I have a little chicken. Her name is Martha. She is very sweet. When I called her name, she comes running and jumps up into my lap. When I talk with her, she flicks her eyes, leans her head against my chest and makes cute little sounds. How can I understand her?

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Domestication of animals as we know it today had its earliest beginnings in the Fertile Crescent area of southeast Asia where there existed the greatest number of plants and animals (including goats) that could be used to human advantage. [The area used to be a lot more "fertile" than the semi-desert landscape which now prevails; one theory is that this is due to goats eating all the vegetation!]

This same area was also one of the primary birthplaces of many of the other advances of the human animal including writing, rudimentary sciences, social organization and several religions, including the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which has since gone on to form the basis of most Western ethical systems. Man’s relationship to the animals around him was firmly established by this famous passage from Genesis:

"And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

"Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’. . .and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’" [Gen. 1:24-28 RSV]

This litany of dominion is repeated by many who are involved in the harvesting and exploitation of natural resources, such as loggers, commercial fishermen, agri-business leaders, etc. It can be heard from pulpits, sales meetings, board rooms and the like to justify all sorts of actions. In our more politically-correct era, the harshness has been tempered by the use of the term "stewardship" in place of dominion, but the emphasis is still on the primacy of man over all other living things.


But there is another perspective on nature that is about as ancient in origin as that found in the Genesis story:

"I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?"

"There is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost." [Ecc 3:19 - 21; 9:3-5 RSV]

The oneness of all living things is a very dangerous threat to those who view themselves as the center of all existence. Maybe the Preacher was speaking with "tongue in cheek;" we will never know. But in expressing that thought he gave recognition to the fact that it was on peoples’ minds a long time ago. Some biblical scholars have been quick to point out that these words of Ecclesiastes, although found in the Bible, cannot possibly constitute divine revelation. You "doth protest too much" my friends! To somehow allow animals into the beautific notion of intelligent, soul-filled man’s special relationship with God and an afterlife populated only with like-minded spirits really gums up the formula for those blindly committed to the Genesis account.

(Eastern religions have always done a better job of resolving this dilemma, but we regret that a discussion of that topic is far beyond the scope of our abilities and this web site.)

People issues

Before we try to think about questions of the ethics of animal care, maybe we need to have a look at how well we do in answering a few leading questions about the ethical treatment of our fellow man.

How many have died in wars during the past century? How many murders were committed in the world just this year? How many refugees starved of hunger and disease because of insane political or ethnic strife?

If we are going to promote respect for life in our animal friends, is it right at the same time to favor the execution of those who commit capital crimes? It would be hard for me to favor legislation that would force an outright ban on abortions; yet, I have to recognize the validity of the moral arguments for the protection of all life, albeit as yet unborn.

Do we really know how we feel about people who are born with severe birth defects? If the preservation of that life is going to cost society millions of dollars, is it a cost we are willing to pay? I have a hunch we don’t even like to think about this question. We just hope that it happens to someone else.

In our modern society we are closer to having to face the question of human euthanasia. The number of our very old is growing at a geometric rate. Many of these (and more so in the future) will have their golden years tarnished by the awfulness of Alzheimer’s disease. Since cancer is mostly a disease of the aged, more and more of us will live long enough that the odds of dying in the pain and suffering of cancer’s final victory will be greatly increased. Does it ever become permissible to end the life of another? We are a long way from arriving at a public policy on euthanasia; our moral leaders are far from united on this question.

Animal Issues


Usually, when you try to talk about animal ethics, the topic immediately centers in on vegetarianism. The Jewish faith mandates complicated rituals to be followed in order to make the killing of animals for meat more acceptable. Many American Indians ask forgiveness of game animals before taking life for food purposes. On the one hand, humans have been eaters of meat for hundred of thousands of years; on the other hand, there is an ever growing segment of the population which suggests that this practice may no longer be morally acceptable.

Personally, I think there is a lot more to animal ethics than whether or not you eat meat. If I eat meat or sell animals for meat purposes, then my ethical position includes a statement that I approve killing animals for human gain and I’d better learn to live with this. But at the same time, I have the most profound respect for those who, in a manner consistent with all other ethical choices, refuse to do so. Eating meat may be more a matter of individual preference than of animal ethics. Some animals are categorized as carnivorous because their diet consists for a large part in other animal kills. I doubt that there are many who would attempt to convince them that they are not doing things right. I challenge you to go talk to a lion about these questions. (For many years, I actually had the privilege of being able to do that every day.) There’s an awful lot of baby birds that start out life on a strictly carnivorous diet and I’d hate to try to change that pattern.


