As a young veterinary student, I was enamored with the prospect of someday roaming the countryside in my new four-wheel drive custom veterinary truck, dashing through pastures and into barns healing the sick and protecting the well. Graduating from veterinary school served as a milepost, but none of us, as neophyte veterinarians, realized how the practice of veterinary medicine ended in school and the purpose of veterinary medicine lept in front of us. In my first week of practice, with the ink almost dry on my diploma, my boss left me alone in practice for the initial ten days of my tenure. He went to the beach, himself laboring and exhausted after fifteen years in the business. He handed me the keys to the business and the truck: well, sort of a truck. It was a 1976 Chevy El Camino with a veterinary unit in the bed. When crossing the countryside and into the pasture, it was less truck, more torpedo. During these times my faith was tested early and often because physics is real folks. Weighing in at nearly five thousand pounds, “El Torpedo” took conviction and sheer prophecy to anticipate a stop ahead. To stop, you literally had to “pump those brakes.”
On the first call of the day, at 5 a.m., I drove El Torpedo to a local gentleman farmer’s home to investigate a cow who had difficulty standing after calving. Sliding to a stop right alongside her, I exited and performed her physical examination without delay. Typically, a “downer cow” suffers from a series of complications associated with delivering a nearly one hundred pound calf over several hours. This girl was experiencing obturator nerve paresis (weakness) and hypocalcemia. I placed an intravenous catheter in her jugular vein and administered some steroids and a solution containing calcium, magnesium, and glucose. An awkward thirty minutes passed when I turned to the farmer and said, ” She should be getting up any sec . . . ” as she sprang to her feet and waggled her way down to the hay feeder and began eating. The farmer turned to me, “Son, your hands have been touched by God. I have lost the last three cows to paralysis, and she is the first one to get up and walk.” Feeling somewhat spiritual, I collected my fee and drove El Torpedo back to work for the remainder of the ten-hour day.
Curiously, how might this relate to the existence of God? First of all, one should ask: why does veterinary medicine exist at all? I would posit veterinary medicine or any medicine for that matter, exists because God exists. Otherwise, why would animal suffering matter to humans? According to the natural or materialist worldview, we are here as a consequence of random chance, unable to control our fate. Richard Dawkins, Oxford University professor and atheist suggests we are merely “dancing to our DNA.” From whence the DNA cometh is a topic for later discussion.
So, the skeptic might suggest that caring for the cow or preventing animal pain and suffering is the “right” thing to do. Actually, nature and opportunity would provide the opposite–a horrendous alternative for her via predation. “Survival of the fittest” would reign and she would fall victim to dire consequences. From the atheist’s view, nature would take its course. In such circumstances, we are under no moral obligation to intervene. Another might argue that we should care because the animal has monetary value; we surely do not wish to lose our investment, do we? As a result, do humans simply exploit animals, or honor their value as living things? The answers to this type of question bewilder veterinarians to this day. Medicine indeed is a business, but success is shouldered on the prevention and treatment of illness, not the exploitation of the unfortunate patient. However, to make a determination of right versus wrong, the atheist must impute a standard from which to draw their conclusion. The standard of measurement they must utilize must be above mere opinion–and that standard is God.
In understanding animal pain and suffering, the Christian worldview provides the most straightforward answer. If we care about the plight of animals– and believe me, they do feel pain, we must ground this feeling of responsibility in a standard. The essence of this responsibility flows from the nature of God. Through the understanding of God’s character and the consequences of violating that metric, pain and suffering may be understood clearly. In future discussions, I will seek to answer this question: Why Would a loving God allow animals to suffer in the first place?
In the meantime, remember to be wary of downed cows, and when you try to stop, don’t forget to pump those brakes.