Food Ethics

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 273–282 | Cite as

Reengaging Voices of Animal Suffering

Research Article


The paper discusses the potential for recognizing animals as autonomous individuals through a critique of the handling of suffering of terminally ill companion animals. To this end, it offers three distinct reflections on animal suffering through immanent readings of the painting The Death of the Stag (1786) by Benjamin West (1738–1820), a personal experience with caring for a dog dying from cancer, and a thought from Theodor W. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966). Neither developing a coherent theory of animal suffering nor ethical or medical recommendations for the handling of terminally ill companion animals, an open dialectics between individualizing and reifying tendencies in suffering is drawn out by way of these reflections. As a consequence, the paper argues that the euthanizing of terminally ill companion animals as preemptive measure to avoid suffering undermines the individuality of animals and deprives humans of an experience of the animal as an autonomous other. By confronting these three instances with each other, the paper concludes that enabling animals to face up to a terminal illness, at least up to a certain point, rather than to prevent such struggle, recognizes them as autonomous individuals in their own rights. Thereby, finally, also a window opens up to realize our own semblance to animals.


Animal suffering Euthanasia Companion animals Painting Animal care Adorno 

Human relationships to animal suffering prove ambivalent (Palmer 2006; Aaltola 2012). Companion animals are highly individualized and uniquely valued by their human caretakers. Yet ultimately, they remain within the status of properties, tied to their owners’ moods, not autonomous selves with independent rights to their lives and well-being, and as long as no gross negligence occurs, they can be killed on a whim without further consequences. (Morris 2012; Luy 2008, 123 f.) The following reflections on the suffering of animals approach their subject by way of immanent readings that compare three different instances of suffering: one artistic, one personal, one philosophical. Proceeding in a backwards movement, the first section turns to the representation of a legendary human encounter with a dying animal; the second wrestles with irreconcilable positions in caring for a dog suffering from cancer; while the third attempts to develop a concept of suffering as an objectively mediated experience and expression of uniqueness. A fourth part finally reassesses the meaning of animal suffering from the perspective of veterinary practice. The focus of these thoughts remains narrow, namely, the handling of companion animals that suffer from life-threatening conditions. Delimiting their substance of concern meticulously proves important though to not trivialize its very subject matter, the suffering of animals. Not concerned with what lies to any side of this situation – illnesses with a reasonable chance of healing, certain painful death, or suffering inflicted structurally or individually by humans – it is exactly and particularly the very specific case of how to deal with uncertain suffering in the face of a most likely failure of treating fatally ill companion animal patients. (Rollin 2005) The text claims neither to provide a coherent theory of animal suffering, nor to formulate practical recommendations for veterinarians in handling animal suffering; as a non-veterinarian I am far from qualified to do so. I am not arguing for these ideas to have immediate resonance in practice. Instead, through interrelating the three episodes, the text draws out a dialectic of individualizing and reifying tendencies in animal suffering and how we are yet fully to acknowledge the animal as self-experiencing other. It thereby attempts to resound an expressive meaning in animal suffering, wherein the suffering of animals becomes articulate in a way that it may open up a window for accepting our own likeness to animals.


In Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Scotland hangs an impressive painting (Fig. 1). Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of a Stag by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald (The Death of the Stag, 1786) stages the legend of the saving of Scottish King Alexander III (1241–1286) from a panicking stag by his huntsman Colin Fitzgerald. The story serves as a founding myth for the Mackenzies, and Fitzgerald’s late heir Francis Humberston Mackenzie (1754–1815) commissioned Benjamin West (1738–1820) with the painting, as a commemoration of his ancestor and, presumably, authentication of the family’s eminent status. Fitzgerald is said to have received land from Alexander for saving the latter’s life, which made him the clan’s first chief. (Clifford et al. 2009; von Erffa and Staley 1986, 190) Drenched in light, the hero, fearlessly and decisively yet unfazed in his facial features, is depicted overpowering the pitiful stag and ready to strike the final blow. The orderliness of the composition, the lighting of the scene and the positioning and depiction of the figures on the painting’s left side all feed into the expression of Fitzgerald’s grand heroism and superiority. Emerging from the shadow, the rider in the center-back heralds with his hand the coming of the rescuer. Fitzgerald himself stands tall and proud, brightly illuminated, lifting the spear high above his head, in full command of himself and the situation. The white horse and rider rising behind him aggrandize his posture further, while at the same time the horse’s rearing charges the spear with the power that is about to be unleashed by Fitzgerald and will drive the spear into the stag’s skull. Even the pack of hounds, charging into the picture at the left edge, directs all the tension and power towards Fitzgerald, his shoulder and arm directing the deadly weapon that will redeem Alexander from the threat. The orderliness and individuals’ composure in the image’s left half is contrasted by the darkness and turmoil of the painting’s right half. Cast in dark shadows, a group of men and horses panicking in chaos creates an impression of the danger and terror caused by the raging stag at whose mercy Alexander finds himself. In the lower right section of the painting, a man, fearful and in terror, pulls Alexander away from the stag. The guarding of the rescuer through the horse’s massive body further emphasizes the danger of the situation.
Fig. 1

