When I was a boy, a movie came out about a ranch family, on its own while the father was away on a long cattle drive, and a stray dog that arrived and laid claim, giving entertainment, loyalty, and protection. Old Yeller was one of my favorite movies of the time, but I watched it only once. If you’ve seen the film, you understand. In the story, a teenage boy is forced by circumstance to destroy their heroic dog, which had defended them against a rabid animal, then contracted the disease himself. The moment of truth imposed, upon a heartbroken kid, the reality of his duty as a man to protect his family and relieve the suffering of his beloved companion.
The Bible tells us we, as humans, are given dominion over all the animals—“… over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the beasts, and over everything that creeps upon the earth.” Many simply take it for granted; after all, we are humans and they are animals, and we are superior to all other living things. In the case of domesticated creatures, are they not therefore ours to own, enjoy, and exploit? The answer to the question might be yes, but the dimensions of that license are not so simplistic. For any thinking human, believer or not, dominion is an inescapable fact that demands the charge be taken seriously.
Domestic animals, whether for food and fiber, or for work and sport, have been bred and managed for thousands of years, their well-being dependent upon man’s choices and prerogatives, upon his care or lack thereof. The livestock business is a way of life and culture that forces recognition of this moral and economic imperative in the daily life of an animal. We have “dominion” over whether it’s a good or bad life, and also if there is a good or bad last day of that life, planned or unplanned.
The meaning of dominion can be recognized by observing the relationship between the cowboy and his equine work-mate and companion; the care given, the sensory awareness of whether everything feels right under the saddle; the unspoken pact governing who eats first, drinks first, is cared for first, at the end of the day. It isn’t obedience to a rule, but rather adherence to a code, that ties us to the creation we are given to care for. It is a covenant that will also require us, when the time comes, to assure a good end.
In today’s interconnected world, emotional audiences jumping to wrong conclusions and demanding wrong solutions can scrutinize our relationship with animals in almost real time. Nevertheless, every domestic animal relies on us in the business to do it right, regardless of uninformed societal pressure. Like the boy did in Old Yeller, right decisions at the right times must be made for every animal in our care. That is a requisite of dominion in which genuine trust between man and animal truly resides.