Rethinking the lesser of the least

With the arrest Tuesday of a man on multiple charges including unlawful animal fighting, it’s clear we have much more work to do in the cause of animal welfare. One of the first things to notice about this case is that Arkansas’ felony animal cruelty law was not listed among the charges. It should be.

For all the great strides that Lt. Michael Jenkins, his staff and volunteers at Pine Bluff Animal Control are making, instances of alleged barbarity such as the one above are a painful reminder that some in our city just don’t get it/

They don’t understand the moral implications of their actions. Moreover, they know that few meaningful legal consequences will attach. We believe that anyone convicted of dog fighting should be sentenced to prison, especially if that person has prior felony convictions or a substantial criminal history.

We don’t need this kind of thing in our town. When we let it exist, it diminishes all of us.

This collective diminishment is all the more apparent in the wake of new research just published by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University. Berns and his colleagues have spent the last two years training dogs to enter and stand perfectly still inside an MRI scanner. The dogs are “completely awake and unrestrained.” This permits researchers to image the dogs’ brain responses to various stimuli.

Berns says the scans reveal that the structure and function of the caudate nucleus is similar in dog and human brains. In humans, the caudate activity spikes when we anticipate things we will enjoy like food or love. In other words, this research indicates that dogs may have a sentience very similar to our own.

In an op-ed published by the New York Times Berns states: “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”

Indeed it would — or at least it should — when we move from a legal and emotional position that categorizes dogs as property, to one that recognizes they have a complex emotional life and sense of self, then we have a moral obligation to treat them differently.

As Bern continues: “Dogs have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.”

As anyone who loves the company of dogs can well attest, they aren’t merely objects for our detached manipulation. Perhaps they aren’t quite human, but that doesn’t mean we should have carte blanche to torture them, make them fight to the death or keep them on a chain in the yard.

In fact, we have laws that specifically ban each of those practices. What we lack is the will to actually enforce those laws. Only when we have evidence of some other crime do these laws get enforced. Even then, the victimization of a dog is often strongly subordinated or entirely dismissed.

In the end, it’s pretty simple. Many people in our community like to think we are a Christian nation, bound by biblical laws. Why then do we routinely flout Matthew 25:40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Maybe dogs aren’t quite human. Maybe they’re the lesser of the least. Maybe they still deserve better.