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Death of the Stag, 1786, oil on canvas, The National Galleries of Scotland (accession no. NG 2448)

West’s representation of the narrative’s drama proves masterful in its expression. The two halves of the picture impressively embody the two elements that provide the legend’s substance, danger and salvation. The image’s transition from dark chaos to ordered light creates a vortex that pulls all the attention and energy from its single parts into Fitzgerald’s hand and shoulder that eventually deliver Alexander from his deathbed through the death of the stag. Thus, also the shadow and turmoil in the right half ultimately further emphasize the superiority and bravery of the huntsman. All the individual parts of the scene intricately converge to evince Fitzgerald’s heroism. Yet somehow, the image defies the simplicity of this narrative. Measuring 366 by 521 cm and taking up a whole wall in the gallery, standing in front of the painting the attention is directed towards the stag with the dog at its throat. From there, the dark area and the arm reaching across it, touching the stag’s neck, lead the view to Alexander. Only then one takes in this group’s surroundings. Perceived from the perspective of Alexander, however, it becomes uncertain if the man to his right comes to his rescue, or indeed pulls him away from the animal against his will. Alexander’s features and gestures do not exhibit fear for his life. Instead, there lies pity in his eyes, sorrow and sadness in his expression. Rather than fending off a beast, his hand seems to cling to the stag’s neck and to reach out to the dying creature in despair and reconciliation, the ends of his mouth falling downwards, at the brink of breaking into tears. His whole composition reflects an empathy with the dying individual that pulls him towards the beast and sharing in its terror, connecting with its pain and mourning the imminent death of this individual. The stag’s face and eye complement such impressions of pity and sadness, with the tongue falling from his mouth, the dog tearing at his throat and a tear running down the side of his head. There is little fury in the defeated creature that would complement and raise the courage of its conqueror. Rather, it reflects resignation. The stag appears tired, beaten and as if he has long surrendered to the inevitable. Thus, for a moment, the scene reminisces the mourning of the death of a stag. Such an impression, however, remains at odds with the rest of the image, and bathes the alleged hero in a dubious light that turns his heroism into self-aggrandizing vanity. Dog, stag and Alexander provide a rupture within the legend’s narrative. They subvert its account of heroism to be told. The dark space separating stag and Alexander directs all attention towards the latter’s reconciliatory gesture. Standing in front of the painting, the section with the stag and dog (on the left) and Alexander (on the right), and the latter’s hand reaching across the abyss between human and beast, seems suspended within the image. The struggle of danger and salvation retreats into the background, reduced to a faint echo, and the group provides a, if devastating, moment of respite and calm within the turmoil of the surrounding scene. Rather than triumph and celebratory exaltation on the occasion of the death of a menace, it spreads despair. What remains is empathic sadness and grief at the sight of an other animal dying.

