One evening over my Christmas break I walked upstairs to my room at my father’s house when I noticed a faint scratching sound. I set down my purse and a couple of shopping bags, when out from under my dresser, a chipmunk, like a furry bullet, shot across the floor and scampered up onto my bed. It looked at me for an instant, then dived into the folds of my bathrobe. “Dad?” I called downstairs, perplexed. “There’s, um, a chipmunk in my bed.”
My dad explained to me that over the weekend he had sold a piece of furniture to a neighbor, and they had left the front door open for a few minutes while they were trying to move it, which was probably how the chipmunk got in. The process of getting him out, however, was not unlike something out of an old Pink Panther movie. After about thirty minutes of darting through the house with a broom, a newspaper, a seashell net, a big hunting flashlight, and a couple of pillows, we lost him for a moment. Fortunately, he had jumped in the couch, instead of climbing the Christmas tree.
My dad shined the flashlight on him. He was paralyzed, a little terrified creature about the size of a tennis ball, with huge, shiny black eyes. Eventually we got him outside. “Poor little thing,” my dad said. “You know he must have had the fright of his life. He barely moved once we got him out on the porch.” And it was hard not to feel sorry for this little fuzzball, helpless between our sofa cushions, at the mercy of our net.
Later that night, however, several things occurred to me. It’s easy to feel sorry for a chipmunk that gets into a house, or even for one being carried away by an owl, even though that’s just part of nature: some chipmunks get eaten. When we see cats and dogs in a shelter, or hungry dogs chained up to fences and neglected, it’s easy to be struck with pity. And who wouldn’t be? But the question is, why do we extend that pity to some animals and not to others? Why are some worthy, when others aren’t?
I don’t believe it’s very common for someone, about to cut into a prime rib at a five star Chicago steakhouse, to think about the cow in its moment of terror. “Poor little thing. Raised in its own excrement. Fed the ground up remains of other cows. Pumped full of hormones to make it grow. Pulled out of a truck with a metal hook and a chain since its hooves froze to the floor, dead before it gets to the slaughterhouse. Poor thing must have had the fright of its life.” In my experience, people who think about this kind of thing don’t frequent steakhouses. I don’t mean to villanize my omnivorous friends and family. After all, it didn’t occur to me for years that meat comes from living things, and I didn’t consider myself a bad person then. But it is something to think about. If we kept pigs and chickens as pets, we might still eat them. But I don’t think we would raise and kill them the same way.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a very vivid dream that I was at my mother’s house. In her bathroom, tied to the porcelain sink, was a black lamb, bleating in terror—my mother was going to shear its wool and then serve it for dinner. I dreamed that I sat down on the floor of the bathroom, and the lamb sat in my lap, quiet and shaking. I pet its head and it calmed down. I felt terrible. “I’ll let her shear it, but I just can’t let her kill it,” I thought. But then, “How in the world can I hide a lamb? What do I do with it?” I try not to read too far into things like dreams, but this one has stayed with me. We may disagree about animal intelligence and emotions, but I think very few people would say that animals don’t feel fear.