Primum non nocere

If you read last Thursday’s post you may be interested to know that the ewes that left the farm have settled in nicely at their new digs. Joanna and I are pleased that this nonrandom assortment of genes, as manifest in the fleece and conformational characters of these particular animals, has been preserved and that it is now under the care of such good people. The shepherd who now watches over the ewes appreciates Shetlands for their unique qualities. She is a spinner with interests in many-things-fiber. When she arrived at Pairodox we had all the ewes penned for her to examine. She looked, touched, looked again, and asked many good questions. After she departed, Joanna turned to me and said, She selected all of our best ewes! We are glad, for it demonstrates that, even at her young age, this woman knows her stuff.

As I look over what I have just written, I wonder how many readers will react to my concerns about the welfare of these animals as nothing more than needless worry over a bunch of sheep. I do not know why the concerns many of us show for our dogs and cats are not often extended to other highly domesticated animals such as sheep, goats, hogs, cattle, and poultry? Surely, along with plant crops, these organisms play important roles in the lives of the omnivores among us. But, why should the fact that these animals are raised to work, provide fiber, or as part of the food chain preclude thoughtful attitudes toward and humane treatment of them? Although I am not a full time farmer, I have been around farms, farmers, and livestock operations enough to know that many an attitude could use adjustment when it comes to the ways in which animals are housed and treated. Attitudes which we describe as speciesist may be characterized by the belief that the interests of one species trump those of another. Certainly our attitudes toward many other animals is speciesist in that we believe they serve us, and we manage them. I wonder why we, as humans, have adopted these attitudes and behaviors? Why are we so quick to dominate, control, and to utilize? Some would say, as the only truly sentient being cabable of higher-order thought, it is our obligation. I disagree. There is an enlightening discussion in Simon Conway Morris’ text, The Crucible of Creation, in which he considers the responsibilities of our species, Homo sapiens. His Devil’s Advocate position is that,  … by virtue of a cosmic accident, we, and we alone, have no choice but to take responsibility for our own destiny and mold it to our desire. On the other hand, he believes that, We do indeed have a choice, and we can exercise our free will. We might be a product of the biosphere, but it is one with which we are charged to exercise stewardship. So then what are our responsibilities, as perhaps one of a very few highly intelligent organisms on the planet? Is it our responsibility to exercise our libertarian rights and do what we may? Or, would it be better to recognize that we are but one of more than perhaps 10 million species that call this place home? I sometimes see humans as out of touch. Surely we have done some wonderful things; consider the machine with which I am communicating these thoughts to you. In another sense, however, I believe we are out of touch with our cosmic significance as seen against the backdrop of geologic time. The Earth has been here some 4.6 billion years while fossils of anatomically modern humans date to no more than 200,000 years ago. Homo sapiens has been here to experience just 0.004% of the full history of the planet. If you round that down to the nearest whole number, you get … zero. Poof! We’ve not even been here. So, tell me then, what do you make of our self-proclaimed superiority and preeminence? Let me close by translating, from the Latin, the title of this post; Primum non nocere. It means, First, do no harm. Its derivative practice of non-malfeasance is perhaps the central tenet of bioethical analysis. Rather than view the world from a position of arrogance, I suggest we adopt that middle road of conciliation. At the risk of coming across as an atavistic throwback to the 1960s, let me suggest that we work to live in peace and harmony with all living things. Let’s give it a try, and see how it goes.

35 thoughts on “Primum non nocere

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Being a farmer who raises animals for food brings up so many ethical questions, because while you are closer to the animals and understand better than most their capacity for love, pain, etc., you are also closer to nature than the average modern American, and you are less removed from the struggle for survival at all costs that drives life on earth. I always thought the Native Americans struck a balance that was as close as possible to being perfect in this imperfect world…they took what they needed to survive, but nothing more, and they treated those that nourished them with respect…but above all, they wasted nothing.

    • Great minds do indeed think alike … Joanna was quick to point out (as I was writing the post) Native American views on such matters (I would add Australian aboriginals as well). There is a line from a movie, the title of which I cannot now recall (actually, this line is perhaps delivered in many movies), … and, how has it come to this? How indeed? D

  2. What a great post David, about a very serious topic. I agree with your views wholeheartedly. I like to think that the disregard most people have for the earth is a fairly new phenomena … well since the industrial revolution! … but sadly I think that perhaps there have always been those who think only of money and themselves. To live in balance with our world is something we should all be thinking about … and taking care of our animals is part of that. I think the way a person treats animals is a reflection of their views about others and the world in general.

