Sometimes We Need to Get Lost to Rediscover Where We Came From

"NEXT" 60"x48" OIL ON CANVAS by Jackson Thilenius

“NEXT” 60″x48″ OIL ON CANVAS by Jackson Thilenius

I expect to garner some criticism for this post, but sometimes I think we need to face our demons and question what matters to us. To my dismay, I’m finding just too many vegan and animal advocates lately who appear to be afraid to embrace the dominant truth that embodies our cause. The core message of respect for animals is being diffused, diluted, and sometimes even sabotaged in a desperate attempt to appeal to as many other arguments for going vegan or supporting animal rights as the opposition can fling in our direction.

The simple and powerful message of animal liberation — of compassion and justice for our fellow beings — is being overcomplicated and in some cases hijacked by less-urgent issues than life and death and the acute and widespread suffering of those who suffer as we do.

Part of the problem is that most of us are not experts in a wide range of fields related to animal issues, from marketing to nutrition to physics, from environmental science to evolutionary biology to the economics of world hunger. And yet, we’re trying desperately to counter the objections being made to veganism and animal rights from all of these fronts.

How wise is this strategy?

If, for example, we appeal to human selfishness by focusing only on the human benefits of going vegan, aren’t we just fueling what is already a highly self-serving society?

Or if we highlight the dangers of toxins in meat in an attempt to protect animals, are we not simply shifting attention to human health and away from the moral worth of animals? For, when we figure out how to remove those toxins from the animal’s flesh, won’t we be right back where we started — with no compelling reason to spare these animals from slaughter?

Just the other day a horse activist contacted me and urged me to rally behind the campaign against horse slaughter in the US, which has taken on a new twist: an owner of a cattle slaughterhouse is suing the USDA to set up a horse slaughter plant. The activist’s case against horse slaughter focuses almost exclusively on the toxicity of horse meat and concludes that it’s unfit for human consumption. I find this to be a classic appeal to human selfishness masquerading as animal advocacy. Meanwhile the Europeans continue to debunk this argument by insisting that it is perfectly safe to eat the flesh of American equines.

The other day I encouraged my Facebook fans to post their comments in response to a restaurant critic who was defending meat-eating as a personal choice and dismissing vegans as “evangelists.” Some vegans fell right into his trap. They expressed their aversion to commenting because they didn’t want to be seen as trying to “convert” anyone. One Facebook fan even said that he doesn’t “troll” other people’s sites. I’m still trying to understand that comment. Trolling is deliberately and consistently playing devil’s advocate for the sake of being a contrarian. It’s not about debating the merit of saving lives. And I’d like to point out that in the time it took me to write this last sentence about 3,000 chickens were killed — in the US alone.

Is our effort to stop the breeding-and-killing of billions of animals so easily reduced to “trolling”? How hard are we willing to fight for animals who are being ruthlessly exploited while we sit behind our laptops worried about how we might be perceived as proselytizing? And if not us, then who will defend the animals?

And what if humans were the victims? Would we shy away from judging others for their decision to support human slavery, rape, torture, and murder? Or would we categorically reject these acts? Harming others is not a personal choice. It is a social justice issue, whether the objective is to protect humans or animals. If we don’t maintain the consistency and clarity on our position on this fundamental right to freedom, how can we possibly expect others to eventually accept it?

I know some of you will defend the lesser arguments by pointing out that some people just don’t care about animals. Thus, you will assert that trying to make the case for veganism based on a consideration of animal interests won’t work with them. I understand that. It doesn’t work for them because no one has impressed upon them the importance of the connection we have with animals, in particular our shared capacity for suffering. On the contrary, they have been culturally conditioned to believe that animals don’t matter. The onus is on us to make the case plausible, reasoned, and thought-provoking enough to at least think about it. And the resources are right at our fingertips!

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau offered many insights in her recent talk at the World Veg Fest in San Francisco. One of them applies here. If we keep telling people that nothing will change, we’ll eventually convince people that change is not possible. So why not put self-fulfilling prophesies to our advantage by sending out the opposite message? Instead of trying to answer every objection to veganism, why not change the channel back to what we understand to be important: respect for animals? If we never give up on that message, eventually our resolve will pay off.

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About Robert Grillo

Robert Grillo is the director of Free from Harm which he founded in 2009 to expose the food industry’s exploitation of animals and foster greater empathy for farmed animals. As an activist, author and speaker, Grillo focuses awareness on the animal’s experience and point of view, drawing on insights from sociology, psychology, popular culture, ethics and social justice to bridge the gap between humans and other animals. As a marketing communications professional for over 20 years, Grillo has worked on large food industry accounts where he acquired a behind-the-scenes perspective on food branding and marketing. His new book, Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal Consuming Culture, reveals how popular culture uses a variety of fictions that condition us to consume animal products and perpetuate fasle perceptions of animals that make us feel better about exploiting them


  1. This was a very honest and well stated article. I find myself struggling with similar themes today, and have even fallen victim to avoiding activism practices in the past for the sake of keeping the peace. In actuality, not promoting the ideals of animal rights is quite the opposite of keeping peace. The problem is not always in the messenger, but the receiver. Our cultural evolution has made it so difficult for many of us to see opposing view points, to see from new perspectives, and dare I say, admitting we are wrong. We are often guilty of having fear towards these changes in mindset and especially behavior. Be it a fear of change, or having to admit we took part in a terrible practice.

    It has been said that our choices are either initiated by love, or by fear.

    I often try to put myself in the other person’s shoes when having this dialogue. I guess it would be fair to say that this is why I am vegan in the first place. In so doing this though, I do make excuses for them, and try to take some of the weight that this judgement has on their souls, because I fear if the weight is too much, that I will lose them to it. In keeping with this theme, I also avoid bringing on too much too soon. Learning, and change is not something I can force on, or do to another. Ultimately, they are the ones who have to initiate it, and they are responsible for their own choices. I can only point in a direction, but the journey is their own. It is because of this that I approach the subject differently with each person, as I do in a classroom with students. Each has a different point of view, so they will be inspired by unique media. This, I suppose, is the heart of my perspective that I add to the discussion.

  2. Well done. However, sometimes it is a tactical decision–the path of least resistance or the most politically expedient route. Horse-meat toxicity, which is a very real threat to human health and not a diversion tactic, was the issue that helped activists in NYC to stop a museum from putting horse meat on the menu. This may be a false dichotomy–activists who really care and have the guts to show it–versus those who don’t.

    The horse slaughter issue is a strange, complex and challenging one. Plants are potentially “on the verge” of springing up all over the place, after being shuttered in the United States since 2007. Whatever can shut them down in their tracks needs to be done, quickly. Interestingly, some “horse people” who oppose slaughter are not activists, not vegan or vegetarian–yet. Those of us who are have wonderful opportunities to join forces with them and share the facts about why an individual who respects animals wouldn’t not eat them or use by-products of their suffering. This may or may not go on “publicly” or on Facebook. Yet I am acutely aware that it is perceived–on Facebook–as a case of “My Little Pony” lovers who think horse slaughter is icky but have no problem with violently exploiting and killing cows, pigs, chickens, and other sentient beings.

    The mere fact of a protest a couple years ago in Canada, outside a restaurant planning to add horse meat to the menu, prompted heated debate on Facebook and elsewhere about why the activists were not protesting hamburgers being sold down the street. Those kind of fights are not productive.

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