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].