Speculations about hidden intentions by the painter seem arguably futile. West’s masterful command over the language of forms, colors and light exhibited in constructing the image’s expression suggests, however, that the staging of the interaction between stag and Alexander was executed just as carefully. The painting’s enormous size seals the huntsman’s grandeur even in the canvas’ format. Yet at the same time, precisely its size allows for an intense experience of the figures of the stag and Alexander, subverting the painting’s ostensible meaning. An alternative reading opens up, and the image’s expression remains ambiguous, not decisive, although this could just be owed to West’s immersion with staging Fitzgerald’s glory (Myrone 2005, 346 f.). Regardless of the question of intention, however, what proves striking is the contradiction between the narrative the painting is supposed to represent and the impression it creates. Images, of course, never are mere illustrations of events or objects, nor do they present essential truths. They are constructions shaped by their material as well as the intentions, believes and perspectives of their producers, times and clients. Accordingly, rather than determining the (historical) truthfulness of West’s depiction, the specific way in which he mediated this narrative and emotional material takes center stage here.1 At the fracture of purported narrative and effectual expression, an emotional tension traverses the painting itself, turning the image’s meaning upside down, as it were. Thereby, the image reveals its own (and cultural) truth beyond its declared content. (Cf. Adorno 1997, 1999, 5–9) The work’s short title – Death of the Stag – emphasizes this independent truth within the image further: the dying of the stag, not Alexander’s rescue, proves the image’s actual content. Against or following the will of its creator, the image reveals a truth different from its narrative of reference, and with this also different from the reifying trope of the wild and unpredictable beast that would require domination. In the moment of the stag’s impending and certain end, Alexander, released from the imminent fear for his life, recognizes the stag instead as vulnerable, suffering, autonomous other in his own right, with his own desires, his own urge for life and resistance to death. Within this very moment, the animal is recovered from being some thing that is to be hunted and un-empathically killed. At a time of utmost suffering, a window forces open, which negates the animal’s reification. It becomes an other, whose agony one empathizes with. The Death of the Stag, whether willfully or accidentally, exposes an emotional, cognitive connection with the animal that at the very moment of the destruction of an animal life inescapably reveals to us this entity’s individuality. As its painterly expression manifests against the narrative content, disavowing the autonomous selves of animals proves difficult especially in the face of their suffering.


A few years ago, Skylla, the dog of a good friend of mine, contracted a highly aggressive bone cancer that promised little to no chances of curing. The treating veterinarian suggested not to wait too long with euthanizing Skylla, as every additional day would only cause her unnecessary suffering. Whereas euthanasia is regulated by law in Germany, both a legal perspective as well as the perspective of veterinarian good practice allowed and urged to end and prevent further suffering for Skylla, the inevitability of which became disturbingly apparent. The veterinarian pointed out amputation as an option, but advised against it because of the low prospects of success. Ending Skylla’s life actively was considered self-evidently within the patient’s interest. (Cf. discussions by Luy 2008; van Herten 2016) Before it came to this though, my friend came across another dog that had received a bone replacement in an attempt to rid her of a similar type of cancer. Her immune system rejected the replacement, but following amputation she was at least cancer free, and she did not seem to take much issue with her missing limb. The option seemed reasonable and a chance for saving Skylla’s life. As a consequence, my friend decided to follow this same route, in spite of being aware of the challenges she and Skylla might face: enduring the uncertainty and Skylla’s struggle and suffering, finding people to help her with caring for Skylla, traveling to appointments with the surgeon and raising money for the transplant. Yet considering Skylla an individual and friend, it proved inconceivable to me that we would not try every reasonable thing to try and save her life. Others saw this differently, however, and no few proved hostile to the attempt of saving Skylla’s life, even people within the animal welfare communities. Thus people were attacking us for spending so much money on one individual, if so many more could be helped with the money instead, aside from the usual suggestions that this would be too much energy and financial means spend on just an animal.