    • I especially like your final observation. And this from a woman who treats here dogs so very well that I’m thinking about coming back as one of them in my next life! I can only hope! D

    • I like to think that the way we treat our animals says something about us in a larger sense. We are currently dealing with two very, very, very old dogs each of whom has a variety of health problems. Although dogs aren’t people, end-of-life issues which relate to them are hard in their own way. I know for Joanna and for me, and for folks like you who obviously have a special place for our canine companions, these can be difficult times. D PS: I hope you are having a great time away! Looking forward to hearing (and seeing) all about it upon your return.

      • Sorry to hear about your end of life concerns with your dogs. As you know I deal with end of life issues with people as well…..and I think we are kinder to dogs than people….but its never easy making such decisions.
        I was out with the turtles yesterday….it left me smiling all day 🙂

        • Whow … for some reason I didn’t think you’d be connected so far from home. I’m so glad your wish came true … I’m very glad. I hope you’re finding time to relax and that you haven’t scheduled so many adventures that you’ll find you need a vacation once you get back home! D

          • I’m not doing too much, don’t worry, and we have a WIFI connection, but I cant really download and process photos … although I haven’t tried yet! I haven’t been online much, but its always nice to read comments from friends … wherever I am 🙂

  3. I’m glad to see that things are proceeding quite well so far. In many ways it’s really a passing of the torch isn’t it? The work continues and it’s particularly pleasing to see that the theme of stewardship is quite evident throughout.

    • Yup … a passing of the touch. A good way to put it. What else can we be expected to do? You can’t hold on to anything, especially sheep, forever. We feel good about this first step. We’ve put the remaining animals out in their breeding groups so we’ll have lambs come spring (for what will, perhaps, be the last time). By the way … Sheilagh was one of those involved in the move. D

  4. I am glad that your ewes are in good hands!

    Of course the title of your post struck a chord with me! I recall several “frameworks” / “tenets” of sustainable living. They are often phrased academically, but finally I thought this is really common sense, isn’t it? Don’t use more resources than nature is able to replenish. Don’t produce or accumulate substances that don’t decay or are re-distributed fast enough …

    I would wish less academic papers would be written and sophisticated software tools be developed that calculate ecological footprints (often used by companies for their green PR stories) but that more people would simply apply common sense in their daily lives as consumers and citizens.

    • You are absolutely correct. Why can’t more folks see the simplicity of the argument you have made here? Less in … less out. Fewer nonrenewables … more renewables. More recycling … less trash. More simple compounds … fewer toxins. Why don’t people get it? Where is the global common sense?

      On a lighter note … there you go … a retirement project for you. A smart phone App that keeps track of all of your inputs and and outputs and calculates your footprint in real time. It’ll be a real money maker! Start development TODAY or someone else will get it to market before you! Hurry! D

      • I don’t dare to google – but I am pretty sure that there are related apps out there already. In a small students’ project two years ago I have already dealt with a similar concept. It was an exercise in pitching a project to a governmental agency that administers subsidies. We did not take it really seriously but indulged in cooking up clichéd PR arguments like bringing ecology to the undeveloped masses via the most simple app 🙂

  5. Isn’t there a saying somewhere that suggests that if man were wiped off the face of the earth, Earth would flourish but if the bee population were eradicated, mankind would not survive? This says to me just how insignificant we really are in the wider scheme of things and that all species have their rightful place. Having higher intelligence seems to have a destructive effect – and we are the only species that kill each other as a result of it. I’m really happy that your ewes went to a good home!

    • Hi Jenny. I replied to Julie, below, that I was a bit afraid that my message would, somehow, not be understood. Thanks for making if clear that you got it loud-and-clear. I have heard quotes similar to the one you mentioned. You are correct to observe that this out-sized brain of ours has been very much the double-edged sword. To say, ‘Look what it’s allowed us to do,’ has significance beyond the obvious. We’ve split the atom, entered the computer age, and now have folks walking in space and on the moon. But, at what cost? Climate change, environmental degradation, injustice, inequality, poverty, hunger, and war. I wonder where we are, as a species, on balance? A tough call indeed. Where we will be in another thousand years? Who can know? D

  6. Reblogged this on Wing and a Prayer Farm and commented: Because we care about stewardship, we care about human and other living beings. It’s not the first time I’ve appreciated Dave’s wisdom, not to mention his gorgeous photography. He and his wife Joanna are on my white-board in the barn as go-to’s for advice with my flocks. Read on:

  7. I’m with M. Hatzel and agree 100% with the message of this post. But I wonder at you sending off all of those ewes? Are you thinning the flock in anticipation of moving? Are you thinning to bring your work-load down? I agree that your ewes are likely going to a good new home, with a shepherdess taking such care in selecting them, you will hope that she will be able to enjoy her new girls. I’m happy for you and Joanna to have been successful in finding them a new home. It is such a trouble to me to send mine off to someone that I’m not 100% sure about that this year I’m not even trying to sell any of my Shetland flock! Best to you, thank you for such a great share.

