Narratives and descriptions claiming that animals make sacrifices for us date back to our earliest recorded history and would have us believe that animals somehow give their consent to be violently killed for a “greater good,” such as to provide us with sustenance or to appease some ostensible supernatural higher power. However, to sacrifice oneself means to act freely, to make a conscious choice from a variety of circumstances.
For example, upon seeing a woman being attacked on the street, I consider my options carefully. I call the police or I could try to intervene myself and risk being harmed also. I decide that the latter is a sacrifice I am willing to make because I feel morally compelled to act urgently. Another example is the soldier who, out of loyalty to his country, claims he is willing to sacrifice his life in the line of duty. Even the most passive or symbolic sacrifice involves a conscious surrender, by choice, to another, perhaps to a loved one or to a higher power in the form of worship.
Domesticated animals who are exploited as a resource are neither acting on their own free will, making a choice, or communicating their consent to us to be dominated, enslaved, or killed. It is factually impossible to fairly describe such a situation as a sacrifice. What we do know for certain, based on observing their emotions and reactions, is that all animals have the same will to live that we have, as demonstrated by how tenaciously they fight for their own lives, for those of their immediate family, and even for members of their extended social groups.
Even for indigenous people, who live on subsistence hunting and gathering and who kill animals for food out of necessity, the necessary act of killing does not constitute a sacrifice on the animal victim’s part. Author Sherry Colb describes this as “a ritual of denial,” a ritual intended to absolve the guilt one feels for having caused another sentient being harm. “[I]ndigenous people — like us — created ways of coping with their own violence against animals through rituals of denial. Some indigenous hunters have given thanks to animals for gifts the animals never consented to bestow…,” writes Colb. “We have consumed the flesh and secretions of animals in restaurants carrying the names and images of ecstatic, celebrating versions of those same animals painted on the entrance.” (1)
Whether in the past or in the present, the notion that animals are willing to be harmed or killed as a sacrifice to us is not only anthropomorphic, it is an irrational way of justifying needless harm that we know in our hearts is wrong.
(1) “Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? and Other Questions People Ask Vegans,” by Sherry Colb