9 December

How Are We Supposed To Feel About This Dog? Shining The Light On Good And Evil…

by Jon Katz

There is a beautiful story about St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 12th century and was one of the world’s most influential religious philosophers. . It involved a bunch of birds in a cage.

A grand duke was visiting St. Thomas in the convent of St. Jacques in Paris. He wanted to show his appreciation of the Dominican Order by giving the famous philosopher a gift.

The two walked along the Seine and came upon many birds in cates being sold to people walking by. Thomas said he had an idea, would the duke buy him all those birds as a gift?

The duke was happy to purchase all of the birds in all of the cages, and after they were bought, he asked St. Thomas what he planned to do with them.

Thomas responded quickly: “Open the cages.”

Thomas Aquinas had an enormous impact on how humans came to see animals and treat them. In his judgment, people had the right to harm animals if necessary, but that didn’t mean it was right.

He wrote that God made animals and plants for man; animals cannot reason; they don’t have souls, so people can use them as they wish.

Animals were to pay for this for many years. Perhaps unknowingly Aquinas, and then the Catholic Church, until recently more or less endorsed the idea that we could treat animals any way we wished; they were not equal to us in any way.

It wasn’t until dogs worked their way so deeply into the hearts of humans that people in Western Civilization (not all of the world) began to see dogs and other animals differently. And the Church started holding special services for dogs and fish.

Aquinas did not believe that dogs or animals had any inherent rights. His head would have spun right off his head to see the animal rights movement claiming it was cruel and abusive for horses to pull carriages in a park. That, he argued, was why there are animals in our world.

Bu Aquinas was anything but one-dimensional or simple.

He was also was one of the first great Christian philosophers to write that it was necessary to treat animals with compassion and mercy because that could teach us how to be merciful to one another.

That idea didn’t seem to stick.

Aquinas argued that people had dominion over animals; they were not equal.  Yet, he was also famous for treating animals gently.

“We, as human beings,” he preached, “first and foremost, must always give suffering its proper respect and must always use our moral powers to actively counter-act or prevent it,” both in animals and other people.

Human beings are still messy and conflicted about how to treat animals, and animals suffer horribly for it every day worldwide. People are still arguing about what rights animals should have, and in the meantime, most are treated as if they have none all over the world.

In a sense, dogs, who have grown closer to humans than any other animal (maybe cats also), have altered the moral equation about treating animals. As humans have become more and more detached from one another and their communities, the love of dogs has only grown and grown.

Their new work is supporting us, not just protecting us. And scientists and biologists are now claiming animals have more feelings and emotions than we thought.

The photo and story of the savagely abused poodle (see story below) struck me very deeply, even though I know I could find a thousand pictures of human beings being treated as badly or worse all over the world every day.

But even though I don’t share all of Aquinas’s ideas about animals, he was right to suggest that deliberately causing animals to suffer was a moral failure and a sin.

One woman who saw this photo of the poodle posted right away said that she hoped the person who did this was in jail. I don’t think that would matter too much or change too much.

I have little hope for the man or woman who allowed this to happen; their souls are dead and beyond remorse or feeling.

In a world where our leaders brag about lying and treat others viciously and without compassion, it should be shocking that people would cruelly mistreat dogs. Vengeance won’t do anything for this dog, even if he lives.

Throwing people in jail might be necessary, but it rarely seems to make us better or kinder or even safer. It primarily just causes additional suffering.

We should have learned that lesson by now. The dog was found wandering the streets; his abuser may never be known.

Increasingly, it seems to me we treat helpless dogs better than vulnerable people in our country.

Our hearts bleed for them when they are in trouble. We treat them far better than we treat homeless or vulnerable human beings. More than twelve million dogs are kept in animal shelters; many are self-described “no-kill” shelters where dogs languish in cases for all of their lives.

This is considered humane.

Humans suffer in the streets in silence and neglect.

A photo like this poodle transcends all divisions and arguments; it will repel every civilized person who sees it. In a sense, this dog is sacrificing himself unknowingly so that we may be reminded that cruelty is immoral and is a sin.

It unites us. How remarkable.

I’ve met sick people who abuse animals and healthy people who use animals out of neglect or moral collapse.

C.S. Lewis, the author, and Christian scholar, gave me a way to think about the suffering of dogs like this poodle means.

“Thomas Aquinas said of suffering,
Lewis wrote, “…Aristotle said of shame, that it was a thing not good in itself; but a thing which might have certain goodness in particular circumstances. That is to say if evil is present, pain at the recognition of the evil, being a kind of knowledge, can be good.”

There is nothing good about what was done to this poor helpless poodle. But there is something very good about all of us recognizing it as evil and coming together to denounce it.

In our increasingly shameless, immoral, and cruel culture, many of us no longer recognize lying and cruelty as evil.

When I put this photo up this afternoon – I’ve never published a photo like this before on my blog – I remember thinking this is good, this is not something we will argue about, it’s not something that will divide us or tear our democracy apart

. We can all feel the pain of this helpless dog.

The dog is mystical in many ways; he is here for a purpose; all dogs are because they have the power to touch the deepest part of our souls and keep the idea of good versus evil alive.

Whatever happens to you, poor dog, you remind us that when we cause suffering, we commit evil and sin against all life.

Thank you for that; you bring us all together and remind us that this is possible.

May mercy and compassion seek you ought and bring you home.




  1. Raised as a Catholic and given St Thomas Aquinas’s writings to study in 11th grade I still find him applicable (in patches) to our modern world. I am sure that you publicising this sad dog will find it a home, if nothing else can. I do praise you for publishing this photo–to counteract any abusive mail it may generate.

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