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A world without animals


It's an important day in the life of every veterinarian. Do you remember your day? Put yourself back in time: It's graduation day.

It's an important day in the life of every veterinarian. Do you remember your day? Put yourself back in time: It's graduation day.

The effort and sacrifices on the pathway of knowledge and wisdom are about to be rewarded with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine diploma. You are being honored for your achievement at a special ceremony. Many dignitaries, including those from the university, the college's veterinary alumni association, the state veterinary medical association and faculty, are seated on the stage in front of you. You are dressed in the traditional robe and mortarboard reserved for this splendid occasion. The university chamber orchestra is enthusiastically playing heart-stirring renditions of "Pomp and Circumstance" and other graduation favorites. After introductions of the VIPs on the stage directly in front of you, the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine introduces the keynote speaker: Professor John P. Brantner.

Dr. Brantner was born in Aurora, Ill., in 1921, and earned a BA and PhD in psychology at the University of Minnesota. He is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the university and is a highly sought-after speaker on a variety of topics, including legal and ethical aspects of treatment for the critically and terminally ill patient, caring in a competitive world, chemical dependency, burnout, grief and dealing with change. He has devoted his professional life to helping the poor, terminally ill and elderly. As evidenced by the number of outstanding teaching awards accumulated in his career, it's fair to say he is a very popular professor.

On this day, his message is riveting and captivating. His words carry truth.

I'll let you be the judge. His speech is outlined below:

"What if the animals all went away?"

— presented by Dr. John P. Brantner

Distinguished colleagues, honored graduates and guests: Occasions like this are like mileposts, or 'way-stations' where we might sit together, pausing in a long and difficult journey, to congratulate ourselves that we have safely reached this point, to consult our maps and charts for the road ahead, to refresh ourselves, celebrate and rest a while before resuming our journey.

The journey ahead is a long and difficult one for all of us, as poet Christina Rosetti knew, when she penned, "Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end."

You have just come through a deep and long study of that curious interface between human beings and those other moving and darting life-forms with which we share the world.

This interface is so close that the nearness and similarity of some animals draws our concern and caring, brings out our affection, astonishes the thoughtless observer, troubles our theologians, bemuses the philosopher and puzzles the psychologist. An interface so close and yet a gulf so wide and deep that it leads many of us into arrogance and pride in which we can and do say, 'It is our world, not theirs, and they are all our beasts; and if we choose we may take them, use them or destroy them.'

Let us look together at the complex relationship between human beings and the animals in a single environment:

Let me ask you a very troubling question, and then send you on your way with some advice and best wishes. The question that I want to ask can serve as a title for my brief remarks today: "What if the animals all went away?"

We have always shared the world with animals. Through most of human history, a true ecology has existed in which we adapted together to the environment.

Sometimes, if they were larger, swifter, stronger and hungrier than we, they prevailed.

We were dependent almost completely on them, and our very humanity grew from some of our partnerships with, and surrenders to, various animal species.

Above all, they fed us with their milk, eggs and their very flesh. They protected us, hunted with us and guarded our families and homes. Patiently they transported us, and gave us their strength and power, plowing our fields, drawing our loads and finally helped to make it our world and no longer a shared ecology.

Throughout history, our humanity has been informed, confirmed and enriched by our more or less obligatory relationship with animals.

The animals taught us kindness; organized prevention of cruelty preceded organized concern about cruelty to children. We still learn easiest and most soundly from pets such lessons as tenderness, unconditional love, responsibility for dependents, reverence for life and the meaning of death.

However, we have always had some things they do not have. We have thumbs, which gave us hands with which we could grasp and manipulate. We have articulate tongues, lips and brains to invent complex communication. We have the memory to make history, and to invent ways to write it down, to record it and to keep it. And we have a conscience which, if properly trained, helps us distinguish right from wrong. And we have the capacity for arrogance, pride and selfishness that lets our immediate wants govern our decisions and actions. We can say as no animal can, "It is my ecology and I'll do with it as I wish."

For a moment, think about the rapid changes that have occurred here as in all aspects of our lives. Let us look at a very possible and yet somewhat spooky future:

Our dependence on the world's animals is potentially over; our absolute need for them may be ended. The long partnership may be dissolving. What if they go away? What if....the animals all went away?

In the past seven to eight decades, there have been developments that point to this possibility. The railroad, the automobile and the airplane have ended our long history of dependence on legs to move us from one place to another, our own legs and those of other vertebrates. My grandfather, so short a time ago, drove a stagecoach in northern Minnesota at a time when goods were moved by ox-cart.

How many drays are left in Minnesota? Could we now, even as an experience or an exhibition, remount the English mail coach, running loads of mail and nine people drawn by four horses in two tandem teams over 600 miles at an average speed of 50 minutes for 11 miles? I doubt it?

