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Do we believe all life is precious?

by
01 March 2016, at 12:00am

Dr David Williams wonders if there is a difference between euthanasing a rabbit and stepping on a snail, and looks to an eminent professor for moral and ethical guidance.

ONE OF THE THINGS I MOST LIKE ABOUT THE ADVENT OF SPRING is the lighter evenings. A significant problem with walking in the dark, to my mind at least, is the sickening crunch of a hapless snail crushed under foot. 

Does it really matter? you might ask. Does a snail feel pain? Does it know it’s stepped, it’s been stepped, into oblivion?

We are, or at least we should be, rightly concerned over the welfare at slaughter of the thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry that enter our slaughterhouses every day. They have nervous systems akin to ours and they experience fear and suffering in something like the way we do. But a snail? Does it count?

Years ago an important paper was written by Christopher Stone entitled Do trees have standing?, one that is reprinted in every book on environmental ethics. In the veterinary world we tend to equate worth with ability to feel pain and suffering. We would generally say that the death of an animal through euthanasia is a reasonable death, if done without suffering.

So the demise of a great ape, an animal with significant memories of the past and hopes for the future, is something to be avoided if at all possible. But putting down a dog with let’s say inoperable cancer is something many of us do on a relatively regular basis. The memory of that pet will stay with the owner for years in many cases, but by the next day we have moved on.

But wait just a moment. The very fact that we say we are putting the dog to sleep, euthanasing him maybe, saying goodbye perhaps, but not saying we are killing him (which is of course what we are doing) suggests I have a feeling that we are to some degree uncomfortable with the ending of life.

The owners use the same sort of language. They will say they lost Fido last year, which is of course ridiculous. We can tell them exactly where he is, in the yellow bag in the freezer and later maybe in a wooden casket on their mantelpiece. But they have lost him – lost the friend who went for walks every day with them, the companion who was with them when they lost their husband.

The rabbit we euthanase hasn’t quite the same importance, has it? Or maybe it has, certainly to the child for whom its passing (another crazy euphemism!) is perhaps her first encounter with death. How we as the bringers of death help her cope with that traumatic event can have profound influences on how she manages the more profound end of a grandparent or sibling.

The death of the last St Helena giant earwig was in all probability mourned by nobody at the time. Neither that of the final breath of the final dodo. But these were important in what they show about how we view our involvement with the world around us.

Which brings us to the snail crunched under foot. If I walk on, not at all bothered with the end of a life, even that as insignificant as a snail, there is something wrong with how I view the world as far as I can see.

Amphibian aids

Those of you who studied at Cambridge some time ago may remember the decerebrate frogs which were used to demonstrate the interaction between nerve and muscle. To my mind they were more a lesson in the history of science than a useful aid in understanding neuromuscular physiology but anyway they are a thing of the past.

To those of you wanting to delve deeper into the history of how frogs’ legs revolutionised physiology, I recommend a relatively new book: Shocking Frogs by Piccolino and Bresadola (Shocking Frogs: Galvani, Volta, and the Electric Origins of Neuroscience. New York, Oxford University Press, 2014).

Now instead of frogs the first years are inducted into the world of experimental physiology using live earthworms. Less of a concern given the dramatic decline in amphibians worldwide with the spread of Chytrid fungus for sure, and not a problem if we put alleviation of pain and suffering at the top of the welfare agenda.

Can earthworms feel pain? If we de ne pain as the emotional reaction to a nociceptive stimulus, then perhaps not. They wriggle and squirm when cut into in just the same way that a maggot reacts when put on the end of a fishing hook, but should we really be worried about that?

Can I point you in the direction of one of my heroes, Dr Albert Schweitzer? Even as a child, Schweitzer was concerned for animals – why did his parents not include them in the prayers they said with him at bedtime? Why did his childhood friends seem to revel in tormenting them?

Schweitzer was somewhat of a prodigy, becoming a professor of theology and of philosophy early in life as well as a world-class organist. But in my late twenties he realised that he had done everything because he wanted to.

He asked God what He would have him do and the answer came: become a doctor and help people in the third world.

Eventually he persuaded the medical authorities to let him go to medical school and eventually ful lled the goal of building a hospital in the middle of the Congo.

A moment of clarity

It was in midstream travelling up a river in the middle of the jungle that Schweitzer saw in an instant his underlying aim: “At the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase ‘reverence for life.’ The iron door had yielded. The path through the thicket became visible.”

This sense of reverence even extended to microbial pathogens causing disease in the very patients Schweitzer was treating.

He writes about the medical advances that made such a difference to his patients in the early 1920s: “I rejoice over the new remedies for sleeping-sickness, which enable me to preserve life, whereas I had previously to watch a painful disease. But every time I have under the microscope the germs which cause the disease, I cannot but reflect that I have to sacrifice this life in order to save other life.”

Immediately beforehand in his autobiography My Life and Thought, from whence that quotation is taken, Schweitzer notes: “To the man who is truly ethical all life is sacred, including that which, from the human point of view, seems lower in scale.”

He makes distinctions only as each case comes before him and under the pressure of necessity as, for example, when it falls on him to decide which of the two lives he must sacri ce in order to preserve the other.

“But all through this series of decisions he is conscious of acting on subjective grounds and arbitrarily, and knows that he bears the responsibility for the life which is sacrificed.”

Oh that we had that view for the animals we care for each day!