What Our Animal Relationships Tell Us About Ourselves

Do we not all have the freedom to choose how we treat each other and other animals, and a conscience to avoid mistreatment, cruelty and suffering? But as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet observed, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all”. As I can attest, conscience can become compartmentalized, exercised in some situations and relationships but not in others. Empathy can be suspended by this disconnect which occurs in a host of contexts from children chasing, catching and harming butterflies in nets for no purpose other than some kind of parent and peer encouraged sport, to students having to dissect and even experiment on animals and learn how to kill them for no purpose other than an unexamined curriculum ritual. Thousands of students have protested over the years, more being ridiculed and academically threatened rather than, until very recently, being offered alternative educational experiences. They may, like others who, for various reasons become involved in causing harm to animals and their own kind, suffer what is now being termed ‘moral injury’*. We should also be concerned for those willing participants who evidence no such injury.

I was born and raised in this outwardly un-conflicted yet internally contradictory Western culture that has spawned generations of ‘mixed personalities’ in our attitudes and relationships with other animals and by association, with each other. We variously love, protect, rescue, heal, hunt, trap, harvest, exterminate, chain, cage, enslave, experiment upon, slaughter and consume selected animal species in a pattern which defies reason but is underpinned by cultural perceptions, normalizing traditions and values. It is a contradiction, for example, that while there continues to be a cultural acceptance of trapping wild carnivores for their fur and people wearing them as a status and fashion statement while the domesticated cousins of some of these ‘furbearers’ are the beloved feline and canine companions of millions of people who spend $ billions annually on their daily care, thousands of which are mass produced in cruel breeding mills.

This predominantly instrumental, objectifying, economic valuation of non-human animals on the one hand, and subjective, sentimental and esthetic appreciation on the other is the cultural equivalent of the psychopathology that psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton revealed in Nazi doctors which involved parallel processes of splitting and doubling: the severance of empathy and absence of conscience in one context (medical experiments on prisoners), and essentially two personas, the one at home being a caring husband and doting father.

It was an interesting experience for me visiting one of America’s biggest cattle slaughter plants in Texas several years ago with the now renowned animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin, who is autistic and whom I helped mentor though her PhD research. She evidenced no affect or voiced concern to me for the animals beyond how they should best be handled to minimize injuries and economic losses. Yet from her purely objective, instrumental approach she has made significant improvements in the welfare of animals going to slaughter, economic gains being the main driver for the industry rather than empathic, compassionate concern.

While I was there with her I learned that for the employees there was a high incidence of work-related injuries and at home, spousal and child abuse which I interpreted as evidence of incomplete splitting and doubling leading to some spill-over from having to make a living killing animals which harmed relationships outside of that work-place situation. The post traumatic stress disorder so prevalent in American soldiers returning from deployment in war zones abroad, (which can include not only depression but violence toward others and self, often ending in suicide) reflects an incomplete splitting and doubling, and the consequences of conscience and memories awakening to what occurred when the split of empathy and compassion had taken place, to be relived night and day.

For better or for worse we possess ‘mirror neurons’ which enable us to some degree feel what others feel, notably limited in autistics and possibly inhibited in psychopaths and sociopaths. This bridge of empathy is extremely fragile considering how people can conceal their true feelings, a deception which may have an underlying element of denial and suppression as I have witnessed in various situations from slaughter houses to animal research and military weapons and germ warfare animal testing facilities. Where there is denial and suppression, everyone seems to take what they are engaged in as the norm, which makes it easier for new employees to come to accept what is being done, be it the killing or deliberate harming of other sentient beings under a consensus of essentially unexamined and accepted need or justification. Perhaps it is some genetic flaw in human nature, evident in most other cultures in their relationships with other sentient beings, or both nature and nurture, that limit our capacity to have a unified sensitivity, all embracing pan-empathy and moral and ethical sensibility.

I believe that we have reached the point in the history of the human race that all religions must extend the Golden Rule to treat all living beings as we would have them treat us, —and also the forests, oceans, grasslands and all the ecosystems that sustain our living world and help maintain a healthy environment for the life community on planet Earth. The same must be said for all other human inventions, —religions being but one;— cultures, customs, economies, industries and technologies being other human creations, the failures of which we are witnessing today. This is in part because the Golden Rule was human-centered, limited to exclusive rather than enlightened human self-interest. The compass of compassion can help direct us toward a more empathic and viable future which most people embrace in their love for their animal companions, for wildlife and the natural world. Many find that through such love or biophilia they experience the realm of the sacred. When all of life is sanctified, as Albert Schweitzer advised in his simple philosophy of reverence for all life, peace on Earth may have a chance: And more importantly, make for viable future for our own species as well as for others when we temper our numbers and appetites rather than continuing to devolve into a consumptive, destructive infestation on planet Earth.


Using what is called CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology (which enables multiple genes to be altered simultaneously) scientists in China have created two beagles that lack some or all of the muscle-inhibiting protein myostatin, resulting in dogs with larger-than-normal muscles. Dogs now join the list of species that have been genetically edited, including pigs, goats, monkeys, rabbits and rats. Using this technology, dwarf “micropigs” have been produced for medical research in China and may be the first gene-edited animals sold as pets. Gene-edited herds of pigs to serve as organ donors for humans, along with more varieties of animal disease models and possible gene editing of human embryos for medical reasons are on the horizon here in the U.S. and in animal laboratories in other countries. These activities raise profound ethical concerns as I document in my DVD concerning earlier developments in this Brave new world of genetic engineering biotechnology and where it all may lead, available at www.drfoxvet.net Like it or not, the age of bioengineering cybergenetics is upon us.

