In My Own Words: Animal rights and wrongs

By: By Rabbi Rachel Esserman, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

The Reporter recently received an e-mail about a lawsuit that was filed in San Francisco by the Fur Information Council of America. The organization wants to overturn that city’s recent ban on the sale of new fur and fur-trimmed coats. The e-mail contained a statement that I found interesting: “San Francisco’s ban also opens the door to greater infringement on consumer choice. The ban was driven by ideological animal liberation radicals who also want to ban wool, leather, cashmere, and other animal-based fibers or food products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and even pet companionship.” 
I don’t know the merits of the law that was passed or the merits of the lawsuit. What interested me was the underlying idea: the relative places of humans and animals in the world. From a Jewish point of view, we are supposed to treat animals well. Two animals of unequal strength are not to be harnessed together because it’s unfair to the weaker one. Animals working in the fields are not to be muzzled. Rather, they are allowed to eat of the produce they are helping to harvest. Animals are included in the list of those who should not work on Shabbat. Some interpret the opening stories of the book of Genesis to mean that humans were not allowed to eat meat until after the flood; they claim this means God would prefer humans to be vegetarians. 
The question in the United States is whether or not certain activities – eating meat, wearing leather and fur, and keeping pets – should be based on individual choice or if our behavior/choices should be legislated. Some states have already legislated animal protection statutes, and people can go to jail for abusing or harming certain animals. However, those laws don’t speak to the issue of whether or not animals themselves have legal rights.
Whether or not animals using animals for food qualifies as abuse is one that is often debated by vegetarians and meat eaters, and both sides claim the right to do as they choose. So what happens if a law is passed that says animals can no longer be used for food? Will there be an underground market for meat? Would there be medical exceptions for those who need more protein? If we are allowed to use animals for food, then should the rest of the animal be used for other purposes since it is already dead? The answers are not simple.
Let’s suppose for a moment that we legislate vegetarianism for all U.S. citizens and forbid the use of animals products (eggs, milk, wool, leather, etc.). What should be done with all the domesticated animals owned by farmers? No one is going to keep cows, sheep or chickens if they have to feed them (that sum adds up), but can’t use them to recoup some of those funds. I haven’t even discussed horses: Will horse racing be allowed? Will people even be able to ride horses? This would be a logical extension of a ban on treating animals as anything other than equal to humans.
This, of course, leads us to having pets. You could say that pets are in some way enslaved. They have no choice about where they live or how they live. Their owners decide whether animals can go outside, what type of food they eat, how much they can exercise, etc. Is a leash an evil chain or protection? Should all pets be released into the wild and left to choose their own fate?
This may seem like I’m taking these ideas to absurd extremes, but the questions are interesting philosophically. They ask us to consider how animals and humans differ biologically and psychologically. What connects us and what separates us? These questions have been debated and will continue to be debated into the future, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth considering answers to as our society develops and changes its way of thinking.