‘Were the cows alright?’

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Rob takes a rather different view from Martyn about the importance of keeping his employees happy. He has taken care over the quality of their accommodation and is busy trying to make their lives easier by arranging with the village shop for them to have a convenient and reliable supply of groceries. He is gearing up for the time when he and his staff will be working hard in producing milk.

Milk production, of course, needs cows and for some reason not fully explained, the cows have been sourced from Eastern Europe. One disadvantage of this transaction came to light when one of the trucks conveying the animals broke down in Germany. A place was found where the cows could rest and they arrived in Ambridge 24 hours later than planned. Not the start that Brian had hoped for, especially as Martyn Gibson was there to ask how much money this hiccough had cost BL.

The delay did give Rob and opportunity for a clandestine meeting with Helen. Her question was not about the dent in the profit margin but the welfare of the animals. Rob assured her that they were fine. He and Brian appear to have adhered to all the relevant regulations; the animals had lost condition when they finally arrived, but, as Rob predicted, they soon looked better. But what, we might as, would have been the concern if they had not been? That the animals had suffered in some way? Or that their efficiency as milk-making machines was damaged?

It is a question that points to the heart of the debate about the mega-dairy. Do human beings have the ‘right’ to use animals as we please in order to produce what we need (or desire)? Or do animals have ‘rights’? And if so, what are those ‘rights’?

These questions have been extensively discussed by the theologian Andrew Linzey. Linzey argues persuasively that Christian theology needs to take seriously the idea that animals have ‘rights’. He locates this understanding in an overriding concept of the generosity of God. Creation is a gift of God the ultimate purpose of which is to delight the giver. In order that God’s creation might continue to delight God, God invests Godself in creation, imbuing it with purpose, and ultimately becoming incarnate in order to draw creation back to Godself: ‘For God so loved the world…..’ Unlike some theologians, Linzey rejects an anthropocentric interpretation of the gospel; humankind has a special place within God’s purposes, but it is not a place from which the rest of creation can be treated as unimportant or simply existing for the benefit of humankind. For human beings to inflict suffering on the beasts with whom we share the planet is to abuse the generosity of God which brought the world to be in order to give God glory.

Linzey’s arguments are complex, detailed, and developed over many publications (and are poorly represented here). The language of ‘rights’ is not one that all Christians accept, but the central point has to be one that no Christian (nor any theist) can ignore: wilfully to abuse the created order is to deny the goodness of God. Not to keep dairy cattle in conditions that ensure their well-being is a form of atheism.

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