I am on the email lists of a lot of liberal/progressive groups (shocking, I know), and one heading that irks the hell out of me is the “Animal Helps Do Good Deed” formula. I just got one: “Cat Helps to Convict Child Abuser.”
First of all, no, I doubt that the cat actually helped, as in deliberately committed a particular action with an outcome in mind. I guarantee the cat isn’t aware of what happened as a result of his/her actions and probably wouldn’t give a shit either way. Being the right place at the right time doesn’t count. If I stretch out my arm to check my watch and happen to catch a baby falling off of a balcony, I’m not a hero; I was just in the right place and doing the right thing at the right time.
But I think what bugs me more about these sorts of stories is that they create the impression that we should treat animals humanely because, on occasion, we need them and they do good things to “help” us. It’s all very instrumental and calculating. And it puts non-human animals on par, in terms of intellect, cognition, and motivation, with humans.
And that’s fallacious and, I think, deeply problematic to the core ideas of the animal welfare movement, which are that we treat all sentient beings with consideration because they possess the same ability to suffer that we do. Arguments invoking the intelligence and usefulness of non-human animals, then, become irrelevant because neither the lower intelligence of non-humans nor their general usefulness to our own lives has any bearing on that central point: To paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, the question is not can they speak or reason but can they suffer?
Which makes promoting the need to treat non-humans humanely contingent on their usefulness to humans a dangerous direction to take. We can all chuckle over the story of the dog who dials 911 when his guardian collapses after a heart attack but promoting the action as some kind of heroism is a dangerous direction to take. Suddenly, that animal is valued for its … use to humans. Welcome back to Square One.