Animal rights: the last frontier of social injustice

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way
its animals are treated.”
(Mahatma Ghandi)

“The time will come when men will look upon the murder of animals as they
now look upon the murder of men.”
(Leo Tolstoy)

“He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man.” (Isaiah 66:3)

Animal rights, or the rights of non-human animals, (to break up a much-maligned term) is one of the most pressing social-justice issues of our time. Every year more than 150 billion animals are killed for the global meat industry alone. Most are still babies when they die. Some, like ‘suckling’ pigs and ‘veal’ calves, are not even weaned – much to the immense grief of their mothers (and the sickening ‘amusement’ of some slaughter men when desperate lambs suck on bloody fingers.) Slaughter is very rarely humane. The Freedom Food label doesn’t offer any protection to the poor being who’s about to be pushed onto the killing floor. And there is no special treatment for ‘organic’. Yet each of these is a conscious, sentient, gendered individual – much as the animal exploitation industries might try to depersonalise and pluralize them as so many ‘stock,’ ‘units,’ ‘specimens’ or numbers.

Shockingly, the average meat eater personally consumes over 11,000 animals across one lifetime: 1,158 chickens, 6,182 fish, 39 turkeys, 23 sheep, 18 pigs, 28 ducks, 4 cows, and at least 1 goose and a rabbit, according to statistics from VIVA. That’s a lot of lives. And every death is an extinction. Yet most of Britain’s town and city-dwellers have little or no connection to any living, breathing, ‘farmed’ animals, and thus very little opportunity of developing any compassion for them. As a society, we consume chickens, lambs, pigs, cows, bullocks, turkeys and rabbits with no thought at all to the living hell that that sensitive individual has had to suffer in the process of getting from the gate to the plate (or the take-away box). Our consumption is casual, disconnected – and completely indifferent to their day-to-day (and ultimate) suffering.

In the torturous, lonely world of the laboratory, another 100 million animal victims are sacrificed annually to ‘science,’ in experiments which, shockingly, 86% of the time, have absolutely nothing to do with new medicines. Very often these are for pointless academic gain, or because commercial corporations simply won’t share existing test results with their ‘competition.’ And this in a time when we also have so many humane alternatives: MRI, CAT and PET scanning, use of human cells, tissues and organ culture, molecular and test-tube methods, clinical trials on voluntary human patients, (far more accurate, of course) use of computer models – and importantly, the development of disease prevention.

A further 50 million terrified beings die in agony on our fur farms every year – mostly through mass gassing and anal electrocution, (so that the fur doesn’t ‘spoil’) and  after a hellish existence inside a tiny cage with a wire-floor that routinely cuts into their feet, in a dark, airless building. Mutilated and blinded, injuries are never dealt with – and terrible violence is carried out on our behalves, in the name of so-called ‘fashion.’ How can we continue to justify these atrocities?

The scale of animal suffering is at a terrible, all-time high. Every year billions of beings are brought into this world just to die and suffer at our hands. We brand them, take away their young, forcibly inseminate them, painfully experiment on them, strip the fur from their backs, rape them in animal ‘brothels’ (legal in various parts of the so-called ‘civilized’ world) and deny them even the most basic of rights. Not just to life, but to freedom from bodily harm, to sunshine, fresh air, natural habitat, company of their own kind, the right to choose their mates, to respect and dignity – and very often to sleep, rest, food, shelter, even water. Sickeningly, the only daylight most ‘factory-farmed’ animals ever get to see is on their terrifying last journey to the slaughterhouse. We even make a sadistic ‘sport’ of hunting and baiting them. Contrary to popular belief, domestic animal cruelty incidences are also on the up, with the internet fuelling a sickening competition in DIY torture clips. It’s a deeply disturbing picture. Our human ‘dominion’ has created a truly satanic landscape. We have enslaved and subjugated on a scale and with a gravity never seen before in the history of rapacious Homo sapiens sapiens… We the so-called “all-knowing” ones.

2017 marks 70 years since the introduction in Britain of intensive factory farming – one of the most violent methods of mass ‘production’ of our fellow beings ever invented by humans. Plans are afoot for an even greater escalation, with “zero-grazing” facilities, (no grass, no freedom) and 10,000 strong “mega-dairies,” for example, becoming more and more the horrific ‘norm,’ as our own population figures spiral ever further out of control. And yet few know the truth about the dreadful day to day reality that these poor animals are made to go through.

Tragically, our long entrenched speciesism, (a prejudice more virulent than racism or sexism,) persuades us that there is a crucial difference between other animals and us. We tell ourselves that they don’t feel as we do, so their suffering is somehow ‘less.’ We tell ourselves that they don’t understand what is happening to them, that they don’t matter – not where there is a human interest involved, anyway. But this is ‘fallen’ humanity – in wilful, supreme denial. This is speciesist, anthropocentric bias inherited from our own blatantly self-serving ways, from secular humanism and from the highly corrupted, monotheistic religions which sit underneath our Western culture. (In the Beginning, the Creator stated very clearly, in fact: “You shall not kill” and commanded a nonviolent, vegan diet, as per Genesis 1:29: “I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” In the Hebrew Bible all animals are described as “nefesh chaya” – ensouled beings, but subsequent translations obscured this, making an artificial distinction between human animals and nonhuman animals by referring to humans as “souls” and animals as “creatures”.)

We put our hands over our ears and insist that we don’t want to know. We don’t want to know. But can we really say that we live in a progressive, civilized and ethical society, in light of all this? Animal rights can no longer remain on the margins of our moral and spiritual concern. It is high time we came into right relationship with our fellow animal kin.

