To the animals, it’s all the same. They want to live. If they have wings, they want to fly. If they have legs, they want to walk. If they have voices, they want to communicate. If they have offspring, they want to mother them. To humans who perceive animals as inferior, their lives are here for us to end, their wings and legs are ours to eat, their voices are ours to silence or ignore, and their reproductive cycles are ours to manipulate and use. It’s not the animals but our perception of the animals that enables us to do all sorts of horrific things to them. As with any kind of prejudice, first you have to lower the societal status of the group or individual before you can actually oppress them, and we do this with animals across the board: in the language we use that denigrates them (calling people pigs, calling animals dirty), in the rights and natural behaviors we deny them, in the place we’ve carved out for them in society, making them tools for research, clowns for our enjoyment, delicacies for our palates, and victims of our desires. This dynamic is so ingrained. We learn it at such a young age, and we’re considered quite radical if we question it at all. And we think all the world thinks and acts as we do.
We never stop to consider that our perceptions and treatment of non-human animals is culturally based. Period. Our cultural and personal and familial habits inform so much of what we do on a daily basis. It’s why any talk of the "necessity" of eating animal flesh is balderdash. It has nothing to do with our biologic makeup and everything to do with our cultural foundation, taste habits, and, frankly, our arrogance, the arrogance of the human species. But let's talk about cultural habits for now.
As westerners, most of us were raised eating the dismembered and scorched bodies – otherwise known as meat – of pigs, cows, calves, chickens, fishes, ducks, lambs, and turkeys. Despite the fact that these animals suffered and were killed to satisfy our appetites, many of us draw an arbitrary line and turn our noses up at the people who eat other animals that may not have been on our own dinner plates: animals such as deer, rabbit, or buffalo. People get upset at the thought of eating precious bunny rabbits, as they munch on the leg of what was once a precious calf or baby chick. With even greater indignance we’re shocked at the (also western) cultures who eat horses and goats, and our stomachs turn at the idea of eating frog’s legs, chicken’s feet, cow’s tongues, and monkey’s brains. And with what can be characterized as approval of our own speciesism, we scorn those who eat cats and dogs.
“Can you believe that?” Some people have said to me. “That’s just so upsetting – cats and dogs? I mean really!.” Is something I often hear. And I attempt to mirror the hypocrisy of their remark by saying: “You know what I heard? I heard people eat the shoulders of pigs and the wings of birds! Can you believe that?” OK it doesn’t have the same shock value, but it would if that person lived in a place where that was unheard of. In the workshops I teach, do an exercise that works quite effectively to get this across. I give the group a handout that talks about the growing number of farms raising dogs for their milk, about how this is a growing trend that’s popular in different parts of the world. People get outraged. They get really upset to hear about the female dogs in confinement, chained up, made and kept pregnant so they will keep lactating, taking away the babies so humans can have the dogs’ milk, etc. After everyone records their reactions, I reveal that the article was really about goat’s milk before I replaced all the references to goats with the word “dog.” It’s at that moment that everyone feels the impact of their reactions. They begin to question why they reacted so strongly when they thought it was about dogs and that they don’t think twice about drinking cow’s milk (and now goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, which are being touted as necessary health food for humans). It’s a powerful exercise, and it’s hard to do, because it’s so hard to look at the world through a different lens. But it’s what we need to do to see the absurdity of our choices.
In writing these podcasts and the essays for my newsletter, it’s always a struggle finding the words and the photos that will be effective enough without turning people off. The photos of dogs and cats raised for their flesh in parts of Asia (particularly Korea and China) are so horrific for people, because they’ve never seen dogs and cats in such gruesome circumstances. It’s the way most of us react when we first see the animals we kill and eat in this country, but it’s a little more upsetting I think, because most people haven’t had personal relationships with pigs, cattle, chickens, turkeys, etc. I can understand having a strong reaction. I really can. But I also think it’s important we recognize that the deep roots of our desensitization enable us to allow animals here to be imprisoned, confined, denied, abused, and tortured so that we can satisfy a palate preference, whether that preference is for the legs and wings of chickens, the backsides of pigs, or the sides of cows. – it comes down to the cultural habit that has been ingrained in us. The dogs and cats, the goats and horses – they’re all cultural habits of other countries. Just as some cultures or religions choose vegetarian – it’s all cultural. It has nothing to do with biology. If we can remember that, perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to judge other cultures but would instead rise up to oppose what we do in our own. On the other hand, I don’t believe culture, tradition, or religion are adequate excuses for cruelty. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian wrote, “The thinking [person] must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.” I couldn’t agree more or have said it more eloquently. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Just because we’ve always done something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing or the right thing to do. And when we know better, we can choose better. To the animals, it’s all the same. Whether they meow, snort, bark, winny, moo, quack, gobble, hop, fly, swim, or run, they all feel pain, loss, and fear. A Korean dog wants to live and resists death as much as an American duck. To the animals kept and killed for human pleasure, it’s all the same.— the loneliness, the pain, the screams, the darkness, the torment, the fear, the cold, the heat, the untreated illnesses, the longing, the frustration, the boredom, the desire to flee, the desire to live. When we can recognize that we share all of this with non-human animals, perhaps we’d reconsider the choices we make on a daily basis. Consider this – they’re all habits, and habits were meant to be broken. It takes three weeks to break old and form new habits. There’s no reason – only excuses – not to at least try.