Moving Toward Mercy

You and I share a gift. We can feel compassion for those we do not know and will never meet. We can feel compassion for future generations. We can feel compassion for other creatures. And we can attempt to take action to minimize suffering – human and animal, near and far, today and in the future. 

As far as we know, this is a uniquely human trait. Even in the act of killing we can, and do, try to minimize suffering. Of all the world’s predators, humans are the only one, best as we can tell,  that tries to kill humanely. 

I find myself grasping for a noun to represent the adjective, “humane.” According to the dictionary, that word is “humaneness.” But that’s hard to say, looks strange on paper and just sounds weird. So, by instinct, I usually grab the word “humanity.” 

But that doesn’t sound quite right, either.

I think maybe “mercy” is the word.

Mercy can’t be measured. Mercy is a goal, not a characteristic.

I stopped at the kitchen window one spring morning and noticed something strange going on outside between our house and the barn. We had about 100 very young lambs at the time and our border collie, Flash, seemed to be devouring one of them on the lawn.

We had Flash and three Great Pyrenees guard dogs helping us care for our sheep and cattle. Flash was a four-year-old veteran, a gifted sheepdog, and generally very protective and skillful with the lambs. All sorts of unexpected things can happen among the animals, but it seemed very unlikely that Flash had killed a lamb to eat it. 

Every year a few lambs die, of course. The dogs routinely camp out and protect a dead lamb for a few days. After the dead body has begun to decompose, they eat it. 

Thanks to centuries of breeding, both Border Collies and Great Pyrenees dogs are generally protective of livestock. Instinctively, they are also protective of their territory and their food. All these instincts, combined, provide a pretty effective deterrent against outside predators. Where we live coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and stray dogs are all threats.

Flash was particularly attentive to baby sheep and he had a special gift, a strange and amazing aptitude for bringing stray lambs back to the flock. He spent all day, in lambing season, on patrol. Young, inexperienced little lambs often fall asleep in the pasture and get left behind when the sheep flock moves away. Border Collies feel an innate compulsion to keep flocks of animals together, so an abandoned lamb presented, for Flash, a problem to be solved. When he was about a year old Flash developed his own technique for addressing this situation. He would go to the stray baby and stimulate it until it stood. By “stimulate,” I mean he would nuzzle it, mouth it and even pick it up and drop it, repeatedly, until it stood up. Watching this, you could easily reach the conclusion that he was going to hurt the lamb and we ran out to stop him a few times, only to find the baby was perfectly fine and ready to run back to its mom. Passers-by have even driven to the house to tell us Flash was killing lambs. He wasn’t. Not ever.

Once Flash had the sleepy lamb on its feet and fully awake, he would lick it and nuzzle it until it imprinted on him. Newborn lambs will imprint on anyone. If you pick one up to carry it for a few seconds, its instinct when you put it down is to follow you. Flash convinced lambs that he was the licking, nuzzling, attentive guardian they should follow, and then he would lead them back to the flock. When he got close to the adult sheep, he would speed away to the far side of the flock to push all the adults back toward the wayward baby. Once the baby was back among the sheep with its mom, Flash would move away.

I know this sounds like a scene from a saccharine movie, but we’ve seen him do this dozens of times. It’s a dance he choreographed himself and knows well.

When I got to the wounded lamb on the lawn that day, it was alive and struggling as Flash ate its entrails directly from its abdominal cavity. It was a grim scene. I ran for a sharp knife, shooed the dog away and killed the poor lamb by slicing through the arteries in its throat.

I can see, in retrospect, that my decisions that day were guided by quite a bit of specialized information. I knew that coyotes had been pressuring the flock for several days, taking a baby from its mother just two nights before. I knew our farm dogs’ breeding reliably protected our living lambs from their predatory impulses. A dead lamb, on the other hand, was different. A lamb whose organs were spilling from its belly was probably in the “dead lamb” category, from the dog’s perspective. That is to say, “food.” 

So even though I found Flash eating the poor little creature’s organs out of its open abdominal cavity (probably causing a lot of pain), I was reasonably certain that he wasn’t responsible for the injury. He had, in all likelihood, interrupted a coyote that had injured the lamb attempting to kill and abduct the baby.

So I was pretty sure I didn’t need to discipline the dog.

On a farm one gets used to a certain amount of gore. A live disembowelment is seriously gorey and still disturbing, of course, but a farmer necessarily develops enough tolerance to help an injured creature even when the situation is pretty gross. My gag reflex has calmed down considerably over the course of our decades of farming. We hate to see an animal suffer. But farmers who raise livestock are called to attend directly to the injuries and illnesses of their animals. We can’t always wait for a veterinarian. Ideally, the impulse to ease an animal’s suffering overcomes our aversions. 

