In the voluble world of social media, one of the trending topics in the last week or so has been “Mercy for Animals.” That's because the animal rights activist group Mercy For Animals has released an undercover video exposing abuse of chickens at a farm in Washington state.

And the video makes a strong case: Egg-laying hens at Briarwood Farms are crammed for nearly their entire lives in cages so small the birds are unable to walk without stepping on other birds. Dead birds rot in cages with hens still laying eggs destined for the country's breakfast plates. Especially difficult to watch: Callous workers violently rip birds out of cages and throw them into trash cans to be gassed to death.

The undercover investigator who last week released the incendiary video of animal cruelty had worked at nine different Briarwood Farms production facilities, each of which held tens of thousands of chickens. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Briarwood Farms is only one of more than 230,000 poultry farms across America, providing only 1% of the eggs sold by Eggland's Best, the nation's largest egg distributor. Not content just to force change at Briarwood Farms, Mercy For Animals activists have launched a communications campaign and petition drive to force Eggland's Best to lead the way in improving the lives of hens and chicks, by accepting only eggs from hens raised in cage-free facilities.

According to Fortune magazine:

Conditions were so bad that MFA filed a criminal complaint against Briarwood with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office in Washington, where the facility is based. The complaint, obtained by Fortune, accuses workers at Briarwood Farms of first degree and second degree animal cruelty. It cites numerous instances in which chickens were forcefully hit over the head with various objects, including a metal scraper tool and a broomstick, and details how they mishandled the hens by “roughly grabbing them by a single wing and violently shoving them into garbage cans.”

The case will play out in the media and in the courts. Already, a spokesperson for Eggland's Best has expressed concern about possible abuse at one of their facilities, confirming that an independent investigation of their suppliers is underway.

All of which leads me to ask: Do animals have “rights” just as people do? Or is blatant chicken abuse wrong for some other reason?

Watching the video, one can't help but recognize the injustice of the harsh treatment. But why do we cringe at evidence of animal abuse? Why shouldn't we grab chickens by the wing, or whip horses, or drown newborn puppies?

Do Animals Have Rights?

Well, no. Only persons have rights; and despite the hype from animal rights activists, animals are not “persons.” Some people including Australian philosopher Peter Singer claim that animals are, indeed, persons—that whales and dogs and pigs have the same intrinsic value as a human and may, in fact, have rights that supersede the rights of a newborn human, since babies may haves great potential but in the early stages they have limited cognition. The Catholic Church answers a firm “No” to that proposal. Human persons—rich or poor, highly intelligent or lacking intellectual prowess, healthy or handicapped—have immutable value as the highest of God's creation. American Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith explains:

What is crucial morally is the being of a person, not his or her functioning. A human person does not come into existence when human function arises, but rather, a human person is an entity who has the natural inherent capacity to give rise to human functions, whether or not those functions are ever attained. …A human person who lacks the ability to think rationally (either because she is too young or she suffers from a disability) is still a human person because of her nature. Consequently, it makes sense to speak of a human being’s lack if and only if she is an actual person.

In Genesis 1:28, we read that God entrusted the care and use of all creation (including the animals} to mankind. “Be fertile and multiply,” God said,

“...fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”

God gave Adam—and by extension, all of mankind—the animals for his use. That would include using animals' flesh for our physical sustenance, their fur to keep us warm, and sometimes their brute strength to pull our oxcarts or to transport humans from one place to another.

We have the right to use animals for food, for clothing, and for our daily work.

My husband and I agree that there's an inconsistency in feeding birds outside our kitchen window while at the same time eating the eggs of tortured poultry. That means that whenever possible, we have committed to spending the extra money to purchase “cage-free” eggs. But having just finished enjoying two eggs, over-medium, I'd be hard pressed to say that those mama chickens had “rights” which superseded my right to a delicious home-cooked breakfast.

And yet, we instinctively know that.

Then Do Animals Deserve Mercy?

Well, the dictionary defines “mercy” as “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.” But what is there to forgive? They're animals! When rabbits nibble your fresh garden lettuce, when a hawk steals a nestling robin from its nest near your porch, when a mosquito bites your neck, when a steer lifts a hapless runner on its horns in Pamplona, they have not sinned—they're simply doing what is in their nature. And without sin, there is no need for mercy.

Our Responsibility to Be Good Stewards

But here's the thing: An animal may have no “rights” upon which we might infringe; the creature may not deserve “mercy” since he hasn't sinned. But mankind, to whom the animals and all living things have been given by our loving God, has a responsibility to exercise wise stewardship of God's creation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this—how animals deserve care, not because they are the same as we are, but because all of Creation has been entrusted to us. From the Catechism, paragraphs 2415-2418:

The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.

God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.

It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.