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Animal Exploitation as a Centuries-old ‘Trail of Tears’

Recently I’ve been viewing an impressive 8-disc historical documentary series (produced by Octapixx and narrated by James Earl Jones) entitled “The American West.” Discs 3 and 4 of the series cover the infamous “Trail of Tears” experienced by the Cherokee and other tribes of Native Americans. As a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 under President Andrew Jackson, thousands of indians were snatched from their homes and forcibly marched some 800 miles to an unknown place so that their property, their sacred homeland, could be taken over by white Americans.

In the opening segment of disc 3, I was particularly struck by the comment President Andrew Jackson offered in defense of the indian relocation mandate:

“Is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does humanity weep at these painful separations? Far from it. It is rather a source of joy that our country affords scope.”1

It isn’t hard to see the blatant flaw in Jackson’s rationalization: The European immigrants came here voluntarily, whereas the Native Americans were forcibly moved from their homelands.

In contrast, Secretary of War Henry Knox viewed Jackson’s relocation policy with appropriate suspicion if not disdain:

“The indians, being the prior occupants, possessed the right to soil. It could not be taken from them unless by their free consent. To dispossess them in any other principle would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature and of that justice which is the glory of a nation.”2

The attitude of Henry Knox can be contrasted with that of Andrew Jackson in much the same way that Humphry Primatt’s view stands in contrast to the views of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, following Aristotle and Augustine, wrote:

“The love of charity extends to none but God and our neighbor. But the word neighbor cannot be extended to irrational creatures, since they have no fellowship with man in the rational life. Therefore charity does not extend to irrational creatures.”3

Following this Scholastic tradition, Pope Pius IX in the mid-nineteenth century refused permission for the establishment of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Rome on the grounds that it would mistakenly suggest that humans have duties to animals.4

Such attitudes allowed Western scientists to torture animals with a vigor and detachment unmatched elsewhere. In the seventeenth century, a time of great interest in the rapid advances of physiology, dogs would be attached to boards with nails driven through their paws and cut open, for the sake of observation and information. According to Cartesian philosophy, their screams were nothing more than the noise of broken machinery. This was prior to the development of anesthetics, so sometimes their vocal chords would be cut to keep their shrieks from distracting the concentration of the vivisectors. Realdo Columbo (1516–1559), who held the Padua chair of anatomy, reported that high-ranking clergymen took great delight in his public displays of vivisection. Once he opened up a pregnant bitch, pulled out a puppy, and tortured the pup in front of the dog, which began barking furiously. When he held the pup closer, she began licking it tenderly, being more concerned about her offspring than her own pain. The clergymen interpreted these experiments as confirming the presence of motherly love even in brute creation.5 

However, as Webb points out, “among those instrumental in the beginning of the animal rights movement in nineteenth-century England were many Christians who followed their sense of compassion even though it was not given any theological or ecclesiastical support.”6

Theologian Andrew Linzey points out that Aquinas’s doctrine became the dominant Western religious position on animals since the thirteenth century, and only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries do we find his view seriously challenged.7 According to Linzey, the best of these challenges was by a little-known 18th-century divine, Humphry Primatt, whose sole known work is his Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, published in 1776. Without directly mentioning Aquinas, he takes on many of the key elements within the scholastic tradition. Contrary to the Thomist tradition, Primatt places animals within the widening circle of sympathy and justice:

“Now, if amongst men, the differences of their powers of the mind, of their complexion, stature, and accidents of fortune, do not give any one man a right to abuse or insult any other man on account of these differences; for the same reason, a man can have no natural right to abuse and torment a beast, merely because a beast has not the mental powers of a man.”8

Thus, Primatt argues that mental superiority does not justify moral abuse. In short: unlike Aquinas, who defended the notion that humans had a right to kill animals precisely because of their rationality, Primatt insists that “superiority of rank or station may give ability to communicate happiness, and seems so intended; but it can give no right to inflict unnecessary or unmerited pain.”9 On this matter, Aquinas seems to have erred whereas Primatt has gotten it right.

Unfortunately, Primatt’s view never became the dominant view in the church or in Western culture, which joined the rest of the world in reducing animals to commodities for trading and profiteering.

