A Suffering Dog – What Does Torah Require?

May 3, 2014
Look for the dog in this photo.

Look for the dog in this photo.

Kindness to animals is not merely a “good deed.” Unnecessary cruelty to animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim) is repeatedly forbidden in the Torah.

It’s getting warm outside. You see an animal locked into a hot vehicle. You think, “Is this my business?” and I assure you, the Torah commands that we act when a fellow creature is suffering.  In Exodus 23:5:

If you see a donkey belonging to someone who hates you fallen down under its burden, you may not pass by him, and you must surely release him.

Even if the animal is owned by an enemy, even if it is a work animal fallen down working, we may not pass by and we must surely help. An unusual grammatical construction in the Hebrew (“must surely help”) underlines the urgency of this commandment.

Why does the Torah add “belonging to someone who hates you?” The reaction of the owner – their feelings about us – are not part of the equation. If they are angry that we “meddled,” so be it.

So what are my options when I see an animal locked in a car on a hot day? This happened to me this past week: I saw the dog in the photo above locked in a truck in 90 degree heat (outside – goodness knows what it was inside the truck.) I had been parked next to the truck for 15 minutes waiting for a friend (I was drinking water, with the windows down to catch the breeze) before I noticed the dog. He was panting heavily and had no water.

I took a photo of the dog (above) and of the license plate of the truck, and went inside the business to find help. The business has a security guard, who walked back with me to check the situation. As we walked, a couple sprinted by us and released the dog from the car, taking him out on a leash. The man walked rapidly away with the dog, and the woman walked back to the business, telling us that she “appreciated our concern” but that they had been “checking on the dog every ten minutes.” The security person chose to drop the matter there.

Did the couple understand that they had been cruel to the dog? Probably not. My impression was that they wanted to avoid trouble. It is my hope that they will avoid trouble in future by not torturing the dog.

I share this story because I want to let you know that Torah requires we act when we see a suffering animal. Judaism is very clear about this: while it is permitted to kill and eat some animals for food, we are required to do so with a minimum of pain to the animal. That’s what we are paying for when we pay extra for kosher meat: we are paying for rabbinic supervision certifying that the animal was slaughtered in a kosher fashion. There are a lot of controversies about whether kosher methods are still the kindest available, and a growing number of Jews and others have elected a vegan lifestyle to completely avoid cruelty to animals. However, the principle itself stands: we are not permitted even to witness unnecessary cruelty to animals. It is up to each of us to determine exactly where we will draw the line of necessity.

Nothing about that dog’s situation looked “necessary” to me.

So, if you see an animal suffering in a car in the heat, what can you do?  If it is outside a place of business, notify the business (the dog or ar owner is likely there.) If that doesn’t produce immediate results, call the police with a description of the car, the dog, the license plate, and location. There are laws against animal cruelty in many locales. Keep trying until help arrives.

I would be very reluctant to break a window on the car. Breaking the window gets us into a whole new set of questions. Also, if we’re talking about dogs, unless the dog has collapsed from the heat, there’s always the possibility that the dog will run off and get hurt in traffic or that it will try to protect the car and bite.

May we each have courage and resourcefulness when faced with a situation requiring action!


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