People go through great lengths, sometimes unjustifiably and bordering on cruelty, to save companion animals. Not always are these decisions merely motivated by selfless consideration of the wishes of an animal, but rather the difficulty of accepting the loss of a companion.2 Nonetheless, within the reactions to Skylla’s treatment surfaces a rupture that reveals our approach to and evaluation of suffering for nonhuman animals qualitatively different from the way we deal with the suffering of human animal patients. To go through a period of arduous suffering with unknown outcome is considered a terrible yet inescapable part of human existence. We are reluctant to accept a person’s wish to die, and even if chances for curing her or him are slim we expect a patient to endure a great deal of suffering rather than to surrender to or choose death.3 For companion animals the experience of suffering within a context of medical treatment with uncertain success in regards to their survival seems to be considered much more superfluous. Animal individuals seem to be surrendered to a death perceived as inevitable much quicker than human patients, and the prevention of suffering, more than saving an individual’s life, appears to be the threshold for recognizing and honoring an animal patient’s individuality. And sure enough, the story’s ending seems to prove the veterinarian recommending that we put an end to Skylla’s life rather sooner than later right after all, alongside all the other critics. In the end, neither the replacement of her shoulder bone, nor the amputation helped to rid her of the cancer. She was euthanized before her suffering became unbearable, for both her and my friend. Hence, the exercise Skylla was put through, the pain and suffering and trauma that comes with such an arduous therapy, appeared utterly misguided. Yet, the experience of accompanying her through the treatment made it lose its obvious categorization as nothing more than unnecessary suffering, and became a much more ambivalent experience that oscillated between times of despair and utter devastation, and moments of hope in which a spirit of recovery and will to live manifested in Skylla. Without doubt, her journey proved grueling. Yet if anything, it seemed that she was happier to see me than before the sickness, and at no point were I under the impression that she had given up and lost all enjoyment in life. There were better and worse days and moments during therapy, where Skylla would spend hours lying listless and exhausted in her den under my friend’s bed. But especially during the three or more times a day when people came and helped carry her down the stairs to take her to a close-by park, she seemed reinvigorated with life and excitement about the visitors as well as spending time in the park. Within this reading lies a serious danger, of course, to anthropomorphize, ideologize and spiritually essentialize Skylla’s experience of the whole ordeal, as well as ones own sensitivities towards the situation and emotional incapacity to accept that an individual one holds dear is dying. Everyone involved in the process was anxious and worried we were subjecting Skylla to unnecessary and pointless suffering. Yet my friend cast the decision to treat the cancer not regardless of the suffering the ordeal would put Skylla through but in spite of it. And I considered the decision for counting on the slim chance of saving her life, even if this meant a significant deal of suffering for her, an endorsement of her individuality, as it proved to me as irreplaceable as that of any other human or nonhuman.


In the introduction to Negative Dialectics, Theodor W. Adorno writes that

the thought is beyond that, to which resistingly it binds itself, by way of its freedom. Such freedom follows the expressive urge of the subject. The desire to let suffering become articulate is condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity, which weighs upon the subject; what it [the subject, AK] experiences as its most subjective, its expression, is objectively mediated. (Adorno 2001, section pp. 27-29, my adjustments)

Especially the second half of this reflection has been quoted ad nauseam, yet often deforming its rather specific meaning. Readily lending themselves to such contortion, the sentences’ ambiguities are not a mere result of transferring Adorno’s idiosyncratic idiom in another language, but are present in the German original as well. As often as this characteristic of equivocacy in Adorno’s writing is criticized, and as much as Adorno may be resented for his ambiguities, they are no negligence on part of the author. He explains instead: “Because for me language as constitutive of thought is just as important as it was, in the German tradition, for Wilhelm von Humboldt, I insist in my language and also in my own thinking on a discipline which hackneyed discourse only too eagerly avoids.” (Adorno 1985, 130) It is the specific form a thought takes, in the shape of a sentence or suchlike, which determines the content of the thought. Vice versa, a specific thought requires a certain form for its truthful utterance. (Adorno 1997, 111) Moreover, according to Adorno, “historically, in a process which has yet to be seriously analyzed, the German language has acquired the capacity to express something about phenomena which does not exhaust itself in their mere this-ness, their positivity and given-ness.” (Adorno 1985, 129) Hence, both form in general and German as a language in particular provide a specific framework for what Adorno has to say. The subtlety of the interpretation about to follow, which takes the phrasing seriously and attempts to draw out the meaning from its nuances, makes the quoting of the German original mandatory:

Worin der Gedanke hinaus ist über das, woran er widerstehend sich bindet, ist seine Freiheit. Sie folgt dem Ausdrucksdrang des Subjekts. Das Bedürfnis, Leiden beredt werden zu lassen, ist Bedingung aller Wahrheit. Denn Leiden ist Objektivität, die auf dem Subjekt lastet; was es als sein Subjektivstes erfährt, sein Ausdruck, ist objektiv vermittelt. (Adorno 1990, 29)

