Who's the donkey now?

August 31, 2020

Who's the donkey now?

Matthew Frazer

Would you eat meat if your steak could talk to you?

In Douglas Adams’ novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the second of six in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy), the main characters visit the titular establishment and ‘meet the meat’. An Ameglian Major Cow walks to their table, a bovine-type being genetically engineered to be sentient, communicative, extremely tasty, and possessing the unusual attribute of wanting to be eaten. The cow describes the various cuts of its own body as a waiter would describe the daily specials, before taking itself off to the kitchen to be slaughtered and prepared. While the worldly (other-worldly?) alien Zaphod Beeblebrox eagerly awaits the return of a tasty rare steak, the two naïve human characters are shocked at the prospect of consuming something they were recently conversing with.

Far-fetched though this scenario may be, it does raise some potentially uncomfortable questions about what exactly those ‘mooing’ sounds from real cows might connote. And why it is that suffering is far easier to put out of mind when it is not, or cannot be, described in our own language?

If you consider all the otherisms (sexism, racism, etc.) and how they have been enacted through history, one recurring theme is that prejudice thrives in situations where communication is impossible, difficult or repressed. When one group has clear and open communication with the ‘other’, it makes it much harder to maintain the fiction that ‘they’ are different to ‘us’, or that their suffering is unimportant.

Balaam had an eye- and ear-opening moment in Numbers 22, when God suddenly gave his donkey the ability to speak, right after Balaam had been abusing the poor creature for making him appear foolish by refusing to go down the path. In a wonderfully ironic turnabout, Balaam’s further threats of violence by the sword against the donkey for not obeying his will must have hung heavily in the air when the Angel of the Lord suddenly appeared before Balaam, with drawn sword in hand, angry at the purpose of Balaam’s journey. The donkey, having seen the angel all along, was able to express the injustice of his situation, suddenly making it impossible for Balaam to ignore.

God made homo sapiens, male and female, to rule over his creation from the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27). This may have seemed like a sweet deal, but Adam and Eve quickly found it harder than they perhaps expected. It was a serpent creature that inverted the created order and led to the Fall. So what place has speciesism—the imputation of greater moral status to humans than animals?

Humanity’s rule over this world is simultaneously unassailable, fragile, and completely broken. No other species has the power to completely alter landscapes and ecosystems, or create multiple existential threats to the entire biosphere. But we frequently lose control or face major catastrophes of unintended consequences. Sometimes these catastrophes are beyond our power to repair.

Humans—and Christians especially with their understanding of their God-given role—should treat their elevated status over the rest of God’s living creatures with great circumspection. While we can’t talk to cows or donkeys to hear their protests in our own language, our responsibility to care for them remains, part of the original mandate for mankind to exercise God’s rule over creation. And in this age, scientific data can speak much louder than words when it comes to grading our performance.

When we inflict cruelty on the small scale, or destroy ecosystems on the large scale, we are not fulfilling God’s plan for his creation. And while we stand cursing our donkey for its behaviour, we may turn around to face the Angel of the Lord, sword in hand, calling us to account for our own.


Matthew Frazer graduated from UNSW in Engineering and Science. After a time programming machines, he switched to the more challenging task of programming teenagers, and now teaches high school mathematics and computing in Tamworth.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.