The Gift of the Animals

A Year of Essays: January 10, 2022

Today’s breaking news story is a 57-year old man who has received a heart from a genetically modified pig. I’m old enough to remember the first successful heart transplant in 1967 and the first artificial heart transplant in 1982. In each case, doctors were accused of “playing God” by intervening in some divine orchestration. With today’s advancement, some comment on how Orwellian we’ve become, while many comments focus on the animal abuse.

After high school, Dad worked at a butchery, and that put him off meat for most of his life. Granted, butchery practices have become a bit more “humane” since 1939; nevertheless, animals are systematically raised, processed, and slaughtered for our consumption. Many of these animals are “genetically modified” as well. One can argue that free range animals, raised on organic diets in stress-free environments (whatever that means), is a form of genetic modification, based on our current knowledge of how food and nature can alter DNA. But isn’t exploiting animals for medical gains way lower on the scale than food production?

Going back a hundred year, doctors learned that insulin could be used as a treatment against diabetes. They tested this with dogs. Hip prostheses were developed based on studies with sheep. Antiretroviral drugs for HIV were discovered because of experiments with monkeys (particularly interesting as it’s now widely accepted that humans contracted HIV from chimpanzees who had SIV, the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus). The HPV vaccine, protecting humans against the two virus types that cause the greatest risk of cervical cancer, were tested with rabbits. Conducting all these different experiments on humans — most of us agree that is not ethical, perhaps immoral.

It’s a double-edged sword. Humans and animals coexist on this planet. Is our relationship based on deontology? Or utilitarianism? Or even contractarianism? I’ve been on a walking safari in Kenya, and even though the guide had a rifle, I was in the food chain.

I have always been a fan of utilitarianism, Hedonist that I am, avidly reading Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in my early college days. “The greatest amount of good for the greatest number.” Everyone’s happiness counts the same. I always return to Bentham’s question: “What use is it?”

What use do we have for animals? What use do they have for us? Often, our actions as humans on the environment do more harm to animals than our exploitation of them for food or medical experiments. Native cultures have had tens of thousands of years of connections with animal, respecting them for their importance to their civilization and environment, but also respecting them because the animals can feed, shelter, and clothe them.

Our medical breakthroughs are a gift the animals give us — as the animals gave gifts of warmth and nourishment to our native kin, animals now give us these scientific gifts, allowing us to explore our interconnectedness, to heal us, to maintain us. What a gift they have given us! May we venerate the animals even more than our ancestors did.

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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach

David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.