A dilemma that all animal producers have to face sooner or later is what to do with newborns that enter life with various congenital defects. These vary in severity from purebred offspring which do not demonstrate "conformity of breed" to babies so terribly deformed that life can only be sustained with heroic efforts.

There are those who would advocate the destruction of defective offspring so that this genetic material is not passed on to reappear in future generations. It seems to me that this may be unnecessary. First, there are an awful lot of "normal"-looking animals running around that harbor recessive genes for undesirable traits. I presume that if you breed any line of goats long enough you will sooner or later come across an offspring that presents you with one of these. The more realistic course of action would be to set these aside for meat purposes.

Once again, I like to refer to matters of human ethics. Are we willing to draw the same type of line for people and animals. If I kill people who are born with some hereditary "defect", then my ethics statement must make room for other people’s right to some form of genocide, for who is to decide which traits are acceptable and which are not? If some sort of decent life can be maintained for any animal, then I would prefer to try whatever is necessary to keep that baby alive. I think each owner must decide on each individual case as to what is the best thing to do. You can usually tell at birth whether or not the deformity is life-endangering and beyond the capacity of the normal person to care for. In those cases, euthanasia can be performed quickly.

Pain and suffering

Dehorning (without anesthesia)
Many animal rights organizations and some groups of veterinarians are now coming out in opposition to the dehorning of farm animals. While I understand their sincerity, I think they are somewhat misdirected. An "intact" male animal (bull, ram, buck) should always be considered a real danger to human handlers and other animals. Having been attacked by all of the above, I can say that I am truly glad that most had been dehorned in infancy. Simply put, these animals can easily kill people. It also seems that those with horns are somehow aware of the danger they present and are more likely to initiate an attack. (That is only my personal impression and not a scientific fact!)

Some justification can be made for the use of anesthesia, but this adds to the risk and expense of the procedure (See our section on pain-free dehorning in the Dehorning page and our notes on dehorning under anesthesia on the Veterinarians page). I have a suspicion that more have died because of well-intentioned anesthesia than the alledged brutal treatment meted out by the "ignorant" and "brutal" farmer. There certainly is pain for a short period of time; it does not seem to exceed five minutes (but how do we know for sure!). To fail to perform this operation may predispose this poor animal to a lifetime of fear and hatred on the part of the owner. I like to compare it to childhood vaccinations; a little bit of pain early can prevent an awful lot later in life.


There is growing opposition to the castration of meat animals. It has traditionally been assumed that steers are easier to handle than bulls, especially in feed lots. While some have felt that steers produce more or better meat than bulls, this is no longer accepted. In the case of goats, there is a feeling that the meat of intact billies may have a "bucky" flavor.

My opinion is that we need to take another look at the arguments of the animal rights folks to see if we can possibly manage to come to some sort of agreement to utilize this procedure less often. However, in those cases where the animals may present a clear danger to handlers, castration would certainly be preferred. In most cases, the use of a vet for local anesthesia for the procedure would be cost prohibitive: generally the services of a vet, especially in a field setting, would exceed the market value of the animal. 


The arguments in favor far outweigh arguments against. "Spay and neuter you pet!" There is a recent trend toward saying that to deprive a male pet of his right to breed is cruel. Perhaps those who say this are saying more about themselves than the animals. 

Descenting (goats)
No big deal if done with dehorning; if not, then it’s a cosmetic thing and I would oppose.
Medical research
I think that medical researchers are becoming more cognizant of problems in this area. Great medical advances have been made thanks to the efforts of animal research; this cannot be denied. But every effort should be made to guarantee that cruelty be kept to a minimum. Most major colleges are now developing ethics committees who set guidelines for animal research (and have posted these to Web sites). Hopefully, these will not be rubber stamps or cover-ups for abuses. I think these institutions should be given a reasonable chance to correct past abuses. However, the repeated use of the same cruel experiments over and over just to give students the opportunity to see for themselves what happens--when we already know the results--can no longer be justifies. Every efffort should be made to use computer-simulated and tissue-based experiments when at all possible. 
Pig Hearts
Scientists have succeeded in the cloning of sheep, goats and now pigs. With the production of transgenic pigs, surgeons can now transplant pig hearts or pig heart valves into human cardiac patients, thus allowing for greatly expanded life spans for a segment of the population. Does this, perhaps, present some ethical problems?