Power technology has ended our dependence on muscles for power, our own muscles as well as other vertebrates. Agricultural technology has transformed itself and greatly reduced our contacts with animals. We are no longer an agrarian society. We have redistributed ourselves: One hundred years ago there were approximately seven people on the farm for every five in the city; now the ratio is one on the farm to about every 25 in the city. Work animals have all but disappeared.

The development of synthetics has reduced our need for animal products. We have no genuine need for ivory, bone, shells, gut, sinews, bristles or hair. We are not really dependent on hides, fleeces or furs. Leather and woolen garments have become expensive luxuries.

What if we no longer really need animal products? In fact, our development of destructive power has led us to the point where no vertebrate species threatens us, and indeed now we have threatened them with extinction.

Pesticides have reduced even the bird population of our cities. What if animals no longer threaten us in any way? We have the means to endanger any species that gets in our way. We have done so to many.

In the urban environment we live more or less comfortably with the rat, the squirrel and the English sparrow. We seem to have established a kind of rule of size. If you are no bigger than my foot, or no stronger than my hand, you may stay: otherwise you face complete control or extinction. I cannot imagine that we would long tolerate English sparrows if they were the size of chickens.

Our only obligate relationship, animal proteins for our growth and nutrition, is weakening. The synthetic and vegetable proteins are increasing and, in any event, it is mostly distant others that do the raising, slaughtering and butchering.

Most of us make no psychological connection between the meat we eat and those herds and living creatures from which it came. Could it be that herds and flocks will become outmoded ideas? It is now possible in urban United States to live an entire life without any real contact with other vertebrates and with only minimal awareness that we share the world with other creatures like ourselves.

What if we no longer really need food from them? You know better than I the recent controversies here. You know the technological changes in what used to be called animal husbandry, and in the rearing of food and fiber creatures.

You know what the synthetic laboratories are doing. I am sure that the soybean will continue to astonish us.

Laboratory animals on which we still depend are as removed from us as are our food animals. Watchdogs and guard dogs are outdated anachronisms. Horses have become an expensive hobby. We still keep pets, but have you noticed how many hospitals, apartments, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities forbid them? Does the problem of unwanted pets in humane shelters say nothing to us? Is the sale of pet rocks really a joke?

Just thinking this way makes me very uncomfortable. Could our thoughtlessness, our ingenious technological skill and our selfishness produce such a nightmare – a world without animals? It is already possible in the city to live your entire life without seeing anything except the English sparrow and the squirrel, and without sensing the near invisible companionship of the rats and mice.

For the most part, zoos and preserves are no real help and no real antidote. We may be moving toward a world with fewer and fewer species of life; a world in which all claims fall before the claims of human beings, whose tendency toward arrogance and selfishness will then be unchecked. A world in which we become less humane and perhaps even less human because we have left behind or alienated ourselves from our civilizing companions.

Perhaps you doctors of veterinary medicine, who stand at the interface of animals and humans, cannot stop this trend. I charge you to be very cautious in your careers lest you foster it. Do all in your power to bring us closer to an appreciation of what naturalist and educator Joseph Wood Krutch called "The great chain of life." Remind us, not of our mastery, but of our interdependence. Ask us, once in a while, to consider the possibility that maybe there is no life on other planets around other suns, and that maybe life on the planet Earth is all the life there is in the entire universe.

In any event, help us to learn that we are stewards and not greedy inheritors. Show us how to become caretakers like you, rather than careless destroyers.

Take your pledge to first do no harm as a sacred promise. To the best of your ability, strive to treat your patients as you would want to be treated. Generally, strive to be positive and of good cheer. But, when you find yourself unable to take away the sorrow and heartbreak of others, always remember that you can help them endure it. Also, remember that the best defense against misrepresentation is fine conduct. Seek and cherish those precious triumphs of saving a life that make a life of demanding and sometimes difficult service all worthwhile.

Above all, value all life as precious, you who know life more broadly than any other profession. Never lend your talents to the service of death. By your actions, profess your calling boldly. As of today, we look to you for knowledge, wisdom, understanding and guidance. And where we may move to our own potential great harm, we depend on you to help us.

Congratulations on your splendid achievement. I salute you, your families and your friends, including your animal friends. For our sake, stand boldly for all of life!"

— On June 5, 1976, Dr. Brantner delivered this address to the graduating class of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.

Carl A. Osborne DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM

Author's note: The original manuscript of this address was given to Dr. Osborne by Dr. Brantner to share with others. Dr. Brantner died in February 1987. Dr. Osborne modified and edited portions of the address, but used discretion not to change the theme.

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