Just recently, Channel News Asia (CNA) ran an article on animal cruelty: Why are people cruel to pets and wildlife? It reports that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) saw 511 animal welfare and cruelty cases last year, the highest since 2020. More worryingly, it has already received 229 cases in the first quarter of this year, and the number is projected to reach 800 by the year’s end. At the same time, the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) investigates an average of about 1,250 alleged cruelty cases in a year. These numbers are likely the tip of the iceberg as they are merely the cases which have been surfaced—who knows how many other cases go unnoticed? Those which have been reported in the media have been deeply troubling, from cats being thrown off high rise flats to birds being shot with darts.
While some of such egregious cruelty may be related to psychiatric disorders or neurological deficits, in the end they cannot but be attributed to human sinfulness. The abuse of an animal is sinful. Period. There can be no good reason for animal cruelty. What good reason can there be to starve a pet dog close to death? Or to bind a monitor lizard and leave it to die? Animal abuse is a deeply irrational act that is impossible to accord with good moral reasoning—and any intentional act that does not accord with moral reasoning is sinful. Animal cruelty ought to arouse righteous indignation among God’s people, after all, animals are our co-creatures and companions on God’s green earth. In fact, it is a Christian duty to maintain their well-being and live in harmony with them.
In the first creation story in Genesis 1, God blessed humanity and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Here, God instructs humans to harness natural resources to survive and thrive, and to take charge of animals. Nothing in this divine instruction legitimizes the destruction and over-exploitation of nature, or any kind of abuse of animals for the sake of human convenience, greed, or pleasure. While the verbs “subdue” and “have dominion” do have violent undertones to them, they must be understood in the larger context of Genesis 1.
Firstly, God declares his creation to be “very good” at the end of six days (Gen. 1.31). If so, it would be odd for God to even permit, let alone instruct, humanity to trample it with irreverence and violate its dignity. Secondly, humans are first and foremost created in the image of God. As God’s image in the world, humans are meant to reflect God’s character into the world by their actions. How they “subdue” and “have dominion” must be consistent with God’s character. From a Christian perspective, it is only our Lord Jesus Christ who has shown us the true image of God, and he is a King who is full of compassion and mercy. Therefore, compassion and mercy should characterize the rule of humans over creation as well, especially in the treatment of their co-creatures.
Moreover, in the second creation story, in his attempt to make a companion for Adam, God “formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens” (Gen. 2.19). While none of the animals were companions which “corresponds to him” (NET; Gen. 2.18), the conclusion which is not often reached is that they were still created for the purpose of human companionship! Animals were intended as companions for Adam even if only another human being—Eve—can fully meet his social needs.
Therefore, we can infer from the two creation stories in Genesis that humans are intended to live harmoniously with animals and superintend their care as companions on earth. Together, we are all fellow creatures of our God. Of course, this idea might seem like a fairytale to many. Not only do humans oppress animals, but animals also aggress against humans. Ever since the dawn of humanity, humans have had to defend themselves from large predators like wolves and leopards. In urban Singapore, people have been attacked by wild boars, otters, and macaques, often a result of losing their natural habitats and being forced into contact with urban dwellers. Perhaps apart from domesticated pets, the relationship between humans and animals seems nothing like what God intends.
In Christian theology, we attribute this unhappy state of affairs to human sin. In the second creation story, Adam and Eve’s eventual disobedience to God led to a disruption in their relationship with the rest of creation. Following their disobedience to God, creation also no longer obeys them. The good order in creation has turned topsy-turvy and Adam and Eve, along with their descendants would struggle to establish their rule over it. This reflects our relationship with animals now.
Even so, we can still catch glimpses of that harmonious relationship. We see that prominently reflected in the keeping of domesticated animals as pets, that animals have the potential to be close companions to human beings. In Christian tradition, there are stories of saints who have developed close relationships with wild animals by virtue of their personal closeness to God. For example, St Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th century Russian Orthodox monk was seen feeding and conversing with a bear. When the eyewitness was frightened out of her wits, he quickly patted the bear and sent it away. The bear obeyed. More well-known is the 12th century Italian itinerant preacher St Francis of Assisi. He is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be a patron saint of animals because he lived in close communion with nature and many stories which emerged about him revolve around his interaction with animals. It was said that he convinced a wolf (addressing him as “brother wolf”) to stop terrorizing the Italian town of Gubbio. The wolf obeyed and lived the rest of its life among the townsfolk in peace.
While moderns may find such stories ludicrous and unbelievable, they cohere with Scripture’s account of what human-animal relations should be. According to St Isaac the Syrian, a 7th century theologian, our relationship with wild animals is dependent on personal godliness:
The humble person approaches the wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as to their master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. For they smell on him the same smell that came from Adam before the transgression.
As our relationship with God is restored in our Lord Jesus Christ and we allow ourselves to be sanctified in communion with him, the gradual restoration of our relationship with our co-creatures should follow. The closer we are to God, the more harmonious our relationship is with animals.
Doubtless to say, most of us would not be so convinced as to start hanging out with wild boars and otters. However, what we ought to be convinced of is the final restoration of human-animal relationship which Scripture speaks of:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.Isa. 11. 6-9
When our Lord Jesus Christ returns and God renews all of creation, then we will experience complete peace with all our co-creatures and enjoy their presence for all of the age to come. This is hope given us in Scripture for we are all creatures of our God and King, and the restoration of creation would necessitate the restoration of our relationship with our co-creatures. Therefore, while we may not be prepared to tame bears and make pacts with wolves, we ought to love and care for animals. That is what it means to be human.