In a theoretical context, it seems to make a great deal of sense. These would be "young" hearts. They would be readily available and potentionally in large numbers. You wouldn't have to wait for someone to die before you could receive your replacement. Pig organs are fairly easily transplanted into human patients.

So what is the problem? Imagining myself to be a heart paatient, I head over to the neighbor, who has a bunch of pigs. I walk up to the first one I come across and start to ask if I could have her heart. Then, it comes to me that I or someone (that's the way we do most things nowadays - pay someone to do the nasty things for us) is going to have to kill her so that I can have her heart. Maybe this isn't such a neat idea after all.

After a little careful thinking, I become rather cowardly (that's more honest than calling it "humane") and return home having decided that I am probably little more important to the general scheme of things than that pig. She can just keep her heart and I'll let my appointed time come without protest; it just wouldn't be right.

A little later I catch a whiff of the tremendous odor of bacon cooking on the stove. BLT's are on the menu tonight and that's about my favorite meal. And then it hits me! The bacon's okay, but not the heart? How hypocritical! Are you saying it's okay to kill an animal in order to eat it but not to use it's heart to save someone's life? Or maybe it's okay to just grab the heart and give it to someone after you've slaughtered it for meat purposes? Well, maybe it's alright to raise pigs for eating and for growing transplantable hearts...for other people. But, it sure gets you to thinking about our relationship to other animals.

Cosmetics testing on animals
In my view, there is NO rational justification for this practice. There is really nothing to discuss. Those who do so should be subjected to severe criminal penalties.



Zoos have been around for a long time. For the most part they are no longer the steel and concrete monstrosities they used to be. Efforts are now made to provide the animals with spacious areas where fences and other means of confinement are hidden from view. Some facilities are actually large expanses of land where visitors can drive or ride through a large park and observe the "collection" in a near-natural setting. In theory, zoos are now "educational" facilities where "visitors" can learn about the individual species, conservation and environmental issues, and efforts to protect endangered species. But, in reality, people don’t go to zoos to learn about animals. They go there to have fun: to throw things at them, to spit on them, to feed them dangerous things, to mimic them, to laugh at them, to photo them, to go on rides, to eat junk food, etc. But their presence, in the form of admission tickets, is what pays for the care of the animals. These facilities are maintained by very dedicated staff and volunteer workers.

The animals rights movement has not, to date, been very successful in disrupting our zoos and aquariums. In the future, there will probably be more effort to seek publicity by releasing captive animals. More effective will be efforts from within the profession to question and correct some of the more obvious problems. The success or failure of our zoos depends on the willingness of policy makers to operate these facilities in a way that anticipates and nullifies any objections that serious animal advocates could ever present. This can be done by seeking funding sources which are willing to support only those activities which promote the care of the animals and the restoration of endangered species to habitats of freedom and dignity.

Unfortunately, many of the people who work with circus animal acts are a lot more interested in their own egos than the care of the animals they work with. And of these, some are downright cruel. There has recently been more of a willingness on the part of the authorities to respond to complaints of abuse. Certainly, some of the obviously macho acts should be banned by law and more funds should be made available to police other abuses. If the emphasis were shifted to providing more opportunities for interaction and enjoyment between children and animals, then I think that circuses could receive our support.
Horse racing
I am a great harness racing fan. How can I address this issue objectively? I don’t see a lot of things that can be complained about. When a jockey jumped off his horse to hold up its injured leg in the 1999 Preakness, that shows the type of care which dominates the sport, most of the time. Any deviation from this should, of course, be severely penalized.
Endurance racing
I don’t know a lot about this sport. I have recently been assured that these horses run under strict veterinary supervision and that the vast majority of owners will do nothing to endanger their horses, even if it were to mean losing a race.
Dog and pony shows
This is a catch-all phrase that covers all those little Mom and Pop shows which make the rounds of fairs and amusement parks providing "cute" forms of entertainment, mostly directed at child audiences. Almost all of these are very harmless and in some it is obvious that the animals are thoroughly enjoying the performances. Some animals love to be "working" animals and only warped people can call what they do "exploitation." If there is any form of cruelty, it should, of course, be stopped right away.

Guiding principles

What has been presented so far have been some ideas to get us thinking about issues relating to the ethical treatment of animals. What we will now try to do is to offer some guiding principles that will help us to develop a general philosophy of man’s relationship to his animal kin. If we can do that, it may be easier to talk about some of the specifics.

