At the heart of our friendship was empathy. Empathy is what allows us to cross boundaries, whether between “self’ and “other” or “us” and “them.” Empathy is about understanding how the world looks from another living being’s point of view, imagining how another is feeling, and wanting to alleviate another’s distress or share in his or her joy. Empathy is our greatest resource and the more we can promote a person’s empathy, the more the world will be a compassionate, peaceful and just place.
Having discovered a website called chickenjustice.org, I was eager to determine the organization behind it. But what I discovered there had little if anything to do with chicken advocacy. Instead I discovered some strange twists and turns in their campaign that claims to “save chickens” and help poultry slaughterhouse workers, and I felt compelled to write the following letter to the organization’s executive director, Kim Bobo.
What legacy are we leaving behind? Mountains of waste? Cows living among our own waste? This photo speaks volumes about the future of food. It represents the reality behind animal agriculture’s goal of feeding the world’s population. According to the industry’s own analysts, “Livestock systems occupy 45% of the global surface area…”
Don’t look back. Don’t look forward. If you imagine living the life of a sheep born in 2013, your short life was marked by encounters with callous and desensitized humans who had a price tag on your head before you were even born. Humans bred you artificially into existence. University geneticists meddled with your genes to “optimize” your body’s fleece production. Farmers broke up your family and stole your children. Your fleece was sheered by machines that bruised and cut your skin, and then sold for profit.
The most important voice is also the one conspicuously closed out of the debate. The voice of the animal victims themselves is missing because they don’t speak our language. And because we place such immense importance on language, we’ve done a pretty good job of ignoring their plight. But that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate with us in a variety of complex ways, that is, if we choose to use our large brains and much-touted claim of superior intelligence to look and listen more carefully.
One of my secret pleasures as a boy was to sit for hours poring over my father’s collection of photography books. There, in The Family of Man, Days to Remember, and others, I saw disclosed the strange and varied wonder of the human condition, at least as it appeared to professional photojournalists at mid-century: children in Bombay lifting their smiling faces to the rain, Jackie Robinson, “first Negro in major league baseball,” the first television. There were also many disturbing pictures of grief, tragedy, and violence, indelible images of mob slayings and suicides, terrible industrial accidents and “the war in Indo-China.”
Recently, Foster Farms announced that they were awarded the American Humane Association’s “Humane Certified” label which now appears on the package of every dead Foster Farms chicken sold in America. Thanks to AHA, American consumers will be lulled into a false sense of complacency that eating animals is consistent with being humane, that supporting a company that kills millions of animals a year is consistent with a belief in animal protection.
“The right to life should be the bedrock of any movement that claims to be rights-based, as the animal rights movement by its very name, does. Not only because each animal, like each of us, has an inalienable right to life, but because all the other things the animal protection movement claims to be seeking on behalf of animals are impossible without that first and most essential right. Without the right to life, no other “rights” can be guaranteed. How can we ensure animals the right to food, water, shelter and kind treatment, when those things can be taken away by killing?
Any attempt to justify our exploitation of non-humans based on their lack of “human” characteristics begs the moral question by assuming that certain characteristics are special and justify differential treatment. Even if, for instance, humans are the only animals who can recognise themselves in mirrors or can communicate through symbolic language, no human is capable of flying, or breathing under water without assistance. What makes the ability to recognise oneself in a mirror or use symbolic language better in a moral sense than the ability to fly or breathe under water?
Professor Tibor Machan, a leading opponent of animal rights, cites the example of a mother tiger eating her cubs as evidence of the absence of morality in animals (1). And he claims that rights don’t exist for animals because of their lack of morality. He could have just as easily cited a number of other examples where animals show a high level of empathy toward one another, like a mother cow licking her calf.
Lee Hall, the Vice President of Legal Affairs at Friends of Animals, provides a great answer to the question, why care about animal rights? Hall’s clip is part of series called Exploring Rights for Animals by Gooseberry Productions. Hall is the author of On Their Own Terms, Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror and Dining with Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine. You can follow her on twitter at VeganMeans or visit the Friends of Animals vegan website by the same name.
As I prepared for an interview today, I couldn’t help but think about one question the journalist asked me in advance of the interview. After talking to people that I referred her to, she asked if there were people who I knew that were not supportive of my views or those of Free from Harm, animal rights or veganism. Apparently others she works with thought this was important for a balanced article.
What we leave behind—our legacy—is how we affected others. And for most of us, no other choice has a greater impact on the legacy of help— or harm— we leave behind, than our daily food choices. Day after day, and year after year, our lives can be seen as the culmination of thousands of instances in which, equally assured of nourishment and health, we had the opportunity to choose kindness and mercy toward other animals, or to choose violence and death for them.
The conventional argument opposing animal rights is that animals can’t reason like humans, so the notion of “rights” can’t apply to them. Yet not possessing human-like reasoning or intelligence is not a plausible justification for denying someone’s basic interest in not being used as human property.
The author of the message and how that person or group is perceived is sometimes more important than the message itself. Gunther in fact shows how the same message is interpreted completely differently when two different authors deliver it. The quote she uses as a case study comes from Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Could it be that we are so deeply insecure about our alleged superiority — in relation to the other life forms on this planet that predate us by millions of years — that we feel compelled to continually remind ourselves how important we are? Could it be that our understanding of our own “intelligence” — in relation to that of the other thousands of intelligent life forms we don’t fully even understand — is so grossly underdeveloped that our claim of superiority is akin to the tantrums of a spoiled child?