Shooting Dogs and Eating Meat: Towards a Consistent Ethic of Animal Life

by | May 16, 2024 | Current Events, Faith & Politics, Spirituality

What does loving something mean? When someone says they love strawberries, we intuitively know that they mean eating strawberries. When someone says they love dogs, we know that they don’t mean eating dogs. What does someone mean when they say they love chickens or pheasants?

Animal lovers are an interesting bunch. Their love for animals leads them to pamper some and kill others, which seems to be an odd way of expressing love. How do animal lovers draw lines between which animals to pamper and which ones to kill?

Many self-described animal lovers came out with their pitchforks during the recent kerfuffle surrounding Governor Kristi Noem’s confession about shooting her hunting dog. Noem claimed that the dog was “untrainable” and was exhibiting dangerous behavior. But animal lovers were outraged, probably because of the way she spun the incident as a way of showing how she can ruthlessly get things done. They fumed in righteous anger, wondering how she could be so heartless and cruel.

The righteous anger would be justified if it were not incoherent due to the fact that they kill animals all the time for the pleasure of hunting or for the pleasure of eating their meat. Speaking to the New York Times, Brian Soehl, a member of the South Dakota Hunting Dog Club, said “the people that I know, they love their dogs… and pheasant hunting in South Dakota is a major cultural event.” Supposedly, someone shooting a hunting dog gives a bad rep to the peaceful sport of pheasant hunting. Deb Davenport, another dog lover, exemplifies this inconsistency. She maintains that “we don’t go out shooting our dogs. We don’t shoot our goats, either.” But her concern is not rooted in care for the animals, but rather that “her governor’s story would reflect poorly on the state’s thriving world of pheasant hunting.” 

Brian and Deb probably have a stable access to food at grocery stories and are not people who live off the land. These animal lovers only shoot pheasants for the thrill of killing animals. In most cases, the hunted pheasants are not even wild birds. They are raised in captivity and released just before the “hunt,” just so that animal lovers like Brian and Deb can recreate by shooting birds.

The outcry over the dog shooting incident arises from our relationship with them as pets. Pets are a controversial topic of moral discussion. They highlight how we love some animals at the expense of others. Pope Francis recently entered the conversation by suggesting that people who choose to have pets over children are acting selfishly. Topics such as the amount of money we spend on companion animals, the water pollution caused by dog poop, and the decimation of bird populations by house cats are not to be touched with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps, we turn a blind eye to these negative externalities because of our sincere love for animals.

My friend recently wrote a religious blog post about how her cat helped her through graduate school through its gentle companionship. Finding God in all creatures, especially her cat, represented “the theology of relationality and the ethic of compassion for creation” that she had cultivated during her studies. It was a beautiful reflection of how we relate to animals, and how they can speak of God’s love for us. Developing an ethic of compassion through one’s studies is a commendable achievement. I am glad that Maddie’s cat had such a profound impact on her spiritual and moral development. However, I wondered why her love for her cat did not translate to a concern for the animals she ate for dinner. Farm animals end up in the elephant-sized blindspot of her ethic of compassion.

Without being overly cynical, I still want to believe that people like Deb, Brian, and Maddie truly love animals. What is confusing is the arbitrary distinction between different animal species. Most pet owners eat meat, and not just any meat, but cruelty meat from factory farms. Fido, here in my lap, deserves all the love and attention in the world. That nameless pig suffering on a factory farm, however, is outside the circle of compassion such that I will eat its meat without any remorse. The same hand that cuts up pork chops also scratches the soft belly of a house cat. The same eyes that appreciate the playfulness of dogs also look for the best cut of beef at the store. The same mouth that whispers sweet nothings to a kitten also waxes eloquent about the taste of barbecued ribs. 

I do not suggest that we begin slaughtering all animals such as these cows, pigs, cats, and dogs in the name of ethical consistency. I instead propose that we go in the other direction: we widen our circle of compassion to include all animals. As humans, we ought to love all God’s creatures because God loves them. Acting out of a genuine love involves willing the good of the other. At a bare minimum, it means not to actively kill the other. Just as we cannot do good for all the eight billion humans in this world, we do not have to go out of our way to care for all animals. One is not obliged to care for every injured possum in the city of Boston. But I think we can agree on a modest proposal of “do not kill animals except in the case of self-defense.”

One cannot claim to be an animal lover and also eat meat without divorcing the word love from its meaning. To love in the tradition of Saint Thomas Aquinas means to will the good of the other. A very basic good for anyone is to continue to exist, and so to love an animal would involve allowing it to live and not slaughtering it for its meat. Thankfully, it is quite simple to bring one’s innate desire to love animals in harmony with one’s actions of abstaining from meat. Eating a plant-based meal is easy, cheap, tasty, and healthy in most of the Western world. Unless one lives in the tundra of Alaska, one has no good reason to continue killing animals.

The pheasants of South Dakota are not hurting us. The cows, pigs, and chickens are not out to destroy our life. Then, why are we out to destroy their lives? One does not even need to eat their meat for one’s physical well-being. Being cruel to animals is unjustifiable in places where plant-based foods are widely available. 

Some rural folk might accuse me of being a sentimental city boy who is out of touch with reality, as many people suggest in the comments on news articles about animal cruelty. In the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius invites us to pray for a perfect humility such that others consider us as fools for closely and intimately following Christ. If following Jesus’ commandment of mercy and compassion makes me a sentimental fool, then this village boy accepts the label with open arms. In any case, I would rather be a sentimental fool than to be a hypocrite who is cruel to some animals while identifying as an animal lover. 

Someday, when all animal lovers recognize this inconsistency, we will be collectively outraged when some politician is caught secretly eating chicken wings in a dark alley. Deb and Brian from South Dakota will say “We don’t go out shooting our dogs. We don’t slaughter our cows, chickens and pigs, either. We eat plant-based foods because we abhor any willful and unnecessary violence against animals. The governor’s story reflects poorly on a state that considers itself to be a bastion of boundless compassion for all God’s creatures.”


Daniel Mascarenhas, SJ   /   All posts by Daniel