Most of the time humans are a compassionate species. At least that’s our intent. We try to find the kindest way to treat animals and each other. But often our intention to do something in a humane way gets buried in a cultural paradigm that’s so pervasive, so deeply embedded in our cells, that we don’t realize the thing we’re doing is itself inhumane.

Recently the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the State of Florida’s method of executing prisoners. Petitioners argued that the state’s lethal injection procedure is unconstitutional in that it may cause excruciating pain. The court blocked the execution of Clarence Hill literally at the last moment, as he lay on a gurney in the execution chamber, intravenous lines already inserted into his veins.

The issue has been raised all around the country, forcing states to reevaluate the drug protocol used in executions. Typically the process begins with a painkiller, followed by a drug to induce paralysis, and finally one that stops the heart. At question is whether the painkiller remains effective throughout the process, and whether the paralytic simply masks overt signs of pain. While the legal system struggles to find a way to kill a man without causing “wanton and gratuitous pain,” the question of whether the act of killing is inhumane is not currently part of the discussion.

I see parallels all around in the way we treat animals. Even in our most sincere efforts to do things in the kindest possible way, we often miss the fact that the things we’re doing are fundamentally unkind. A recent public television program touted a certain Standard of Perfection in the way “show cattle” are treated and presented. In interviews, ranchers’ affection for the cows was clear; they acknowledged that individual animals have unique personalities, and pointed to the many ways their health and well-being are carefully attended. But all this was spoken in the context of an industry that relies on buying, selling, and “breeding” the animals as commodities, even killing the beef cattle—affection for them notwithstanding.

In the same PBS program one dairyman spoke of the bond between cows and their daughters, and pointed out that the bond remains strong even after they’re weaned and reunited. What he didn’t address was the emotional trauma those mothers and daughters suffer when he and his fellow dairy farmers forcibly wean them shortly after birth so that humans can drink the cow’s milk. Despite his sincere efforts to treat the cattle in his care well, and to convince viewers that the animals are capable of deep and lasting emotion, the man was too steeped in the rituals of his lifestyle to recognize the pain he inflicts on cows each birthing season.

Awareness is an evolving process, if only because we live in the culture we do, where it’s easy to get carried along on a wave of habituation. There are always new opportunities to look a little deeper and explore how we can push back the norm and inhabit the experience of those whose voices remain unheard. Each time we do, we gain a better understanding of the impact of our actions—and where we can stretch further in our efforts to be kind.

A few examples:

Many years ago I worked extensively with horses. I was deeply committed to treating them with as much compassion and respect as possible, and even built my own barn so that I would not be pressured to compromise my standards to serve anyone else’s bottom line. But one day my consciousness was raised by a handsome Selle Français gelding named Tristan. A client of mine, Chuck, had asked me to find a horse for him and his wife and children. I discovered Tristan at a barn in the next county; after two visits I decided he was a good match for Chuck and his family, and negotiated what I thought was a “reasonable price.” When I arrived with my truck and trailer, Tristan dutifully followed me out of the stable that had been his home for more than two years. The expression on his face was of concern, uncertainty, and resolve. He hesitated just a moment, took one last look back toward the barn, and with a sigh marched on into the trailer.

Throughout the long drive home my heart was back in the trailer with Tristan. I ached for what it must be like for him to have so little control over his life that a stranger could appear one day and take him away from a place he’d come to know as home, where he felt safe, and where he’d formed bonds with other horses and people. I had enormous respect for the trust he’d placed in me to step willingly into my trailer when he had no idea where he was going, how he’d be treated when he got there, or whether he’d ever return.

When we arrived at my barn, Chuck, his wife, and their son and daughter were waiting for us. Tristan backed out of the trailer, nervously sniffed the night air, and in a moment was surrounded by his new family. As they stroked him gently and spoke in quiet, loving, and reassuring tones, he and I both relaxed.

With all my efforts to treat Tristan well and make sure his new family was a kind and permanent one, I couldn’t deny that I was participating in something akin to the slave trade. The vast majority of people who have horses in their lives love them deeply, but buying and selling them as human needs and wants change is generally accepted as the norm. Responsible horsepeople seek quality homes for animals they “sell,” but what of the equine relationships that are broken in the process? Don’t we devalue their lives when we assign a dollar value to the right to call them family members?