Often, this section is taken as a statement of the interrelatedness of suffering and cognition, and raised as a demand for voicing suffering, emphasizing an importance of giving voice to suffering for truth, that is, the recognition and revealing of suffering rather than its disguising, or, in other words, the voicing of suffering and its recovery from its invisibility as revealing the world’s true face. But the drawn relation, while not completely misguided, too immediately connects suffering with truth, emphasizing the talking about suffering at the expense of the properties and meaning of suffering that Adorno reveals.4 Indeed, it is not giving voice to suffering itself, which equals truth here. Instead, the desire to let suffering become articulate provides condition of all truth. Adorno considers here an epistemological context of cognition and the interrelation between subject and object, subjectivity and objectivity as bases for cognition and the conditions for a cognitive access of the subject to the objective. Whereas epistemology has relied on the power of the subject in knowing the object, particularly since Kant, Adorno turns this relation around and emphasizes the givenness of the object and objectivity. Thus, objectivity provides the precondition for the subject to know and even exist as a subject, both bound yet free, that is, separate and resisting absorption by the negating totality of the objective, in the first place. It is not the subject that talks about an object – a talk, wherein objectivity is everything aside from the subjective – but truth of the objective speaks precisely through the subject’s expression. While the thought in form of human language, terms and concepts now requires objectivity as substrate on which to exist, the subject’s individual difference from the objective conditions creates the suffering that gives rise to thought in the first place, eventually leading to the potential of making suffering articulate. Suffering, in turn, is the expression of the difference of the individual from what is common across more than one, of the incommensurability of objective, totalizing, reifying conditions and the individual (− Adorno’s nonidentity); within suffering surfaces as objective truth the individuality and self of that what suffers. Through this difference, which demands of the subject to adapt and assimilate itself to the objective conditions it faces, arises suffering in the subject that in turn induces a desire to make this suffering articulate and defend the individual desires against the demands of the universal. Within the human subject this has given rise to language and conceptual thinking, which allows to articulate the truth about this suffering and the challenge of the individual to maintain its difference against these objective tendencies (or reality); other animals, for all we know, are bound to screams and flight (Dawkins 2008). Such articulation of the truth through human language, then, finally contains the potential to alter those objective conditions that contradict the needs of the individual.

Adorno’s considerations thus bring a dialectical tension to the surface within suffering itself, which represents the contradiction and struggle between unique traits of individual entities and their objective, universal conditions, for example the belonging to a species, they are set in or against. Such expression of difference between objectivity and individual specificity in suffering is no less true for nonhuman than it is for human animals. No less is the suffering of an individual animal a difference between the objective conditions an animal exists under and its own desires and needs, than within a human animal. And no less weighs this objectivity upon the individual than it does upon humans. Suffering appears as much an expression of the individual and its struggle against objective tendencies, as it proves a tendency to suppress and indeed eventually annul the individual. Hence for Adorno, suffering does not simply equal truth, but presents an expression of the subjectivity, the individual uniqueness and difference from the objective, that constitutes itself against objectivity. Within suffering, the difference of an individual and objectivity – its uniqueness, its difference from the objective, its individual, unique character and subjectivity – expresses itself. From this perspective, struggles such as Skylla’s against her cancer prove to be the struggle of an individual against the objective indifference of the cancer she had contracted. At the same time though, within her suffering and struggle manifested her individuality, as it rebels against the objectivity of the cancer. The chance to fight the cancer, at least to a certain point, thus proves to be an expression and hence provides an experience of her individual uniqueness and incommensurability as subjective being.


