Just like us – why are some animals more equal than others?

If we could understand what each others’ hearts are saying, would we still be able to harden our own, or would we lose the capacity to hate?

It’s much harder to hate someone up close and personal. We can demonise entire races, or exploit entire species for our own gain, if we don’t connect with the parts of them that make them just like us.

If we could understand what animals are saying to us, would we still be able to exploit and kill them? The convenient deafness that our lack of understanding of other species’ communication affords us might dramatically change our behaviour if we could understand them.

I’ve written before about my journey from enthusiastic carnivore, to pescatarian, to reluctant vegetarian, to my current status of challenged vegan. I’m not a fan of labels because they invite certain (often incorrect) assumptions and judgements, and I prefer the positive feel of ‘plant-based’ to ‘vegan’, but ultimately they add up to the same thing – not eating animal products. So why am I ‘challenged’? Well, because let’s not pretend that those things don’t taste good! My favourite food categories of old were seafood and cheese, and I could happily demolish almost a whole roast chicken without much trouble. I was the one with a skewer to poke the marrow out of a lamb shank bone, a good osso bucco was practically a religious experience, and don’t even get me started on the joys of a runny camembert or an aged smoked applewood cheddar. It was half concern for the environment that made me choose a plant-based life (51% of greenhouse gases are created by animal farming) and half a wish that no being should suffer for my tastes when I can thrive on a (I would argue far healthier) plant-based diet and there is no need for me to cause harm. Does that mean I don’t eye up the foods I just mentioned and salivate at certain smells? No, of course not, I’m challenging a lifetime of conditioned responses here! But it’s what I choose to do about it that matters, and it IS a choice. And I truly believe that if animals could speak, or if we could hear and understand their non-verbal communication, we’d be pretty quick to change our behaviour.

If, in the bacon aisle, we could feel the feelings of the pig as it was led to slaughter, would we still pick up that impersonal, sanitised plastic packet?

If, in the poultry aisle, we could hear chickens crying as they’re crammed into tiny coops and forced to lay before being killed, would we still want those wholesome looking eggs and that hot roast?

If we could hear cows and calves begging not to be separated as a mother is led away from her young to have her teats pulled at by a machine, how good would the cheese board taste?

If we looked into the eyes of a sheep in the moments before death, could we kill it ourselves or would we feel compelled to set it free?

If we could hear the silent screams of fish being torn from the water to die thrashing in suffocation as we ate our smoked salmon, would it taste so luxurious?

We don’t eat our domesticated animal friends, our cats and dogs, because we feel a connection with them. But that’s a pretty arbitrary reason – in reality, why is a dog any different from a sheep? They’re both medium sized mammals. Sure, a dog might have a higher IQ, be more able to learn commands, but by that logic we’d feel ok about killing people with perceived lower intelligence than ourselves. And besides, we kill pigs, which are said to be just as intelligent as dogs. We don’t have the right to kill or exploit humans, so why is it acceptable to do that to other species?

And why our species-dependent hypocrisy?

We don’t take a lactating mother cat’s young away from her and imprison her in a confined space so we can hook her up to a machine and take her milk, so why is it ok to do that to cows?

We put feeders out in the garden to help birds through the winter, so why is it ok to tuck into a turkey at Christmas?

We admire koi carp in a pond, so why do we trawl the oceans for different versions of the same species to eat?

Why do we kill and exploit some beings and not others?

I’m not trying to anthropomorphise other species. But to pretend that they don’t feel contentment or fear and pain, is to be wilfully ignorant for our own convenience and pleasure.  

And no, it’s not straightforward. We have a cat who we rescued from a shelter. Cats are carnivores, so to care for her properly I have to be part of harming another species. I’ve veered from the plant path occasionally to avoid being the difficult one in a new group of people, which is my own pathetic fear of being judged before they get to know me. I don’t feel great about either situation. I’m also aware that animal agriculture employs a great many people (although I don’t think that the world is going to go plant-based overnight and hope that these industries will gradually shrink over the next few generations).

I have no particular conclusion here and we all have to make up our own minds. I just have a suggestion that we stop blindly doing what we’ve always done because it’s easy, and start asking ourselves: is it ok to harm another being for our own pleasure and convenience, and why? Would we still do it, if we could feel their feelings and hear them speak?

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