Decades ago, famed humanitarian, physician, and philosopher Dr. Albert Schweitzer was interviewed in a television documentary while in Africa. He explained that all life was sacred. Then he said he had to go to his clinic to treat a native for an eye infection. The interviewer went with him, and as they crossed the porch, he grabbed her and said, "Be careful. Do not step on the ants. They too have a right to life." Then, in the clinic, the interviewer asked what could be done for the native with the eye infection. He answered, "We will use antibiotics to kill the bacteria."
In my lifetime, I have several times changed my mind as to what is the most important human quality. In my 20th year of practice, at 50 years of age, I decided that the most important quality was whether a person was considerate or inconsiderate. That epiphany occurred after a particularly harassing day.
Now, more than three decades later, I have different view. I believe kindness is the most important human virtue. Kind people are considerate. They are also honest, if they are truly kind, because dishonesty hurts others. Completely kind people are the best that can be. Happily, it is kindness that attracts most young people to our profession.
But does being kind mean that we must never kill? Even Dr. Schweitzer killed bacteria. As doctors of veterinary medicine, we all have to kill. We call it euthanasia.
And nearly all of us try to kill "pests." We use "pesticides." We want to kill ticks, fleas, ants, cockroaches, and moths. We kill mosquitoes that carry diseases that kill mammals. If rodenticides had been available during the Middle Ages, bubonic plague would not have killed millions of people. We proudly use vermifuges.
In our democratic society, passionate political activists effectively campaigned to stop horse slaughter, which has ended up causing more suffering to neglected and abandoned horses than the slaughter did.
They campaign to stop the killing of surplus mustangs, wolves, mountain lions, and bison. Nobody wants to see these species extinct, but surplus numbers cause all sorts of problems. Look at human overpopulation!
All life is temporary. Everything that lives must die—sooner or later. What is important is the contribution that life makes during its brief tenure.
Redwood trees, squirrels, Amazonian indigenous tribesmen, doves, trout, tortoises, saguaro cacti, and anacondas are all part of the complexity of LIFE that distinguishes our planet. All serve a function, at least until extinction occurs, which seems inevitable given enough time. Far more species have suffered extinction in the past than now exist.
So what brought on these observations? My wife, a very kind person, doesn't allow me to kill crickets. If one is in the house, she has me catch it and put it outside.
But this week, she asked me to kill ants in the house, and she herself put tick collars on the dogs.
"We need to kill the ticks!"
Now, is this hypocrisy, or is it common sense?
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his website at robertmmiller.com.