The heroic death of Rocco, the police dog, has united our city in an outpouring of grief.
As well it should.
Our communal mourning over the loss of this brave and beloved K-9 officer is a powerful expression of our bond with animals. I seriously doubt there will be as many people at my funeral as there were at Rocco’s on Friday. And I’m OK with that.
After all, virtually all of us share a feeling of emotional, and even spiritual, connection with animals, especially those with whom we share our homes and lives. We can relate to the deep loss that Officer Phil Lerza, Rocco’s handler, is experiencing.
But this moment in our civic history shouldn’t pass without some reflection on our relationship with animals. We should expand our circle of concern to encompass all domesticated animals, not just dogs and cats.
While about 60 percent of Americans own pets, an even higher percentage interacts daily with chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep and cows — on our plates, in our sandwiches, even on our salads.
If you’ve ever had occasion to visit a farm-animal sanctuary, then you know first-hand that these animals are generally affectionate, personable, intelligent and curious. In other words, they are a heckuva lot like our pets.
Chickens are perhaps the most underrated and misunderstood animals of all. For instance, an article in the current edition of Scientific American describes their complex social relationships and their sophisticated use of vocalizations.
What matters most, though, is that farm animals experience pain and fear the same way we do — with brains, central nervous systems and emotions.
A simple YouTube search on “factory farming” can show all you need to know about how animals are being treated in modern industrial agriculture. It is nothing less than a massive blight on our collective morality.
Like our dogs and cats, these innocent farm animals are at our mercy. As human beings, we have complete power over them.
And what do we do with our power?
Just a couple of examples:
• We force female pigs to live in crates that are barely wider than their bodies, crates so narrow that the sows cannot even turn around.
• We cram 50,000 chickens into warehouse-size buildings in which they never feel sunshine or breathe fresh air before they’re strung upside down to have their necks slit at the tender age of eight weeks.
I could go on. But suffice it to say, we routinely and systematically inflict merciless suffering on farm animals. It would outrage us, to put it mildly, if we saw dogs and cats mistreated in the same way.
So why the double standard?
That is the real question I’m asking you to confront during this mourning period for Rocco, even if doing so makes you a little uncomfortable.
I look mainly to cultural conditioning. We don’t come out of the womb making distinctions between pets and farm animals. But in Western societies, it is instilled in us at an early age that dogs and cats are for petting, and chickens and cows are for eating.
But to live a truly moral life, we must carefully examine all of the cultural biases we inherit. And if you do so, the distinction between companion animals and farm animals starts to look rather arbitrary.
Consider the case of Esther the Wonder Pig, one of the latest sensations on Facebook. Esther would be somebody’s ham and bacon, but she is instead enjoying life as an affectionate, cherished and heavily photographed pet in the home of a Georgetown, Ontario, couple.
Thanks to Facebook, YouTube and the communication revolution in general, the double standard is starting to break down.
Undercover videos of what is transpiring in factory farms and slaughterhouses are reaching more and more people. And it’s probably not a coincidence that meat consumption has been declining since 2007, per U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
We are blessed with an inherent, or God-given, sense of compassion. When we see the suffering of farm animals, our sense of compassion enables us to overcome and discard our cultural biases
Animal-agriculture corporations and associations understand this well. That is why they have sought to outlaw undercover investigations through passage of so-called ag-gag laws. They realize that they must conceal what they’re doing from the public if they hope to reverse the steady decline in meat consumption.
Last year, these ag-gag bills were introduced in 11 states, including Pennsylvania. They have not passed in any of them.
We can align our lives with our innate sense of compassion every time we sit down to eat. It is easier than ever before to find meat-free choices in restaurants and meat-free recipes for the home.
We no longer have to live with an unjustifiable double standard in our relationship with animals. A clean conscience is available.
Franz Kafka, the great 20th-century novelist, put it succinctly. After turning vegetarian, he said to a fish, “Now I can look at you in peace.”
Perhaps more significantly, we can look at our ourselves, in the mirror, in peace.
Jeffrey Cohan, of Forest Hills, is executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (www.jewishveg.com).