Genetically engineered animals often have genetic and developmental abnormalities and new diseases which cannot be justified for the novel pet trade or for reasons culinary and commercial.

Chinese biotechnology firm Boyalife and South Korea’s Sooam Biotech are building what will be the world’s largest animal cloning facility in China. Cloning of farmed animals is permitted and considered consumer-safe by the U.S. government but is prohibited by the European parliament for animal welfare reasons. (The ban does not cover cloning for research purposes, nor does it prevent efforts to clone endangered species).

Set to open next year, the Chinese facility will raise and sell dogs, racehorses and “improved” cattle for the rising market demand for beef. The news sparked questions about the ethics of cloning companion animals (costing $100,000 per dog) with already high numbers of stray dogs. Claiming this new technology will help ”save” endangered species is a publicity stunt to gain public acceptance. Genetically engineered and cloned endangered species would be virtual, not real species. Their natural genomes call for the protection and restoration of their natural environments that resonate epigenetically to maintain species integrity, vitality, generational adaptability and well-being.

Subjecting animals to gene editing and other genetic biotechnologies should be strictly regulated and limited to clinically justifiable veterinary medical purposes for the benefit of the animals. Putting human benefits first is another turn of the screw that will only intensify an increasingly parasitic relationship manipulating and exploiting the genomes of other species to direct evolutionary and other biological processes toward our own selfish ends rather than seeing progress in the light of a more compassionate and mutually enhancing relationship based on respect for all life.


Both human civilization and the Earth are in a sorry state. But we are not helpless, since there is much we can do to make a difference. It falls upon all those of us who can still afford to keep animals as companions, and to care for them well in body and mind, to do something local that will help the global. This can be from not letting your cat roam free to adopting one as a companion and reducing the number that will be killed in your local shelter every week, to supporting your local organic farmers and groceries and getting back to home-cooking whole, nutritious and organically certified foods for yourself and for your loved ones—including animal companions. (For home-prepared cat & dog food recipes visit www.drfoxvet.com). And if there is not an animal shelter in your community, and no effective enforcement of both animal and environmental protection laws, then do what you can to make such important initiatives a reality in your community.

Other local action to help globally would be to not use any insecticides or herbicides such as Roundup on your property that can make all your loved ones sick, and harm wildlife. Introduce local varieties of trees, shrubs, grasses and other plants that help attract wildlife. The more ‘green’ your property and neighborhood, including office, apartment and warehouse rooftops– the more of a carbon sink you have created, which is an antidote to global warming.

The most radical, non-violent action of revolutionary consequence can come not from our freedom of speech and what comes out of our mouths, but from our freedom to choose what we put into our mouths. The power of the plate and the conscience of the cook can make a world of difference through our informed choices in the market place, from purchasing humanely raised, free range farm animal produce if we are not vegetarians or vegans, to buying a more fuel efficient car and carefully recycling all that we possibly can so as to diminish our footprint on the planet. To live lightly and reduce one’s carbon/environmental footprint is to live more simply, so that more may simply live. As ‘green’ consumers we have responsibilities as well as rights. Either exercise those responsibilities, or forfeit those rights.

A consumer-driven society ultimately consumes itself. A civil society is a humane one that exercises the power of the consumer in a responsible way, and that includes environmental and animal protection; the abolition of factory farms and the wholesale use of petrochemical -based pesticides and fertilizers along with GMOs (genetically engineered crops). Many people care about wildlife protection and habitat conservation, but few realize the adverse impact of industrial agriculture on wildlife at home and abroad; and how making meat and dairy products from factory farmed animals their dietary staples means more wildlife habitat is taken to produce the feed necessary to raise billions of animals for human consumption.

Establishing more community enriching and enhancing areas of protected and restored wildlife habitat is enlightened self-interest. “Developers” appetites must be tempered by ecological science and sensibility. Cut down one tree, then replant with as many little trees that equal the photosynthetic rate of the felled one, and then harvest sustainably, keeping the enhancement of biodiversity rather than short-term profit’s the primary goal. More wildlife habitat preserves, from woodland and prairie, to wetland and water shed, would do much to improve air and water quality, and complement organic and sustainable farming and forestry practices.

As Socrates, who advocated social democracy, cautioned, ‘a life unexamined is a life unlived’, so we are called upon to examine how our lives cause harm to others, and how we might avoid such adverse consequences. This is the realm of ethics, of making informed choices in our lives, that call for a broader bioethics that includes consideration of how we might harm not only our own species, but also all other species that make up the life community of this living, but increasingly dysfunctional, human infested and poisoned planet. Then we vote with our dollars and sense.

For further contemplation see:

Michael W. Fox (1990) Inhumane Society: The American Way of Exploiting Animals. St Martin’s Press NY

Robert Jay Lifton (1986) The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Basic Books, NY

Richard Ryder (1989) Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Toward Speciesism. McFarland & Co Inc., Jefferson NC


Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay writes that his “current most precise (and narrow) definition of moral injury has three parts. Moral injury is present when (A) there has been a betrayal of what is morally correct; (B) by someone who holds legitimate authority; and © in a high-stakes situation.” Factor (B) is an instance of Shay’s concept of “leadership malpractice” (1.). Other authors have alternative definitions where (B) is by the individual (2. & 3.)

  1. Shay, J., Munroe, J. “Group and Milieu Therapy for Veterans with Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Comprehensive Text, Edited by Saigh, Philip A. and Bremner, J. Douglas. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998. Pp. 391-413
  2. Maguen, S., & Litz, B. T. (2012). “Moral injury in veterans of war.” PTSD Research Quarterly, 23(1), 1-6.
  3. Litz, B. T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W. P., Silva, C., & Maguen, S. (2009). “Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy.” Clinical Psychology Review, 29(8), 695-706.