“It’s hard to advocate for animals, in between bites of a cheeseburger”

February is Black History Month. It’s amazing to think that many US schools became “integrated” only about 60 years ago, and 200 years ago some people believed completely in their god-given right to capture, enslave and abuse other human beings. To OWN other people! It’s almost unbelievable, isn’t it? Humans are capable of incredible things – good things, and really, truly, terrible things. Thankfully, we are also capable of change!

Thinking about the enslavement of humans lead me to think about the enslavement of animals. I have always loved animals, and always had many pets. But even the concept of “having” a pet – what is that?! Do we really have the right to “own” another living creature? A dog? (A plant?) When you start thinking about the concept of ownership and the enslavement of living beings, there are a lot of things to question. My two dogs bring so much joy, love, and happiness to my life. They are “like children”. They need me to “look after them”. (These are all things white people used to say about slaves). I try very hard to contribute to the happiness of my dogs’ lives – we worship Caesar Milan at our house, we give our dogs as much exercise as possible (the discipline is more of a challenge); and every day I take time to try to communicate to them how much I love them, and how grateful I am that they are here with me. Of course, they have no choice about being here with me. They only leave our home on leashes, and they only run free in parks if we allow it. They get to eat when we feed them. We have complete, total control over what they experience and when. I like to think I am a good “master”. But can anyone be a “good master”? I don’t know. Maybe that’s an oxymoron.

And aside from *that* issue, I have also eaten animals for most of my life.

I wonder if in the future, human beings will look back to our time – and find our treatment of animals to be shocking, and unimaginable. I read an interesting article this morning, about biologist and writer Jonathan Balcombe’s books on the emotional lives of animals. He states “we kill more animals now than at any time in history, and there’s a lot of suffering associated with that. We kill them mainly to eat them, and most of us could be eating kinder food”.

The idea of “kinder food” really struck a chord for me (harp pun intended). Over the last few years, I have gradually become more and more committed to vegetarianism (and hats off to you vegans – I hope some day to be there with you). I have a lot of food allergies and sensitivities, and for a long time I thought I could not afford to give up meat, because of the negative consequences this would have for my health. But last October I read a book that described some of the barbaric and horrific ways that animals raised for meat are treated – and tortured to death. Reading this book, I realized that I could no longer allow myself to be a consumer whose money supports the meat industry. I felt there could be no possible excuse to justify my continued participation in something so awful. According to what I read, the people who work in the average slaughterhouse somehow have to get used to the brutal and insane environment they work in. They have to “turn off” their capacity to care about the constant suffering and horror they witness, in order to continue at their jobs. (That description reminded me of news stories you hear about the Nazis “exterminating” Jewish people. The psychology of it is appalling, and yet apparently, most people in the “wrong” circumstances, are ultimately capable of these same atrocities).

I remember one passage, describing a cow who was supposed to have been stunned and had its throat slit (“humanely”). Unfortunately (according to the book), this process can be faulty. Sometimes a cow, who has not been stunned and who is not dead, is caught in the machine that will grind it to death (still alive!!!) The workers must reach with a metal hook, stick it into the rear of the cow, and drag the cow out – because it is blocking up their machinery and slowing down the slaughtering process. Unfortunately sometimes the cow is so thoroughly stuck, the hook just rips its anus right out of its body. The cow is still alive and fully conscious – trapped, terrified, in agony, and unable to beg for mercy. A victim of all of us, who don’t care enough about the sufferings of animals to stop them from happening. These animals have done nothing to hurt or harm us, but for some reason we think we have the right to torture, murder and eat them. I wonder how we came to think that way?

In part, it must be because we are so removed and detached from the natural world. Many of us don’t work on farms and have never worked on farms. We don’t raise legless chickens ourselves, or saw off their beaks. We don’t throw the male baby chicks (live) into the garbage where they are crushed and suffocated to death because they will never lay eggs. We don’t go out into the forest and fields to kill what we will eat. We go to our local sterile and brightly lit supermarket, and exchange metal and paper for some neutral, neatly-packaged chunks of dead animal.

And then there is this familiar argument: many animals eat other animals – so what’s unnatural about human animals eating other animals? Nature is cruel – just look at a cat with a bird or a mouse. We aren’t any different or better than other animals. We evolved from cavemen, who ate whatever they could get in order to stay alive – just like other animals.

But the thing is – we haven’t been cavemen for a long time. We could choose to be different and better than other animals. Unlike a lion or a shark, we have that capacity to think through our behaviours rationally and morally, and make new choices. Many of us really do have the money and time to find other foods – and here in Vancouver, there are so many “kinder” options that we can choose from.

When I read the book last October, I was in Cape Breton for approximately two weeks. Cape Breton is still quite a rural place, and in some ways it is a “financially challenged” place. I realized while I was there that the decision to not eat meat is a luxury – and some people are not in a position to make that decision. But I know that I am able to make that choice – and I look forward to the time when more and more people will also be able to.

As Jonathan Balcombe says, “Research indicates animals do indeed feel emotion and have rich, complex, inner lives…Despite the findings of recent science…we continue to do things to animals we would never think of doing to humans – like poisoning them in experiments, butchering them and eating them… If people continue to eat animals, there’s only so much we can do to alleviate their suffering. It’s hard to advocate for them between bites of a cheeseburger”.

Burrrrp. True.