We live in a multispecies world. Of the 1.7 million species of animals, insects, plants, and algae, only 5500 are mammals, and, of course, only 1 is human. In his recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari reveals: “Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa.” Since then, he continues, “we have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks.”
But Harari questions whether we have decreased the suffering in the world. Based on the Bible and evolutionary theory, a “god-given” position of humans at the top of the food chain corresponds to the human being’s use of other life-forms as resources to satiate a hunger which is never satisfied. Harari says: “Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals...We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.”
In a recent TedTalk, shown during a recent Kelowna Unitarians Sunday service, Carl Safina laments the lack of consideration human beings have for an intensely social species we know as elephants – from whom we violently remove their ivory tusks for the sake of profit. “Why can’t we wait for them to die?” Safina says. The death of birds after consuming plastics is another example of the utter disregard and disrespect humans typically have for the ecosystem which we share with other living beings.
This is where the UU Animal Ministry responds by encouraging respect of the ecosystem with its first principle: “the inherent worth and dignity of every being”. In the words of Alice Walker: "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans anymore than black people were made for whites or women for men." Yet, where we see prejudice and domestic violence, victimization of animals also commonly appears.
The following story illustrates respect paid to the inherent worth and dignity of humans and dogs. By the 1870s, Henry Bergh, a distinguished Unitarian lawyer, had already responded to the abuse of animals by founding the first American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When the landlady in a New York tenement building heard the cries of Mary Ellen Wilson, it wasn’t clear what should be done, because services for abused children didn’t exist yet. She contacted Etta Wheeler who thought Mary Ellen was being beaten as badly as an animal and approached Henry Bergh for help. Bergh responded by investigating and a court order was issued to remove Mary Ellen from her abusive parents on April 9, 1874. The next year, Bergh co-founded the first Child Protection agency in the US. In 1888, An Act for the Protection of Neglected Children followed in Canada. These social actions were respectful of the inherent worth and dignity of countless animals and children who deserve to feel safe.
Thankfully, in modern times, a therapeutic “safety bridge” between traumatized children and dogs is being forged. Get Healthy, Get a Dog is a new report out of Harvard Medical School documenting research that animal-assisted therapy is associated with calming effects on heart rate and blood pressure, decreased stress hormones, and reduced anxiety and depression. But the major therapeutic factor is that therapy dogs are nonjudgmental companions who children can trust with secrets that they wouldn’t feel safe to share with an adult human. In the context of animal-assisted therapy, a dog provides a “safety bridge” or catalyst through which the child learns to trust the therapist.
In honour of the connection between neglected animals and abused children forged by Unitarian Henry Bergh and Mary Ellen Wilson, and to bring the compassion for both dogs and children to our community, Jan and Kim Dawson of the Kelowna Unitarians have recently founded the Mary Ellen Humane Education Society. This new non-profit aims:
To serve the humane, educational, and therapeutic needs of traumatized children and shelter dogs;
To train shelter dogs for the benefit and safety of the community;
To emphasize and build core skills of mastery, empathy, future orientation, and social conscience; and,
To provide a context for youth to develop their capacities for critical thinking, business planning, and accessing job opportunities involving dog-related services.
For more information, see www.maryellenhumaneeducationsociety.org.