Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- I have always disliked dogs. All animals, really -- but especially dogs.

Perhaps this has roots in the traumas of childhood, when a German shepherd seemed as fearsome as a grizzly. I still jump when a dog barks. I did my best to avoid Barney and Miss Beazley, who created a hostile work environment in the Oval Office. All my life I have been suspicious of living things with teeth and instincts but without conscience. Even the smallest dogs, it seemed to me, might take vengeance on their human oppressors if their tiny paws allowed.

And then came a Havanese puppy named Latte, who melted the prejudices of 45 years on a summer afternoon.

For those who know me, this sudden case of animal affection is cause for shock, delight and mocking. To my children -- who have long suffered my intolerance for animals -- this transformation was as unlikely as me piercing my nose and joining an indie rock band.

But Latte is a dog of many virtues. To begin with, she is anti-communist -- or at least an exile from communism. Once popular in Cuba, the Havanese was associated with the ruling class overthrown by Fidel Castro. According to one source, these fluffy counterrevolutionaries may have been "actively or passively eliminated" in pursuit of socialist utopia. The Havanese would be extinct were it not for an American named Dorothy Goodale, who located 11 of the little dissidents in Florida and Costa Rica and began the breed anew.

Unlike Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to whom she might naturally be compared, Latte is known for her constant, mischievous cheerfulness. She is a scrambling, downy anti-depressant, showing completely unguarded warmth.

I had always assumed that the attribution of emotions and personalities to animals was merely anthropomorphic. But on closer acquaintance, this doesn't seem credible. Not long ago, I visited a gorilla hospital in Rwanda near the Congo border. Many of the animals had been wounded -- hands or feet cut off -- during encounters with human guerrillas. In a large, wooded enclosure, keepers sat with the recovering apes day and night, providing human contact and comfort. The gorillas had been psychologically traumatized. It makes sense that animals feeling emotional pain can also show emotional commitment.

I remain convinced that equating animal rights and human rights does nothing to serve either cause. Philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton University argues that all beings that feel pain and pleasure have equal rights -- dog, pig or child. But rather than elevating animal rights, Singer and others remove the moral basis for all rights, including human rights. "We can no longer base our ethics," says Singer, "on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation, made in the image of God, singled out from all other animals, and alone possessing an immortal soul." Singer is left with a pitiless utilitarianism that would allow for the killing of "imperfect" children and the elimination of the disabled, just as we would weed out the runts or cull the herd.

The mainstream of the Western tradition -- the philosophy found in the Declaration of Independence and espoused by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. -- has viewed human beings as a special form of creation, made in the image of God. This special status is displayed in our moral nature -- our capacity and duty to make moral choices, including the imperative to care for the weak. No lion or fox is held responsible for murder.

This principle means that a human being, in any state of health, is always more valuable than a dog or a cow; that a hamburger is not a holocaust. But this principle does not mean that the animal kingdom lacks a worth and purpose of its own. A long tradition of ethical reflection has asserted that animals are not merely property, like a vase we can choose to display or break. Their unique nature requires a moral response: We should not, according to St. Francis, "exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity."

Animals are not equals. But, amazingly to me, they can sometimes be friends -- something I missed for far too long. Now people laugh at my Havanese and me. But, like Ebenezer Scrooge following his transformation, I am content: "Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him."


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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