Our Animal Hell

Animal Paradise - Zubaran.jpg

Museo del Prado, Madrid

Francisco de Zurbarán: Agnus Dei, 1635-1640

Whether or not one believes that the Judeo-Christian God exists, there is much to ponder in what Pope Francis reportedly told a distraught boy whose dog had died. According to The New York Times, Francis assured him that he would be reunited with his pet “in the eternity of Christ” and—in the spirit of his papal namesake—declared that “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”* Since we are a society that loves our dogs as much as we love God, the American media focused almost exclusively on the statement’s implications for canine pets; but a broader, far darker import lurks at the heart of the Pope’s words.

The Pope spoke not of dogs but of all of God’s creatures. Where does that leave humankind? To call us a species among others is both correct and misleading, for whether by divine design or nature’s random ways, Homo sapiens has extended its dominion over everything that walks, crawls, swims, or flies. This makes us a singular, unearthly kind of creature. From the extinctions we cause, to the alteration and destruction of animal habitats, to the daily mass slaughters that feed our collective Cerberus-like appetite for meat, poultry, and fish, our species terrorizes the animal world in ways that could only offend, if not outrage, a God who loves his creatures enough to open the prospect of heaven to them.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Pope’s declaration reminds us of something that weighs heavily on humankind. Most of the time, we are adept at blocking out this “species guilt,” as I would call it. Aren’t we more humane than our ancestors? Don’t we love animals? Don’t we have laws against animal cruelty? Yes, we do. But as Nicholas Kristof put it in a recent column in The New York Times: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.” I.e., that’s what stocks our supermarkets with happy “cage free” chickens.

We like to think of ourselves as the stewards or even saviors of nature, yet the fact of the matter is, for the animal world at large, the human race represents nothing less than a natural disaster. This applies to all creatures, from those we allow to roam “wild” in designated nature preserves to those we cram together on our chicken farms; from the dancing bears of Anatolia to the bald eagles of Alaska, with their collar monitors; from the laboratory animals we test our cosmetic products’ chemicals on to the sharks whose fins leave the oceans to swim around in our nuptial soups. All creatures are under our yoke; and all, including our beloved horses, dogs, cats, and canaries, are subject to human persecution in one way or another.

From a quantitative point of view our species guilt is more aggravated today than it ever was in the past, when Plutarch or Pythagoras cried out against animal murder and the consumption of animal flesh. As the French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand put it, “Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.” While the scale of animal death has increased exponentially, the main issue today is no longer death but the coercive reproduction and perpetuation of animal life under infernal conditions of organic exploitation. Industrialized farming today, in its manipulation of the biological processes of genesis, growth, and multiplication, forces animals like cows, calves, turkeys, pigs, ducks, and geese into artificial, barely endurable forms of existence. Far more demonic than the slaughters and animal sacrifices of the past, our relegation of these creatures to a standing reserve of consumable stock reduces their “lives” to a worldless, merely mechanical process of flesh production. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul wrote of the malaise of the earth: “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” That creaturely groaning has gotten a lot louder of late, and if God indeed loves his creatures enough to open heaven to them, it is highly likely that, when our pets get there, they will find themselves on their own.

Friedrich Nietzsche put forward a piece of ludicrous nonsense in his On the Genealogy of Morals when he wrote: “I have no doubt that the combined suffering of all the animals ever subjected to the knife for scientific ends is utterly negligible compared with one painful night of a single hysterical bluestocking.” (A bluestocking was an educated woman who frequented intellectual clubs or salon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.) What did Nietzsche, a man, know about animal pain? What did he know about the distress of a bluestocking, for that matter? When it comes to Nietzsche we should recall that on January 3, 1889, he suffered a complete mental collapse when he saw a horse being flogged by a coachman in the city of Turin. He embraced the neck of the horse and wept uncontrollably. That moment of lucid insight into animal torment marked the end of his sanity.


Yet Nietzsche was right about this much: human beings have an almost unlimited capacity for suffering. Where that capacity comes from is a mystery. Since so much of our suffering is self-induced, one suspects some kind of species guilt lies at the heart of it. We are told in Genesis that God created the world and declared it good, but that later, when he realized his most prized creature had become corrupt, violent, and wicked, he had a change of heart: “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth,” God decided to “blot out from the earth” all of his creatures, “people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air” (6.6). Perhaps it was because of the blatant injustice of that collective condemnation, or perhaps it was because he wanted to save the rest of creation, that God instructed Noah to build an ark and fill it with one pair of every living thing, from which stock he would then recreate the natural world after the flood. At the very least, this enigmatic story of God’s de-creation and re-creation of the world upholds the idea that the fate of the natural world is bound up with the fate of one of its species.

For some reason after the deluge God chose to make an unconditional promise to Noah, his descendants, and “every living creature”: he would never again destroy the earth by flood. That is both good news and bad news, for it means that we need not fear some kind of divine retribution that will deprive us of the miraculous biosphere that makes life possible on this planet of ours. But there is nothing in The Noahic Covenant that prevents human beings from destroying the earth themselves, if not through forty days and forty nights of rain then through other means, such as climate change. In sum, the world is ours to keep or lose.

The Pope left paradise’s door open to all of God’s creatures, but what kind of paradise can welcome all of nature? Certainly not a celestial paradise, where disembodied souls shine like points of light, as in Dante’s Paradiso. Nor an Edenic paradise, if by that we mean a benign garden without wild beasts or pestilent insects or the struggle for survival. The only possible paradise open to all our earth’s species is the earth itself in its throbbing, palpable potential for glory. Paradise is all around us in potentia—in the lands, skies, waters, and species of the earth—but it seems that we cannot forgive it for being a mortal rather than an everlasting one. Other species do not suffer the condition of mortality as we do. They have other more pressing problems to deal with. For many of our “brute neighbors,” as Thoreau called them, paradise begins where the hell we put them in ends.

* This statement to a distraught boy, reported in the Italian and American press, should have been attributed to Pope Paul VI not to Pope Francis. What Francis actually said, speaking to a general audience at the Vatican, was “The Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.”

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in