Connecting the Dots

four big dots

I had to take Reuben, our big butterscotch cat, to the vet yesterday. He’s a mild-mannered fellow, handsome and sweet. We had to trick him into his carrier. Once inside, he yapped and yowled all the way to the vet. When we arrived, he became so anxious that his pupils were pinpricks and he didn’t notice me placing his favorite treats in front of him. Frankly, I was kind of relieved to leave him there for the day. His misery was wearing on me.

What was he feeling? Those who defend factory farm practices sometimes argue that animals don’t feel with the same depth as humans (it’s the “cows are dumb, they just stand there” argument). Some, discounting animal behavior as hard-wired physiological responses, would say Reuben was exhibiting “learned avoidance.” This may be true, but it doesn’t account for Reuben’s emotions. His thrashing around on the metal exam table might be described as a “protective motor reaction to a perceived threat,” but this doesn’t quite capture what Reuben was experiencing as he thrashed. That experience, in a word, was terror. I’m a mammal too, so I know the feeling.

It doesn’t take a lifelong animal lover to realize it’s wrong to cause animals to needlessly suffer. Really, only a sociopath would disagree. And yet suffering is the core experience of animals on factory farms. What do we do, collectively and individually, when we realize this?

Some people consider the suffering of farm animals a necessary evil. Others realize it’s both unnecessary and immoral, but they don’t let themselves think about it too much, either because it’s too upsetting or because they don’t want to face the ramifications of such an acknowledgment. This was me until very recently: I tried not to think about what happens on factory farms because I didn’t want to change my diet. I liked what I liked, so I did my best to avoid connecting the dots.

But now all I do is connect those goddamn dots. I not only think about how animals suffer but about who they are as individual creatures. Animals have rich emotional lives. I’ve observed our two cats enough to know their moods and quirks, likes and dislikes, their contrasting personalities. Reuben goes out of his mind when he hears a pigeon on the windowsill; Marvin is laissez-faire. Marvin loves confined spaces; Reuben avoids them. Marvin likes to display his belly centerfold-style; Reuben is more discreet. Reuben gobbles his food; Marvin can take it or leave it.

If these two have individual qualities and preferences, it stands to reason that farm animals do, too. Mammals are mammals. Just because farm animals are placed in situations in which they are prevented from expressing their personalities and mental states doesn’t mean these don’t exist. Actually, they express them plenty, but there are rarely humans around who care to notice. Factory farming is a mechanized environment in which computers and cameras do most of the “noticing.” But on a real farm, animals can engage in all their natural behaviors, have relationships with their own kind, and live as free from pain and discomfort as our pets do.

Darwin was one of the first scientists to study animal emotion. He believed that animals experience pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, and that the differences between them and us are of degree, not kind. As the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor can they talk? But can they suffer?”

I believe they can and they do, and that our common agricultural practices are just plain uncivilized.

For a fascinating and detailed account of the emotional lives of animals, download Farm Sanctuary’s Sentient Beings: a Summary of Scientific Evidence Establishing Sentience in Farm Animals [PDF].

6 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots

  1. While factory farming is particularly bad and I agree with most of what you said, eating animals and animal products still causes unnecessary suffering, even if it’s from “humane” farms. Even if we are “nice” to the animals, we still would be treating them as objects, as expendable resources, as commodities. We would still slaughter them and they are still worth only a dollar value to us.

    If someone kidnaps me and holds me captive for 6 months with plans of eventually killing me, but they are super nice and make me my favorite meal every night and buy me anything I want, it’s safe to say that a jury would still consider my captor a murderer if he killed me in the end. The point would be that no matter how “nice” or “humane” he went about it, he didn’t have to kill me. How I lived is irrelevant– the end result is that I died, and it was totally unnecessary.

  2. I appreciate you taking the time to really look at all this information, digest it and then share it with others.

    Reading this reminded me a lot of myself as I gradually transitioned away from eating animal to vegetarianism in college. I’ve been veg for about 12 years now and vegan going on 7 of those years. There was a period in the first few years of veggiedom where I backslid and ate poultry/fish (ignoring all I knew and going “lalalala… can’t hear you!”) because I liked them.

    But, eventually, I couldn’t ignore what I felt, I read John Robbin’s “Food Revolution” and “Diet for a New America” and knew I was done with animal products, full stop. The egg industry is especially abhorrent, IMO, and if I could magically end one food being eaten, I’d pick eggs and spare hens. Even ‘free range’ aren’t treated as they ought to be, though it’s a fair sight better than battery cages.

    I haven’t looked back.

    Veganism is what’s right for me and what makes my heart feel less heavy. May you find your own path – even if you still eat animals focusing on more humanely raised (I doubt any slaughter can be humane so I focus on the raised bit) and reduce your consumption, it’ll help. Every bit helps, IMO. Though I would be lying if I said I wasn’t crossing my fingers that you’ll join Team Veg. LOL. ;)

  3. Great article. I was completely in the same boat as you about a year ago (not wanting to fully educate myself about factory farming and about how meat is produced in the country) simply because I LOVED my steak, my burgers, and of course, my bacon! My vegetarian sister, brought me to visit the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY and I’ve never looked back. Now, eating meat to me, is akin to eating my friend or my neighbor. I wish more people with intellect and compassion would adopt a similar stand. Alas, we humans love tradition, love familiarity, and love our habits (especially eating habits. What? Thanksgiving WITHOUT TURKEY??!! That’s CRAZY talk!!). I can only rely on the simple fact that one person changing at a time will eventually lead to more mass appeal. Thanks for writing this!

  4. I thin the correct new term for food animals that are treated humanely before being slaughtered is “Happy Meat”.

  5. I just want to take a moment to tell you how very much I enjoy your posts. You are thoughtful, articulate and sincere in your writing and I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  6. Kama – thank you for your very intriguing, heartfelt thoughts about this subject. As a vegan for two years (vegetarian a year prior and a pescatarian a year before that), I’ve gone through a major shift in my own personal feelings toward the animals we raise for food – which include the cow raised “humanely” and comfortably on a family farm to the chicken raised in small, unimaginable living quarters inside a factory farm. A really wonderful book on the subject is “Yoga and Vegetarianism” by Sharon Gannon, which I highly recommend. In it, she examines why and how our society has become so conditioned to accept the idea of using animals for anything we want – and I say want here primarily because we do not need to consume the meat, milk, or eggs of any animals. Once I learned this, it made my desire to consume cheese, ice cream, and steaks (some of my former favorite animal products) ridiculous to me. I decided to choose veganism out of a respect for all life and to respect each individual being’s right to live – and die – in peace. What I wasn’t prepared for was the wonderful world that awaited me – going vegan was the single best choice I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve begun to view my diet not as a lifestyle of “living without”, but rather “living with so much”. My taste buds have come alive, the food I eat is amazingly delicious and satisfying, and I happen to be the healthiest I have ever been!

    Mostly, I can look into the eyes of a cow, goat, chicken, duck, turkey or pig at any farm animal sanctuary and feel at peace knowing that I am no longer contributing to any part of their suffering – either during their lives or at the end of them.
    I completely respect and understand whatever step each person is at on their own path – so I wish you well on your journey! I will definitely keep an eye on your blog to see where your path leads you.

    I keep a vegan living blog called “Kiss Me, I’m Vegan!” (http://www.kissmyvegan.blogspot), because, like you, I wanted to find a way to share my journey with others. I would love to have you check it out!

    And one last note – I’m a Brooklynite. :) (I even babysit a lovely family in Park Slope!)

    All the best to you,

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