1. Avoid oversimplification

When I started working on this topic, all I wanted to do was add a few words to my web site expressing my feeling that we should try harder to view events from the perspective of the animal, thus minimizing those activities than brought about unnecessary harm. But I have found (as you will see in greater detail below) that this is no easy thing to do. In trying to find a basis for animal ethics, one is ultimately forced to consider the interactions any basic concepts might have on other of life’s hard questions. To build a system which makes some sort of sense, that meets the simplest tests of logic, is compassionate in every way—these are, I suppose, the things that have tried men’s souls for centuries. Once you make an all-encompassing statement such as "All pain should be avoided", then an exception quickly comes to mind (Vaccinations hurt). Always be suspicious of a dictum which sounds like it wraps things up in a neat little package.
2. Avoid extremism
There’s a lot to be said for the ancient principle of the "Golden mean." While you have to respect the sincerity of some animal rights groups, you have to question the kindness of some of their actions. The deeds may serve the intended purpose of drawing attention to their cause but, in some cases such as the release or destruction of captive animals, only bring great pain and suffering to the intended beneficiaries of their heroics. This cannot be supported by individuals who are sensitive to the real feelings of animals.

We should be careful how we use the term "exploitation" in discussing this subject, for the argument, following the same line, could well be made that people should now be allowed to have children because parenthood frequently turns into a form of exploitation. The keeping of animals as pets (or domestication in general) is argued against by some. Wouldn’t it be a terrible world indeed if we could only share our life with people? Personally, I doubt if life would be worth living without animals.

On the other hand, we have all probably seen, for example, the isolated farmer who repeatedly abuses or neglects his animals. His actions, and his arguments to support them, are extreme in the other direction and should never receive validation by the agricultural community.

3. Consistency
Whatever we have to say about ethical matters should as much as possible be consistent with what we say about other matters. It is not right to say that we are in favor of the preservation of life in all instances and then be active proponents of the death penalty. A vegetarian organization would be guilty of some form of hypocrisy if it held its meetings at McDonalds®.

Do I have the right to tell others what their ethics should be? NO. Do I have the right to tell people that their actions do not match their avowed ethics? Absolutely!!

4. The important of prevention
Part of the quality of life is largely determined before the breeding process begins. The command to go forth and procreate, be it people or animals, makes no sense whatsoever. Create only that life which will be strong, healthy and well cared for in life and in death.
5. Political issues
Unfortunately, ethical problems tend to become political issues. When that happens the core issues tend to get muddled. It may be an important private moral question whether or not to euthanize Mom; but the matter of whether or not all Alzheimer’s patients can or should be euthanized becomes a potent political issue. In the future, more and more animal care issues will become part of the political process wherein votes can be influenced or bought. Special interest groups will try to out-shout one another with very little real benefit to animals or their owners.
6. A matter of CHOICE
In many situations, I like think that it comes down to a matter of choice. Neither Mom nor Martha can "choose." Someone would have to choose for them. Who would we empower to make that choice in Mom’s case? Well, if it were me. . .who would I want to make that choice? I don’t even know you and I would not want to give you that power. Doctors, lawyers, clergy, friends? Some beaurocratic panel of ethical experts? No way! There’s just too much chance of abuse. What if Dr. Kevorkian were even nuttier? What if there were thousands of euthanasia doctors running around and you could shop till you found one who would "help" Mom? Choosing suicide, at your own hands or in an ‘assisted" form, is a totally separate issue from euthanasia, be it for pets or another person. Do all children want to play God and decide when its time for their demented parents to go? I think we have to solve this puzzle before we can say that it’s OK to euthanize pets or farm animals, especially for purposes of convenience. I am glad to see some veterinarians backing away from euthanasia when it is requested because the animal is no longer wanted or whose care is a little troublesome.

Do we have the right to "end the pain," to put an animal "out of its misery" when the suffering obviously reaches a certain level? What is that level? How does it differ from Mom’s pain. Is it OK to let our human friends suffer through incurable pain until they are fortunate enough to die while the "compassionate" thing for animals is to "put them to sleep?"

Perhaps we are afraid to tell people that we are killing them for their own good while it is a little easier to do so to our pets. Would people protest if they found out they didn’t have a choice? Would animals object if they understood what was about to happen to them?

The book How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland, makes it very clear that most dying is not the quiet going to sleep that we so often want to hear about. No, it is frequently a miserable experience for the victim and for those in attendance. The same is true for most animal dyings. If you’ve sat through very many of these you will realize that the animal going through it is NOT having a wonderful time. I’ve always come away thinking not how wonderful it is that it’s over, but rather wishing that I had had the knowledge to keep it from happening.

