A few weeks ago I mentioned the word “stewardship” in my post on the Endangered Species Act. One of you sent me an email asking what, exactly, I meant by that. Stewardship in that short piece refers to our responsibility, as a species possessed with higher reasoning, to advocate for and otherwise protect those not capable of defending themselves (i.e., all non-humans).

Our culture also uses the term more widely to discuss how people relate to the disadvantaged or those humans in need of care among us: the ill, children, elderly, the destitute and those otherwise at risk of cruelty or abuse, including citizens of so-called, less-developed nations. It’s also a term applied to how we deal with our limited resources: forests, oil, diamonds, wetlands…whatever.

How we wield this word has tremendous implications for our planet. If we use it and we mean it, it denotes a serious moral imperative to care for each other and anything we value. Yet I see it misused far too often; usually when the powerful elect to take pseudo-responsibility for the world’s problems in ways that are more patronizing than purposeful, more self-aggrandizing and political than compassionate and generous.

In my case I tend to be talking about animals, as in Saturday’s post on the Maltese crosses or last week’s post on vegetarianism. So I’ll give you my personal POV on the stewardship thing as it relates to animals:

I know I’m walking into a mine field here, but I’ll say it anyway: Animals in our world are treated more as slaves than as our less “enlightened” neighbors who deserve our respect and care. Because whether we’re talking Spotted owls, milking goats, Thanksgiving turkeys or the kittens born under our porches, we tend to treat them as if its our God-given right to bend their circumstances to our will. However, if we hold fast to the belief that the way animals are treated reflects directly on our humanity, then “stewardship” begins to supplant “slavery.”

That doesn’t necessarily imply that you need be a über-vegan to be a consistently loyal friend to our animals. Nor do you have to push a broom ahead of your insecticidal  footsteps. But you do need to think about how you live and how that might affect all animals, not just our pets—and, of course, mend your ways whenever possible.

Whether used for meat, byproducts, ecologic stability or companionship, make no mistake—animals are “used” by us. It’s a biological reality. But that essential fact neither indicates evildoing on our part nor gives us a right to abuse of them—as happens daily in my line of sight. What it means is that we have a greater responsibility to do right by them. Our “usage” essentially forces us into the position of benevolent custodian—if we value them at all.

That Gandhi quote I read every day when uploading my post? (look to your immediate right on this screen) It reminds me that too often our treatment of animals mirrors all the abuses of stewardship we see in the world. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the abuse of stewardship is the seed of all human wrongdoing. Our human need to dominate and conquer, regardless of scope? That’s the kernel we need to address.

The Earth imploding under our care? Sudanese warlords raiding villages to recruit child-warriors? Corporate America crying poverty over Black-footed ferrets? Parents bullying their children on the soccer field? Landfills lined with recyclables we were too busy to sort and bin? Chicken legs tossed into garbage pails because we don’t like dark meat? Wealthy clients refusing basic care for their pets?

...This is what I think of when the word stewardship comes up.

Perhaps I dwell too much on our human failures. After all, none of us is perfect. But seeing how cruel people are to pets (whether they’re under my care or not) is what reminds me that I occasionally need to write a post like this—as much for the benefit of my own hypocritical tendencies as to point out everyone else’s.

Every once in a while we all need to reset our moral compasses. For the record, the Malteses were my inspiration. I hope this post helps you think on yours.