    • Hi Tammy. If you check out one of the posts from last week (A nonrandom assortment of genes) you will read that we have finally decided to disperse the flock. It has been a tough decision but we are trying to take responsible steps in preparation for an eventual departure from the farm. It may not be for another year (at the most, I hope) but we realized that finding good homes for all of the girls was critically important and was going to take time. We didn’t want to be put into the unthinkable situation of having to move quickly and being forced to take the whole lot to our local livestock auction. We still have 14 breeding ewes that are currently out with the rams so we will see lambs, for perhaps the last time, come spring. We also have several 2014 lambs that we’ve held back from breeding. If you know anyone that’s interested in establishing their own little spinner’s flock … send them my way. Although we’ve set the 2015 breeding season in motion, we’re still actively looking to continue the process of dispersal. This has all been very difficult. But, as you and I both know, life is full of difficult decisions. We will be glad to know that the flock we’ve worked so hard to develop will be dispersed to a number of good and responsible folk. I hope you and all those at Wing and a Prayer are well. Thanks for keeping in touch. D (+J)

  8. I believe you already know where I stand on this topic. Something about our being like an appendix around here. Anyway, there is the unfortunate notion, so I am told having never really read the bible, that we are given dominion over the planet and lesser beings. So the earth and all its organisms are our little playground until the end of days. Greed and self-interest are a pox upon humanity. Look at how willing many are to risk catastrophe in the name of some cash and a few “good jobs” the total disregard for the health of the planet, and therefore our future, where a profit is to be made. In the long run we are likely to render ourselves extinct and the planet will rebound in some manner. That is of little consolation to the current animals suffering at our hands.

    I am a lot of fun at parties.

    • Such a serious topic, to be sure. But your parting line had Joanna and me in stitches! I have always thought that our species was maladapted and will, in another one or two thousand years, drive itself the-way-of-the-dodo. And, you know, if that should happen and our species ends up having had a tenure here of something less than a quarter-million years … millions and millions of years hence, if there should be other organisms that study the history of this planet and its fossil record … they will be hard-pressed to find any evidence of us having been here at all. For, in the great scheme of things … 250,000 years is a geologic blink-of-an-eye, an instant. D

      • The world is an enormous place but, apparently, not nearly as large as most human egos. Figuratively speaking, I agree with your assessment of our significance in the life span of the planet. We are but a millisecond on the geologic clock. But no evidence of us. I am not sure … plastic is close to forever. Of course, maybe subduction will eventually hide all traces of us given time. 🙂

        • Joanna is in agreement with you. She says that, millions of years from now, there will be plenty of evidences of our having been here. Landfills (including plastics), roadways, cityscapes, and the rest. Just no evidence of who or what constructed such things. D PS: I saw your reference to nudibranchs in Steve’s post this morning. They were my most favorite animal when I was in high school and the subject of many photographs I took during my ‘underwater phase’ way back then. And my interest in them was one of the many things which influenced my eventual decision to attend graduate school.

            • If I do, they’re at my mother’s house, outside of Boston, as prints which are now more than thirty years old! I had a couple of Nikonos cameras and all sorts of other gear. My parents were very supportive for which am, all these years later, still very grateful. D

              • Parents are good that way, at least most are. I almost had a chance to photograph various tiny sea critters, but the marine biologist photographer who was going to populate some tidal pools at Schoodic Point for us backed out at the last minute.

  9. Another thought provoking post. I agree with you. If everyone treated other people as they would like to be treated themselves, the world would be a better place. It extends to the farm animals too. I might have to draw the line at yellow jackets and hornets though! So glad your Shetlands found a loving home. They deserve it. You can tell how well they were cared for under your stewardship! BTW … how many did she take? Well I see that at least 12 went together! 🙂

  10. I’m using the phone to comment so I am limited. First, I want to embroider your post title on a pillow and put it in the center of the house. Second, this is really the heart of all that’s wrong with us humans, isn’t it? We need a huge cultural reset.

    • Yes. As to just where that reset button is? I believe it rests with our kids. It is through their good education that things might begin to change … perhaps in another four or five generations. We can hope. Thanks for checking in and for taking the time to comment. You’ll have to post a picture of that pillow when it’s done! D

      • I had been thinking of the two of you and about when the lambs would been leaving. So glad they have a good home. As for the reset button … I do hope the same. I have some wide open prairie images I want to put up; the lighting was difficult, but I took the camera knowing you tree dwellers would like a few shots of the open sky. 😉

  11. I agree with you entirely. Animals produced on an industrial scale to provide cheap food and the consequent factory farmed animal cruelty is about producing something for this over populated planet to eat, where caring is sometimes a luxury. Smaller communities and locally produced food is an ideal I hope we can achieve before it too late.

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