If you are a city dweller, you think of the world as composed of men and women like yourself. If you happen to live in the woods, as my wife and I do, you would quickly acknowledge that humans constitute only a small minority of God's progeny. People are vastly outnumbered by creatures that live outdoors in the heat and cold, foraging for their food.
As I write, we and our neighbors are still snow- and ice-bound. The days are bitter cold, the nights are freezing and the animals are hungry. My wife and I are softies when it comes to the woodland creatures, feeding the birds and squirrels daily from 40-pound bags of seed. Nature is not kind to wildlife just now, but people can practice kindness to our fellow creatures.
In the biblical account of creation, God made animals before he got around to making people. We tend to picture the original Garden of Eden as a peaceable kingdom, where all God's creatures lived in harmony and enjoyed abundance.
From the outset, the Creator gave humans dominion over the animals. We domesticated some species for food, labor and companionship, and became responsible for them all. To our shame, we have not always exercised that responsibility humanely.
The publication of Peter Singer's book, "Animal Liberation," 35 years ago spurred the growth of a worldwide movement to protect animal rights. By a two-to-one margin, voters in California last year passed an initiative that banned factory farms from keeping calves, pregnant hogs or egg-laying hens in tiny pens or cages in which they can't stretch or turn around.
By 2012, Europe will phase out bare wire cages for egg production. Already, fast-food restaurant chains in the U.S. have begun to buy pork and eggs only from producers that give space to their animals. Meanwhile animal-rights activists picket laboratories that test animals to death in the interest of determining safe dosages for humans.
The animal-rights movement probably rests more on warm sentiment than on cold reason. Whether animals have inherent rights is still open to debate. Rights spring from responsibility, and animals do not take responsibility for humans. Rather, it's the other way around.
But that's all theoretical. The fact is that animals are routinely made to suffer at the hands of humans.
Oddly enough, the very notion that animals can suffer at all is fairly recent. Descartes, the first modern philosopher, held that only thinking creatures are capable of feeling pain. But 200 years ago, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham not only advocated rights for women, homosexuals and prisoners, but animals as well.
Of animals, Bentham said, "The question is not 'Can they reason?' nor 'Can they talk?,' but 'Can they suffer?' "
David Yount's latest book is "Making a Success of Marriage: Planning for Happily Ever After" (Rowman & Littlefield). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.