The reaction of the veterinarian who first diagnosed Skylla’s cancer provides an instance that stands emblematically for Adorno’s understanding of suffering. After, but only after Skylla had been euthanized did she relate that she went to similar therapeutic lengths with her own dog – something, she explained, she never could have related with a clear conscience in her role as Skylla’s treating physician (cf. Luy 2008, 125). Within the contradictoriness of her behavior – giving advise she herself seemed adamant to follow, while at the same time separating her private experience from her professional role – manifests the dialectical character of suffering as much as the difficulty of both the veterinary profession and companion animal guardians to accept such dialectic in the relationship to the animal. To quickly repress the empathic urge to live, and instead rationalize death over suffering, fails what such restraint most strongly wants: to take an animal seriously for-it-self. Whereas such conduct follows to some degree the processing of the traumatic realization of the death of someone close, it reverts to silencing the expression of the nonhuman other’s self. Rather than seriously accepting the animal as sentient, self-willing, autonomous being, the premature prevention of suffering that weighs off a potential amount of suffering against a preventive euthanizing indeed reifies the animal and undermines its individuality. Instead, precisely through suffering and its bearing a patient is confirmed in his or her individuality, as it stands for an individual’s ability to resist and assert his or her distinctiveness against universal, objective tendencies. Enabling an animal such as Skylla faced with fatal illness to at least attempt facing up to her disease, and supporting her through this struggle, indeed recognizes and honors her individuality, rather than overriding it in some inhuman way. Precisely by giving companion animal patients the chance to resist objective reality and by supporting their struggle, both materially and emotionally, their suffering becomes articulate and lifts the spell of reification.

Facilitating the struggle of an individual animal against its fatal illness, with all the resources human society has conjured up, would make the suffering of companion animals articulate beyond the confines of their care, through providing the experience West’s painting exposes so vividly through the encounter with the dying stag. Such “solidarity of life in general” (Horkheimer 1993, 36) would strive to suspend objective conditions for suffering as far as possible, for each and every individual, rather than to prematurely subordinate the individual to any objective tendencies. As dialectic, any suffering reverts at some point into its opposite of course. Once it becomes unmistakable that an individual succumbs to the objective tendencies it faces, sustaining his or her suffering proves only de-individualizing. But a dealing with suffering that takes the patient seriously as an autonomous individual for-one-self would have to wait for this turning point before deciding on alleviating the suffering beyond analgesic treatment through a patient’s euthanizing. Obviously this point cannot be pre-defined, but will have to rely on the assessment of individual circumstances and, especially in the case of nonhuman animals, not a small amount of empathic observation of a patient’s behavior and condition. Preventing this struggle from taking place, or hiding suffering behind the veil of an overly beautified, ‘good’ and indeed sterilized death that removes any signs of a struggle or suffering from the act of dying, in contrast, seems to relieve us from an experience that makes the animal palpable as self-willing other rather than controllable thing. Instead, it appears that we do not seem quite ready yet to actually accept our animal companions – as individualized as they may appear in health – as individuals in their own right, but unconsciously continue to safeguard our distance and superiority by evading this moment, in which we might realize our own semblance with animals.


  1. 1.

    A historical argument could also be made here, showing the attitudes towards hunting and killing animals to be contested in West’s historical context (Fudge 2006), making his painting potentially a critical comment on his time. My focus, however, is on an immanent reading of the expression of the painting’s composition and what experiences it might reveal to a current viewer.

  2. 2.

    For a comprehensive study of attitudes and practices relating to animal euthanasia see Morris (2012).

  3. 3.

    Debates around assisted suicide for terminally ill patients reflect this tendency (cf. e.g. Veatch et al. 2015).

  4. 4.

    Within orthographic changes to the original, where quotations of this passage from Negative Dialectics omit “the desire” or merge the third and fourth sentence with a colon (cf. eg. Reikerstorfer 1998, 28 footnote 44), provide external manifestations of such inexactness as much as of the nexus between form and content that Adorno constantly reflects on in his writings. The quote is involuntarily readjusted to the thought, overwriting its original meaning; the physical changes in the quote materializing in the written word undermine its uncomfortable truth. What they reveal is a pacifying of suffering’s expression. Likewise, transposing “Leiden beredt werden zu lassen” into “giving voice to suffering” reasserts control by deferring the agency from suffering becoming articulate by itself, or at least allowing suffering to become articulate itself, to someone providing articulation for the suffering.



I am grateful to Cecilia Novero for her comments on an earlier version of the essay and to the editors of this issue of Food Ethics for their openness towards its unconventional approach. The text is dedicated to the memory of Skylla.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of KasselKasselGermany

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