Cruelty to Animals: A Jewish Issue

Sermon delivered January 7, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

One fine late fall morning, San Antonio woke up to a gruesome expose in the Express-News. In “Death by the Pound,” reporter Lisa Sandberg revealed that we in San Antonio have blood on our hands. Our city’s Animal Care and Control puts to death more dogs and cats per capita than any other community in the nation. Making matters worse, pet owners who surrender their animals to Animal Care and Control have been told terrible lies, assured that their pets would be put up for adoption, when in fact they would be euthanized within 24 hours. Horribly, we learned from the newspaper that the method of euthanasia for those ill-fated animals, some 50,000 each year, is a gas chamber, stuffed to capacity, repeatedly, each working day. Even puppies and kittens, whose lungs may not properly absorb the gas, and who may therefore terribly, have been killed in the gas chamber, despite the pound’s own policies to the contrary.

Hopefully, San Antonio’s Animal Care and Control is on the way to a brighter future. A new director has been appointed. Animal Care and Control has been removed from the oversight of the city’s otherwise excellent public health department, in a tacit acknowledgement that the folks who must concern themselves with childhood immunizations and basic preventive health for men, women and children can not be expected to prioritize the care of dogs and cats. A volunteer program is being initiated at Animal Care and Control, and a commitment has been made to work with private groups that are devoted to caring for animals. Our community’s outstanding Humane Society and Animal Defense League have excellent records, and both have long been critical of the city’s Animal Care and Control. Let nobody confuse the good names of the Humane Society and the Animal Defense League with the scurrilous record of the city department.

Naturally, the problem will not be solved exclusively with administrative changes and a volunteer program, though both are important steps in the right direction. Major efforts must be undertaken to educate pet owners throughout our city. Spay and neuter programs will need to multiply, and folks will have to take advantage of them. As reporter Sandberg showed us all, experiences in other communities have demonstrated that increased funding is also required, if San Antonians no longer wish to be stained by the blood of tens of thousands of healthy, well behaved dogs and cats, put to death each year because there simply are not enough homes for their rapidly multiplying numbers. True, no problem is solved merely by throwing more money at it. At the same time, neither human health nor animal welfare comes cheaply; even the most excellent administrator, with a plethora of volunteers and all the best intentions can only be successful if a reasonable budget is provided.

Like me, many of you have no doubt been haunted, in the weeks since the articles first appeared. In our mind’s eye, we see the Express-News photographs of adorable dogs and cats, destined only for death. As we drive around town, particularly in the neighborhood of the Temple, we see dogs in the cages that line the flatbeds of Animal Care and Control trucks. We know where they are going. To be sure, none of us would like to see those strays continuing to roam the street. Uncontrolled animals can indeed be a public health menace. Nevertheless, when we see that truck, we are terribly sad.

Some might decry the emphasis that is placed on the needs of animals, given that human beings in our city suffer a wide variety of indignities every day. Yesterday, for example, I toured the San Antonio Food Bank, an absolutely outstanding agency, which delivers some $40 million worth of groceries to the hungry in our area every year. Food Bank leaders, though, are beating the bushes for increased funding, to multiply the amount of food they can provide to the poor, to meet the ever growing need. Hundreds of thousands of Bexar County residents go without health insurance. Our community’s most sweeping program for indigent mentally ill folks is incarceration in the Bexar County Jail. Do we really want to save the lives of dogs and cats, rather than the lives of children who go without immunizations?

Certainly not. And yet, I think of what Express-News Editor Bob Rivard wrote in his own column, while Lisa Sandberg’s expose was running on page one. Rivard noted that indifference to the plight of animals often leads to a lack of caring for other human beings. Not infrequently, adults who are violent criminals, even murderers, can be found to have begun their life of crime, as children, with cruelty to animals. Is there not a link between our city’s deplorable treatment of unwanted pets and our community’s failure to meet the needs of the poorest among us? The question isn’t which one of these problems should be addressed. Instead, the question is: What kind of human beings are we? What kind of society do we want to have?