7. If in doubt, choose LIFE
In every situation where the rules are a little muddy, I think it’s best to lean toward the side of the preservation of life. It is sort of a sacred gift. If ended on the basis of some mistake of judgment, we can never go back and try things a different way. We and our little animal friends only get one chance at it. If a person with clinical depression expresses a desire to have life end, he or she should be stopped because part of the sickness is the inability to make rational choices on matters such as this. In regards to our animals, I’d also be in favor of leaning toward "life," not being too quick to give up, trying to think of some way that a better ending can be found.
8. The Golden Rule
I can’t think of a better rule of thumb than the old "Do Unto Others." Don’t treat an animal in any way that you wouldn’t like to be treated. That’s pretty simple. And I can live with that.

In the links listed below will be found a couple of references to Dr. Temples Grandin’s web page. Everybody has their heroes and she is mine. Dr. Grandin has done intensive research on the topic of animal handling facilities. In addition she is an unwavering advocate of the humane treatment of animals. Her approach is centered in realism and in finding solutions to the problems that everyone else likes to just talk about. She has designed loading chutes, pens, slaughtering facilities and the like. In order for her to find out what it was like for cattle to go through a dipping vat, she jumped in and swam with them. She has allowed herself to be hit with electric cattle prods as she joined the cattle marching up the loading chutes. She learned about "do unto others" first hand and has been able to write on the basis of real experience. And we have to admire her so much for this. I encourage you to check out  her web site and learn more about this very amazing lady.


Now you’ve thought about all this and you may still have a lot of trouble agreeing that the same ethical standards ought to be applied to animals as to people. You object that we have just boxed ourselves into a corner and come up with a justification for cannibalism: If people are to be treated the same as animals and it’s OK to eat animals, then it’s OK to eat people. Isn’t logic a terrible thing? Sure ruins a lot of good ideas!

But the Preacher (Ecclesiastes) already said it: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. . . In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow"

There are no easy answers to the hard things of life. There are people who know all the answers and can propound great moral truths at the drop of a hat. But that is not the philosophy of "goatwisdom": The more you allow yourself to become really close to your animals the more you will find found how little you really know, and of that how little you really understand.


I had a goose. Her name was Beaker. She grew up in the house with us and imprinted on me. She loved to cuddle. When I held her she wrapped her soft, long neck around mine and made cute little cooing sounds. If I called her name when she was out walking around in the garden, she would always answer me, sometimes with great vigor. We had to fence her in the yard because she developed the odd habit of chasing (rather, flying after) cars going down the road.

I looked at her and thought about how tiny her little brain must have been and that she was yet capable of relating in this way. But then you might say, "Yes, but we are so far more advanced than a dumb goose. Let me see her go out and get a job and support you the way you support her."

But remember, they appear to have gotten along just fine before we came along. The next time you see a flock of geese flying over, remember that we are just temporary guests in their wonderful world. Always show a reverence for that life which is theirs and ours alike. It was terrible to lose Beaker after her 22 long and wonderful years. She lives on in our memories. 

Thanks for reading this.


The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version

All Creatures Vegetarian, Vegan

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Livestock Conservation Institute

Dr. Temple Grandin’s Web Page

Autism and Visual Thought (Dr. Temple Grandin)

Suggested Readings:

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Co., 1997 [ISBN: 0-393-03891-2]

J. Allen Boone, Kinship with All Life. Harper Collins, 1976 [ISBN: 0-06-060912-5]

Derek Humphry, Final Exit. Dell Publ., [ISBN: 0-440-50785-5]

Kathleen Marquardt, AnimalScam.Regnery Gateway, 1993 [ISBN: 0-89526-498-6]

Steven M Wise, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals , Perseus Books, 2000 [ISBN 0-7382-0065-4]

A final comment on "animal rights" people:

One of the reasons that goatwisdom could have been pulled from the original host may have been due to complaints from animals rights people. I have received complaining letters from only two groups of people: animal rights folks and veterinarians. The former have been rather upset because I strongly encourage the dehorning and castrating of goats. It is my feeling that these are acts of kindness which enable man and animal (and animal with animal) to get along with less fear of harm to either. These same self-righteous people who burn down barns with animals in them and release defenseless animals into the wild have no basis to complain about those actions which attempt to make life better for the animals. As for the latter (veterinarians), I rarely hear of botched dehornings or castrations done by "farmers"; but yet I receive many letters telling about them at the hands of supposedly skilled vets.