Thursday, May 09, 2013

On Sentience and Kinship

D.C., a vegan and former animal rights blogger once wrote: "I am vegan for precisely the same set of reasons I am not a cannibal." Most who would hear this would think that it sounds outrageous. How on earth could a person compare not eating other humans to not eating non-human animals? For D.C., though, basic sentience is the only relevant moral criterion that needs to be weighed when assessing whether or not it is ethical to eat or otherwise use another being.

All that matters is that they have an awareness. They have preferences and desires and they take steps to attain those desires. They are pleasure-seekers, whether this involves something as simple as seeking out the perfect warm sunbeam to have a comfortable nap or enticing another animal into a playful game. They have sounds and odours to investigate and itches to scritch. They are not just "alive" but they actively live their lives, making decisions and acting upon them. Like us, they form bonds of family and friendship. They have preferences and desires all their own and if we interfere with those in any way, they become visibly frustrated and disappointed.

We're used to seeing animals we call "pets" engaging in such behaviours--bonding, expressing wants and needs--and many of us accept these normal and even as a given when it comes to cats and dogs. However, our relationships with animals who are raised for human consumption are almost always invariably at arm's length. If we think of them at all, it's in a sort of almost generic sense. We think of them in groups--herds, flocks and so on. They're generic. They're anonymous. We associate them more with pieces of their bodies on plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays then we think of them as living beings. At least they are until we get to spend some time with them in settings where they are allowed to pursue their interests, to form bonds, to seek out sunbeams--in settings where they don't spend their short lives restrained, confined, mutilated and tortured.

A visit to an animal sanctuary provides us with the opportunity to actually meet individuals, each one with his or her own story and with his or her own distinct personality--his or her own preferences and desires. We can see first-hand the delight with which two goats frolic together and the calm contentedness of cows or bulls allowed to spend their afternoons lounging in whichever spot they deem most comfortable, occasionally enjoying the company of another bovine friend. We can be nuzzled curiously by a happy pig looking for a scratch, or held at bay by a turkey protecting a more skittish buddy. We can look into their eyes and see that they're neither generic nor anonymous and that they're most certainly not things with no interests of their own. They're individuals. They're persons. They engage the world around them and if they're lucky, they get to do it on their own terms or at least in a way that's as close to that as can possibly be provided to them as the refugees they are.

These interests they have need not be identical to ours to be valid any more than my interests need to be identical to those of my neighbour's to be valid. These interests need not even be particularly complex. The expectation that they be identical or that they be assessed according to their complexity--and their dismissal if they're deemed not sufficiently "human-like"--is speciesist. Too often, we display selective indignation over the use or treatment of other species based simply on how similar they are too us and how intelligent they are. We want our tuna to be "dolphin-safe", yet fail to see how the tuna himself has no more of an interest in ending up suffocated and killed than does a dolphin. (As an aside, the "dolphin-safe" label is actually fairly meaningless in terms of any guaranteed protection it offers dolphins when it comes to our consumption habits. Over 300,000 cetaceans around the world are killed annually as "by-catch" of the overall fishing industry, yet we're lulled into thinking that the "cuter" dolphins are safe as long as we purchase the right can of tuna, never mind what doing so entails for the tuna.)

Becoming vegan means recognizing that these individuals aren't ours to use and rejecting their continued use. Whether we enslave them to consume their secretions or to eat their flesh, to take their skin or fur or to entertain us, we're imposing our own arbitrary preferences and desires on them. The outcome of our doing so is that we breed them into lives of misery where they are treated as things. We kill billions of them each and every year--preventable deaths, preventable suffering. I had been vegan for several years when my friend Gary took me to visit my first sanctuary this past January. I had long-since learned to compartmentalize to a large extent that all of my family and all of my local friends continue to consume animals and animal products, even those of them who consider themselves animal lovers and who earnestly adore the non-humans in their immediate care. (We compartmentalize to stay sane, right?) It started off as a peaceful and wondrous afternoon spent with the cows, bulls, goats, horses, donkey, sheep, gees, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and pigs at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary. After that short time with them, though, I found myself unexpectedly and overwhelmingly sad, wishing that all of my non-vegan friends and family members could have been alongside me to meet these casualties of the industry, this industry that churns out the products for which their own consumption habits provide demand.

As an aside, I have to say that getting to spend time in the VA/DC area with my friend Gary (who's been vegan for over twice as long as I have) and then getting to talk to and break bread with other vegans was life-altering for me. I had never before in my life had the opportunity to spend so much time with others who get it. An afternoon's lunch with Gary Loewenthal of Compassion for Animals and longtime online vegan friends Valerie K. and Deb Durant (who volunteers at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary) left me feeling warmth and kinship. Meet-ups with Leila and Nicholas Vaughn who volunteer with the Peace Advocacy Network (PAN) left me feeling a sense of belonging. Then another lengthy afternoon's lunch with Robin Helfritch and Alexis Jonelle Cornell (and her guy Mike) of Open the Cages Alliance (OTCA) and Demo Maratos (Communications Director at the Sustainability Institute of Molloy College in NYC and someone who'd helped me cement my veganism on the old Vegan Freak Forums years ago) left me me a little overwhelmed. I realized then that coming back to my own stomping grounds would be hard. And it has been. I miss each and every one of them tremendously. It's knocked me out of my compartmentalization of others and has left me feeling a little lost, a little alienated. I miss my vegan friends.

Each time I look into the eyes of Sammy, Eli or Minou, I remember looking into the eyes of Poplar Spring's inhabitants and thinking a cat is a goat is a pig is a dog. A cat is a goat is a pig is a dog is me. We all want to be left alone to seek out that perfect sunbeam or that perfect scritch. But how to get others to get it? How do those of us who don't have the luxury of being surrounded by vegan friends manage to get those around us to get what to each of us has come to seem so obvious?


Marty said...

Just keep on keeping on. Know you have likeminded friends and there are likeminded folks you've never met.

When you're sad think of those you've saved through your efforts. Know it is a process and we're part of it.

Marty said...

Oops, forgot the email follow up link.