Similarly, breeding operations thrive in stables all across the country. Broodmares and stallions often get the best accommodations on the farm—extra large stalls or green rolling pastures, top notch feed, excellent veterinary care. In the wild, breeding takes place only after a mare demonstrates that she’s receptive to a stallion’s advances. In the breeding shed, it’s well known that mares often exhibit preferences for one stallion over another. But when humans are in charge, a mare’s wishes rarely factor in to whether or not the match will be consummated. If she shows any resistance, she’ll likely be hobbled or even sedated to protect the stallion from a dangerous kick. I have sincere appreciation for the love humans have for their horses, and don’t question that most have the animals’ well being very much at heart—but I can’t help but notice that if we change “horse” to “human” in these breeding practices it’s much less difficult to see the whole thing take on a horrifying specter.

Our dogs and cats also get caught under the net of procedures we long ago ceased to question. We spend hard-earned dollars to provide quality veterinary care, and entrust our companions only to professionals who treat them with kindness. But many veterinary clinics ask us to drop off our dogs or cats, and leave them for the day so that exams can be done as practitioners’ time becomes available. The practice is so common that we might not notice the stress an animal may feel when he is turned over to strangers—kind though they may be—and confined to a cage for hours at a time, in proximity to other animals who are frightened or crying out in pain. Would we ask a human child to endure a routine medical exam that way? How different the same exam must feel to an animal who remains in the arms of a family member throughout the experience.

Similar dilemmas show up here in my own living room. Savannah, my gracious elder Great Dane, has a queen-size memory foam bed to sleep on at home, and the entire back of a reconfigured Volvo station wagon to stretch out in on our trips to town. But we live in a remote place where her days include long hours of waiting for me to turn off the computer, with little more than a family of quail and the occasional jack rabbit passing by to catch her interest. For many dogs that would be excitement enough to pass a summer afternoon. But the rabbits amble slowly by, knowing Savannah has little more than a passing interest in them. What lights her up are those visits to town where she can smell the smells as we drive through town, and best of all greet her old friends at the book store or the hardware shop, or make new ones when we stop for tea at an outdoor café. I have no doubt she’d be much happier living in town, or at least visiting a lot more often. But I’m a country girl who loves working at home, and we rarely get to town more than once a week. I sometimes fool myself that I treat Savannah with all the respect and consideration I’d give a human family member. But truth be told, her vote doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as it would if she were a human companion. Because she’s a dog, I get away with forcing her to adjust to my own lifestyle preferences. As a result she misses out on emotional and mental stimulation that might make her life far happier.

In the end, it’s clear we’re all still on an evolutionary path. We turned a critical corner when we acknowledged our responsibility to do all we can for the animals who share our lives, and for all those embroiled in our cultural confusion about who they are and how they must be treated. But over and over again we trip on the places where we simply hadn’t thought to look for an opportunity to do better—and end up finding very kind ways to do things that are fundamentally and essentially unkind.

That’s true where both human and nonhuman animals are concerned. In an intriguing bit of irony, the Supreme Court justices learned that pancuronium bromide, the drug used to paralyze prisoners’ muscles prior to the final lethal injection, is prohibited for use in the euthanasia of animals in thirty states, including Florida. The reason? According to veterinarians who submitted an amicus brief, its sole purpose is “to mask any suffering endured by the patient.” It’s not often we find we’ve been more diligent in our care of animals than of humans.

But maybe that’s beside the point, after all. Compassion doesn’t choose one species over another, any more than it chooses one human being over another. It doesn’t matter whether the individuals in our care are man, woman, dog, horse, cow, dolphin, or raven. In all cases, we make the most compassionate choices when we see the world as they see it, and feel it as they feel it. When we tear an infant away from her mother so we can take her breast milk, or drug a female to force her to accept the advances of a male; when we leave a frightened patient alone in a cage surrounded by strangers, or force a loved one to wait days to enjoy the things that make her happiest,…or when we strap a man to a gurney and, with his full knowledge and anticipation, intentionally take his life,…we’ve discovered an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another and reexamine the humanity of our actions. If we can do that every time we make choices for those whose lives are in our hands, we have a better chance of not only doing things humanely, but also doing humane things.