Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.
He appears stoic in the rain
and stands still
beneath the merciless sun.
You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.
You would be more wrong
than the one who named him Beso
thinking that the kiss he gave
for a sliver of apple
Copyright 2010 Richard Jarrette. Reprinted with the permission of the poet.
Background on Philosophical Issues
Animal Ethics (click to read more)
This brilliant collection of poems is written from the point of view of a speaker who observes a donkey named Beso living penned into a pasture over a long (unspecified) period of time, apparently ending with Beso’s passing away. The speaker gets to know Beso well as an individual and comes to care for and respect him deeply.
In this poem, the speaker notes that Beso, like any animal who is in captivity, is confined without any autonomy over his own life. Is this an acceptable way to treat another sentient being? Why or why not?
It seems Beso’s basic necessities of life (see “Rights“) are taken care of: He has “rock to eat, dust to drink,” and at some point is graced with “a sliver of apple.” However, he also endures “the merciless sun.” If you believe he is being wronged, is it only because of the questionable nature of his treatment? If we assume that he does have enough food, water, and shelter to be healthy, then is his human captors’ behaviour justified? Or is there something inherently wrong about keeping Beso locked up? As a nonhuman, self-aware being, is he entitled to a set of inalienable rights, a certain level of welfare, or neither? Why or why not?
Epistemology (click to read more)
This particular poem also deals with the issues of how we can know anything about “other minds,” trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and anthropomorphising – ascribing “human qualities” to nonhuman beings. There are some basic ways that we generally assume, by observation, that other humans have similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences to our own. When I hurt myself, I flinch or cry out. Therefore, when I observe the same behaviour in those around me, I assume they are experiencing similar pain. Can we make this same assumption when we see nonhuman beings exhibit the same behaviours that we do? Descartes thought that the screams a cat or dog makes when physically harmed were just automatic responses, and justified gruesome “experiments” like nailing cats to wooden boards. Throughout the history of the United States (and continuing today), animals raised for food and scientific experimentation have not been covered under standard animal protection laws; the law allows us to grind up chicks alive and toss living birds in boiling water without any repercussions. (This is considered “standard practice” in the egg and chicken meat industries.) The Cartesian idea of nonhuman animals as automata is often used to justify these practices.
Today, contemporary scientists have proven that all vertebrates have very similar nervous systems, which suggests that nonhumans feel physical pain in much the same way as humans do. Data and empirical evidence also shows us that most nonhuman animals likely dream and form memories and friendships in similar ways. But from a philosophical perspective, we always come back to the same question: How we can really tell what another being is experiencing if we cannot experience the same thing ourselves?
Sample Questions for Discussion on “Beso the Donkey”
“Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.”
- [questions for preliminary discussion] Why is Beso in the pasture? How long do you think he’s been there? Do you think he can get out if he wants to?
- Why would someone want to keep Beso in one place?
- Is there anything wrong with keeping someone in one place?
- Would it make a difference if the pasture was bigger?
- Would it make a difference if there was another donkey living with Beso?
- Have you ever had a timeout? Is this similar or different to what has happened to Beso? In what ways?
“You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.”
- If Beso has enough food and water to be healthy, is there anything wrong with keeping him locked up?
- [preliminary question] How many people here live with companion animals (a.k.a. “pets”)? OR Has anyone here been to a zoo?
- Do companion animals live with us because they want to or because we want them to?
- Is there anything wrong with keeping a companion animal in your house and not letting him or her leave? Why or why not?
- Do you think that animals in zoos seem happy? Why or why not? How about the animals who live with us? Why or why not?
- Do nonhuman animals need us? Do we need them? Why or why not and in what ways?
“He appears stoic in the rain …”
- [preliminary question] What does “stoic” mean?
- Do nonhuman animals have the same feelings people do? How can we tell?
- Can we ever know for sure what someone else is thinking? Why or why not?
- Can we ever know for sure what someone else is feeling? Why or why not?