off the hook for animal pain). Dogs and cats have emotions–joy, sadness, love, anger, and grief. In a way, they feel more deeply than humans–we have a developed sense of reason to control our emotions. Animals, though they have some rudimentary reasoning skills, do not have the level of reasoning and humans, and their emotions therefore stand out more. I remember a photo in the 1980s from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. A hunter had died of a heart attack, and his dog remained by his side, even after rescue units arrived. Loyalty, love, and grief were summed up in one photo. When my cats look up at me with eyes that seem full of love (at least at times when they’re not hungry), some biologists would accuse me of anthropomorphism, of transferring human qualities to the animal. But
why throw out the idea that the cats are showing affection or something akin to love? My two cats love each other–they are friends, they groom each other, sleep by each other–sometimes one cat will wrap its paw around the other.

Now if dogs and cats are sentient and have a high degree of emotion, then it is wrong to inflict pain on them without a great deal of justification (such as to cure an illness or treat an injury). Plus, dogs and cats are not only valuable because of their interaction with humans, but they have intrinsic value. As living, sentient, emotional beings, animals have more than mere utilitarian value.

Beings with intrinsic value require a high threshold before they can be killed. Now I do not believe that non-human animals have the same degree of value as human beings–I differ with many animal rights advocates on that point. But I do believe that dogs and cats should not be killed unless they are so sick or injured there is little chance of recovery, or if their treatments would cause them so much pain (which they would not understand) that is is more human to euthanize them. But killing healthy dogs and cats, puppies and kittens in shelters seems to me an obscenity. A society that mistreats animals is twisted in itself, but it can also quickly more to devaluing and killing people it considers to be a burden.

One could also attack the red herring directly. To say that our primary concern should be with human welfare does not imply that we should not be concerned with animal welfare; this “argument” is a non-starter from the beginning. The issue is not whether to treat “non-human animals or humans” with dignity and respect; the issue is whether to treat both humans and non-human animals with the dignity and love they both deserve.

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