Those questions, of course, are addressed abundantly in the Torah. As Rabbi Bergman Vann wrote in her column for this month’s Temple Bulletin, Jewish tradition commands us to perform the mitzvah of tz’ar ba’alei hayim, concern for the suffering of all living beings.

The linkage between human beings and animals begins on the sixth day of creation. God says: “Let us make humanity in our image.” Why is God speaking in the plural? God does not use the “royal we” elsewhere in the Bible, so that’s not the answer. The Rabbis offer many interpretations. My favorite is that God is speaking to the animals, which God has created on the same sixth day. Thus is the biblical account consistent with the theory of evolution. According to scientists, we humans did indeed descend from other animals; we were created by them, if you call. And yet, God blesses human beings with a certain unique quality, a human soul. Therefore, we are inextricably linked, from the very beginning, to our four legged cousins, even as we are bound to the God who made us all.

In Genesis 2, when God is first looking for a companion for Adam, God brings all the animals before Adam. The first man gives names to all the animals, just as parents name a child. This relationship suggests that human beings have power over animals. Judaism teaches us that we are indeed superior to other living beings. At the same time, this story from the second chapter of Genesis obliges us to care for them, as those who name children are required to nurture them.

Deuteronomy 22 includes a variety of laws about how humans ought to treat one another. We’re told that we must return lost property to its owner, and that we must build our homes safely, to prevent injury. In the middle of these instructions are these two verses: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”

At first blush, we may be horrified by the idea of taking young chicks away from a mother bird. Such behavior sounds cruel. Upon further analysis, though, we realize that the verses regulate our complicated relationship with animals. We are permitted to eat meat, as well as eggs and dairy. Animals may be utilized as beasts of burden. The humane killing of animals and the proper use of animals, for legitimate purposes, are not prohibited by Jewish faith. We do not treat animals the same way that we treat our fellow human beings.

And yet, we are not permitted to treat animals as though they were not living beings. By taking the chicks or the eggs, but letting the mother go free, we permit the propagation of the species. Moreover, young life is, by its very nature, fragile. Of all the birds in that nest, the mother is the one with the greatest chance of survival. Indeed, without the mother, eggs will not hatch and chicks will die. Torah, therefore, permits the little ones to be taken, but offers a logical method of doing so in a way that permits animal life to thrive in the end.

Similarly, one of the most effective and humane ways of solving the problem of overpopulation among dogs and cats is sterilization. Mass programs of sterilization of human beings would never be permitted by a civilized society; on the other hand, a tremendous undertaking to spay and neuter dogs and cats is a significant part of the prescription for San Antonio’s problem. Neither logic nor our Jewish tradition requires us to treat animals as we would treat one another.

I noted that these verses about the mother bird and her young are found in the context of laws that deal primarily with how human beings must behave toward each other. Apparently, Express-News Editor Bob Rivard is not the only one who understands that the way we treat animals and the way we treat our fellow human beings go hand in hand.

At the end of the sixth day of creation, God tells the first humans and all the animals that they may eat any fruits or vegetation of the Earth. Apparently, God’s original intention was that we all be vegans. Not even the lions were meant to be carnivores. And yet, after the flood, God permits meat eating, so long as the animal is slaughtered first. Apparently, humans had such a lust for meat, that they were cruelly taking their food from live animals. God makes a more restrictive compromise with the Jews, the kosher laws. We, too, are permitted to eat meat, but with more limits. The ultimate goal of performing the mitzvot, of course, is to bring a Messianic future. Then, the prophet tells us, the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” No animals will be carnivores. Peace will reign, not only among humans, but also among all living beings, and between humans and our animal cousins.

May our beloved City of San Antonio soon be among those communities whose public animal shelters are partners in bringing about that more perfect and harmonious world. Let the gas stop flowing. May we all truly care, and may we bring our caring into action, for dogs, cats, for every animal species, indeed for every man, woman and child, as well. Then may our city be called a blessing.