Vince Illuzzi: Our relationship with animals is about ethics, not traditions

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This commentary is from Vincent Illuzzi, who served in the Vermont Senate for 32 years, from 1981 to 2013. He has served as the Essex County State Attorney since 1999.

In recent years, our country has gone through a painful but important period of introspection. The Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement have both shed light on some of the dark places in race and gender relations in America that, for too long, have gone unseen and ignored.

Climate change, the digital revolution and perhaps even Covid have together sparked a quieter reexamination of another relationship: the relationship between humans and animals.

In January, a law came into force in California that banned the sale of pork from sows who were pregnant confined in tiny crates. Other states, like Massachusetts, and powerful companies like McDonald’s and Walmart have all agreed that the status quo towards animals is no longer acceptable.

Illinois and New York have now banned the use of elephants in entertainment. Seaworld has ended killer whale breeding, the National Institutes of Health ended their support for chimpanzee research, and Vermont Law School now offers a course in animal welfare law.

Civilization is a work in progress. At one time in the United States, men legally beat their wives and parents legally beat their children. In Vermont, blasphemy was once punishable by death. In fact, in Vermont we once flogged people in the town square. The people of Vermont once had to swear they were Protestants before they could sit in the General Assembly.

We are evolving. And while we do not always move wisely, in the words of Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe bends toward righteousness.” It looks that way for black and white, male and female, and for all creatures large and small.

No matter how strong the resistance, there is a doom to that arc King spoke of and to the human urge to seek a better world. As we change, the moral principles that govern our behavior and guide our legal system must also change.

Today we hunt bears, right after the cubs are born, with packs of dogs fitted with radio collars, while the owners of the dogs sit in vans fitted with GPS systems. We locate prey with live tracking cameras. While jaw traps were once about survival, today they are little more than a form of recreational torture.

Those who fear and resist change always use the same old arguments. “It’s our way of life! If our traditions come to an end, so will our way of life!

To use the exact words of one of those people in VTDigger on August 16, there will be “a complete, utter and immediate cessation of Vermont outdoor traditions and heritage.”

What those who fear change will not do is engage in a discussion about the ethics of our behavior. They won’t explain what in today’s world justifies leaving a vixen with cubs stuck and suffering in a jaw trap, helpless against predators, without food or water, for hours and sometimes even days. They won’t explain what justifies using all the electronics of the digital age in a new high-tech assault on wildlife.

The debate over a new relationship with animals is not about hunting or fishing, or even old traditions. Hunting and fishing are enshrined and protected in the Vermont Constitution.

The debate is and should be about the recognition that Vermont from the 21st century is not Vermont of the 17th or 18the century and as time goes on we can do better. We can do better in black and white relations. We can do better in relationships between men and women. And we can do better in our dealings with humans and wildlife.


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