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Angela Tilby: Animals are like us, but only so far

16 March 2018


NOW that we are more than halfway through Lent, I must report that the cat with whom I share a house is not showing any sign of modifying his carnivorous and piscivorous habits; nor has he corrected his slothful practice of snoozing all day under the radiator. I recently came down to feed him, and found him skulking around the pathetic body of a field mouse, which lay dead and uneaten on the kitchen floor, its little face frozen in terror.

On the food front, I am not having a very good Lent, either: I began Ash Wednesday away from home with a generous cooked breakfast, and a lunch at which the vegetarian option was a luxurious aubergine bake (I had the roast pork, since you ask). It is spiritually important, however, to break a Lenten fast at the first opportunity so as not to be vulnerable to the sin of pride. Not surprisingly, friends and colleagues are doing better than I am. Drinkers have become teetotal (except on Sundays). Carnivores have become vegetarians, and vegetarians have become vegans. Nobody is eating chocolate.

In places that still have choral matins, the Benedicite sometimes replaces the Te Deum in Lent, which perhaps reminds us humans that we are part of creation and should not get above ourselves. Animals are more like us than we sometimes think. They are, in some sense, aware: they feel pain; they sense danger. They have something like empathy, sometimes showing concern even for members of other species.

But when I see the cat’s total disregard for the mouse, I see a capacity to torture and terrify others which, though not, alas, unknown in the human world, is usually repressed, or at least tempered, by conscience. Conscience appears to be a uniquely human quality. It is what prevents our behaving “like animals” — even though we do so in so many ways.

There is an important debate about what it means for us to behave ethically towards other creatures. The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, hopes that, post-Brexit, Britain will become a world leader in animal welfare, especially in our care for farm animals. This would be good news. We don’t all have to be vegans, but there is much more that we should do to take care of our fellow creatures. But there is a limit to how far we can and should protect animals from other (non-human) animals.

There was nothing I could do to protect the field mouse from the cat. All I could do was to bury the little body in a flowerbed and pray the first lines of the Benedicite. No sparrow (or mouse) dies without the Father’s knowledge. It is also true (although some of the more militant vegans deny this) that we are of more value than the sparrows.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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