I knew how to kill an animal with a knife, and generally kept one close at hand. It’s an infrequent necessity, but a critical one. And just a few experiences with that necessity will focus one’s mind on precision and decisiveness. To botch that job is to prolong a gruesome death, and that’s extremely disturbing. So we remember our mistakes – hopefully minor – and do better the next time.

From the time I left the back door until I dispatched the injured baby, probably less than two minutes passed. Considering the situation, that was maybe the best I could have hoped for.

A lamb carcass on the lawn isn’t an ideal outcome, but by my own standard for compassion exercised in the real world I felt like I had reduced the suffering to the best of my ability. Compassion was a small but critical part of that – the inspiration. To help, I would say I needed the right information and a practiced sense of resolve. And a sharp knife of course.

Humans are the only animals, it seems, that try to minimize suffering in the act of killing for food. We are predisposed, seemingly by our very natures, to want to limit pain. 

Cats often play with a dying mouse. Coyotes will begin devouring a sheep while it’s still alive. But most humans, hunters, farmers or nomads, idealize a humane process of killing.

Even our conscientious farm dogs show no compunctions toward the feelings of rabbits, skunks or raccoons, or an eviscerated lamb for that matter. Whatever form of compassion they might feel doesn’t extend to food.

I like to think our long practice at taking care of animals as compassionately as we can prepared me to do the right thing that day. If I analyze it, though, I’m left with no certainty:

  • I can’t know for sure that the lamb was hurt by a predator and not a reckless sheepdog, who should have been disciplined to prevent other lambs from being hurt.
  • I can’t know if the lamb would have suffered less if I left it to the dog.
  • I can’t even know for certain whether, in raising our own livestock for food, we are reducing – or increasing – the total quantity of suffering in the world.

The life we live among our animals provides us with a daily practice of compassion, in all its complexity. We are practicing, not perfecting. We raise our animals from birth, attend to their needs and admire their beauty. Many, we know by name. We care for them and about them. We try to provide them with natural lives appropriate to their physical and psychological needs. And we kill and eat them. We try to end their lives by the most humane means available. Of course this strikes some of our vegan friends as hypocrisy.

We could, after all, live on a plant-based diet. I admire the conscientious commitment of people who do. But in our case that wouldn’t, necessarily, reduce suffering. No cattle or sheep would die for our vegan sustenance, true, but the acres of crops raised to otherwise supply our needs would strip the farmland of other life. Our pastures provide habitat for dozens of species. The soybean fields next door are systematically managed to eliminate almost every life form, except soybeans. 

Our pastures, by contrast, teem with abundance and biological diversity. 

If one measures cruelty in lives lost, then the vegetable farmer’s all-out assault on nature is far more cruel than raising a few cattle or sheep for meat.

I’m not advocating the carnivore diet, particularly. But I do think we should acknowledge the complexity of the system in which we live – and especially the sacrifices that are necessary to support each of our individual lives. There’s no way to avoid it: other beings must die in order for us to live. Some, we kill for food. Others are destroyed by plowing or agricultural chemicals. Or they die of starvation because we have taken their habitats. Our very presence is, in a way, an act of murder.

No living being survives except through the sacrifice of others. Each calorie we consume deprives some other creature of the same nourishment. Each leaf on every tree casts a shadow in which some other leaf on another tree may not flourish. 

As the planet’s most ubiquitous, consumptive and rapidly expanding inhabitant we have forced tremendous sacrifice on other living things. 

Humanity’s continual expansion is killing off whole species at a rate at least 100 times (and perhaps as great as 1,000 times) greater than the baseline rate of extinction that has existed in nature. We are, in a way, the worst pandemic in the planet’s history, for thousands of species.  The suffering that lies behind these staggering numbers is inestimable. We are responsible and we know it. 

We could reverse our expansion and give back some room for everything else. We know how.

Compassion is humanity’s birthright. Innocence certainly is not. We live at the expense of others.

And in that stark fact lies beautiful potential. In everything we do, we encounter myriad opportunities to extend mercy and exercise compassion. 

3 thoughts on “Moving Toward Mercy

  1. I’ve read an commented on your most 3 recent articles, Bryan. Just going back a little further. Another excellent article that makes one think not only on mercy, but also the complexity of food for humans. I love seeing farm animals out in a pasture field, and struggle witnessing so much monoculture crops. Where as you mention there is no other form of life other than the crop itself. Not to mention the extinction crises. This is quite disconcerting. Thank you for the article, Bryan. You wrote it with utmost sensitivity. 🙏


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