However, on the positive side, there is a growing awareness of, and concern for, threats to animals and ecosystems among faith-based communities in the United States and Europe—a phenomenon that some have called the “creation-care movement.” Respected theologian W. H. Vanstone, director of the Doctrine Committee of the Church of England, penned a comment in 1977 that especially reflects my own position:

“In the past theology has often been slow to respond to new points of insight and sensitivity—though later both its own vision and its own heart have been enlarged by them: to sensitivity, for instance, about the iniquity of slavery and the rights of coloured people. Perhaps the theology of our own age will be convicted of myopia if it does not spend serious reflection upon that new kind of reverence for nature which is appearing among us.”10

Critics of creation care, such as Calvin Beisner and Richard Land, are prime examples of those who stereotype 'environmentalism' in the worst way, alleging that the green movement hates people, wants the poor to suffer further, and questions human "dominion." This false dichotomy of "nature versus people" implies that if you seek to defend or conserve the former, you must hate the latter. Sure, there may be a few Gaia worshippers out there on the fringe who think of humans as a "scourge" on the earth, but that stereotype doesn't fit the average creation-care advocate or even mainstream environmentalist. Complaining that regulations interfere with "economic development," Christian libertarians accuse "radical environmentalists" of failing to recognize that humans are also part of the environment. They almost whine with indignation, as if environmentalists were persecuting or picking on humans as the evil species that disrupts the pristine state of nature.

While the idyllic notion of "nature untouched by human hands" may be unrealistic, so is the suggestion that humans suffer persecution by environmentalists. In the last few years, my exposure to animal issues has shown me how pervasive cruelty and abuse is around the globe—e.g., dog fights sponsored by big-name athletes, the discarding of "spent" hens and cows who can no longer lay eggs or give milk, the "exotic" species trade, nine billion animals killed on factory farms each year for human consumption, harp seals slaughtered for their furs, sharks de-finned for shark fin soup, trophy-hunting of polar bears, caging of black bears in China to extract their bile for medicinal use, poaching and caging of tigers in Asia for skins and medicinal use, poaching of rhinos for their horns, poaching of elephants for ivory, and tuna and salmon populations dwindled from overfishing—as well as wetland and water sources depleted, tillable topsoil sacrificed for development, and streams and mountaintops ruined from strip-mining for coal. Given how widespread oppression of animals is throughout the world, one can hardly claim that it is humans who are getting "the short end of the stick"!

One needs only to look at our track record to discover who is really being "persecuted" or victimized. When "economic progress" becomes our elusive god, we can justify doing just about anything that serves a human agenda, including depriving non-humans of their rightful place on the planet. It is easy for pulpit-pounding libertarians to spout platitudes like “People are the answer, not the cancer,” denying the obvious pressures that population growth and commerce put on water resources, food distribution, and the preservation of species and habitats. But It is no disrespect of scripture to admit that the Genesis command to "be fruitful and multiply" may no longer be necessary, given the state of the world and the fact that, in spite of advances in technology and efficiency, the planet's resource base is still finite.

As social psychologist Melanie Joy argues, one of the key catalysts that is needed if our slaughterhouse culture is ever going to move “from carnism to compassion” is for individuals to overcome the mass dissociation that supports it and to move “from apathy to empathy.”11 Those of us who wish to be “pro-life” in the broadest sense cannot avoid being moved by the plight of animals who are poached, traded, enslaved, or relocated because of human commerce. The long history of that plight is like a “trail of tears” for animals who are torn from their natural habitats.



  1.  The American West: The Trail of Tears (disc 3). Octapixx, 2009.

  2.  Ibid.

  3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 65, Art. 3.

  4. Stephen H. Webb, On God and Dogs:  A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford University Press, 1997), 33.

  5. Webb, On God and Dogs, 112–113.

  6. Ibid., 113.

  7. Linzey, Animal Theology, 15–18.

  8. Humphry Primatt, Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, anthologized by Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan (eds.) in Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings, 129.

  9. Ibid.

10.  W. H. Vanstone, “On the Being of Nature,” in Theology (July, 1977), 283.

11.  Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (San Franciscco, CA: Conari Press, 2010), 140–141.

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