“Anthropomorphism” is, of course, an old and bitter accusation, but it’s not about projecting: it’s about identifying and recognising – observational, Cartesian tools after all. It’s about focusing on our similarities (which are many) and not on our differences (which in basic terms, are very few).

Ground-breaking research is proving that animal sentiency and sapiency are not only indisputable facts, but that they are also far more complex than we had ever before dared to imagine. Sheep can remember faces for up to two years, cows can use tools, prairie dogs have developed their own language, pigs are intelligent enough to manipulate in order to obtain food, whales and elephants mourn their dead, cross-species acts of altruism are frequent and widespread. Contrary to popular belief, animals experience not only fear, pain and pleasure, but a wide range of sophisticated emotions from boredom to anger, from jealousy, to stress and depression; emotions with which we can all identify. How much longer can we justify the killing and abuse of our fellow beings when their experience is not so very different from our own?

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sharing their life with an animal companion and engaging in a relationship based on trust, rather than exploitation, absolutely knows that animals feel a complex range of emotions easily recognisable to us; that they dream (and therefore process their experiences); that they anticipate, learn and remember. What more proof do we need of consciousness?

Ethologists like Dame Jane Goodall have shown our real kinship, and demonstrated the rich emotional lives of our cousins the apes. New research has established that we share 99.8% of our genes in common with chimpanzees, to the point that our bodies could even successfully take a cross-species blood transfusion. How can we continue to endorse our relentless exploitation, in light of this damning evidence?

Personality, family and biography are not just the domain of human animals. All this raises serious moral and ethical questions.

It’s high time we stopped deriding those who are still able to feel a strong bond of empathy as “sentimental,” “childish,” “unrealistic” and ‘over-soft,’ those who have managed to escape society’s hardening process (to prepare them for their blind collusion in lucrative animal exploitation.) Empathy is the key to societal harmony. It is the building block of compassion towards our fellow humans too. Thankfully, the majority of children are born loving animals. In fact it is this natural love and desire to help and protect them, this identification of commonality (and beautiful difference) which helps them to form positive relationships with their fellow humans.

We desperately need to connect again: individual to individual, eye to eye, heart to heart. We need to find ways to reverse negative social conditioning, and develop a kinder and fairer society – for all beings. We need to have the courage to bear witness. We mustn’t close our eyes and our ears to animal pain. Non-human animals are completely disenfranchised. They have no voice. Only we can change things. Empathy is a powerful tool. The Golden Rule – do as you would be done by – was based on nothing less.

Seen in this way, animal rights are no longer of marginal concern at all, the so-called ‘zany’ domain of sentimentalists and fanatics, but rather a highly legitimate and pressing social justice issue. They are the only logical conclusion for an ethical society which also recognises the rights of pre-verbal infants, children, the brain-damaged, and those with learning disabilities.

There is no higher purpose than to protect the weak and vulnerable, to free the enslaved, the oppressed, and the suffering.

And we are not powerless. Above all, we can stop eating flesh. Meat is an addiction. We don’t need it. In fact, our omnivorous bodies are infinitely healthier without it. It’s the single most powerful thing we can do. We can take a step further and become vegan, avoiding all animal products. Our protein needs are easily taken care of and a vegan diet isn’t one of gourmet deprivation at all. Buying only cruelty-free cosmetics and personal and household products is another big step in the right direction. It’s no longer expensive to care. In the UK, many of the major supermarkets’ own-brand products are now animal-friendly and carry Cruelty Free International’s leaping bunny logo. When even toilet bleach, anti-freeze and furniture polish are tested on animals, it’s the very least we can do.

All living beings have the right to freedom from bodily harm, to freedom from torture, to freedom from unnatural death. Life is sacred. All life. Society agrees that it’s wrong to murder, or that it would be wrong to ‘cull’ people with brain injuries or learning disabilities, for example, because they were deemed ‘useless’ by some perverse minds. (The diabolical Hitler overrode this, of course). That is an ethical base line…not to kill and not to cause bodily harm. It is not a ‘belief;’ it is foundational and it is quite rightly treated as an absolute.

Lamb or human – there is no difference ethically. (And the very notion that this argument might fall into the “that’s just what you believe” camp, is a measure of just how far our self-interest is prepared to go to delude and justify itself.) There is no difference – bar a blind, unexamined speciesism. As humane philosopher Jeremy Bentham concluded in the 17th century: “The question is not can they reason, but can they suffer?” The capacity to suffer, and not any left-brained capabilities, are what truly matter here.

Our species has always found extraordinarily complex and ingenious ways of justifying the killing act. But we would hardly think in terms of killing or culling or “necessary sacrifice” of our own species, (except in matters of defence, and even these are contentious). Our desire to live is very strong – and that instinct is no less powerful in other animals. All prize their lives and fight to keep them. How desperately cows will try to jump over the slaughterhouse gates and turkeys will crane their necks away from the rotating knife, and calves will cry out for their precious lives when they’re in the hands of their killers (and when they’re not in too much of a state of shock and terror to do so).

The word “animal” comes from the Latin word ANIMA after all, a being who is animated with life. We have absolutely no right to take that life.

Heidi Stephenson

 

 


By Heidi Stephenson

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2 Responses to Animal rights: the last frontier of social injustice

  1. Claire says:

    Great piece Heidi! On the subject of vegetarianism, it always amazes me that, with the plethora of cookery programmes on mainstream and digital TV, there isn’t a single vegetarian or vegan one. A huge – and I suspect highly profitable – gap in the market! A programme of this kind could be a culinary triumph and help dispel the idea that such cuisine, rather than being a deprivation, can be an even more tasty and indeed healthier diet than meat, once an understanding and skill of use of the produce, herbs, spices etc is acquired. It is potentially the next stage of learning in the evolution of food.

  2. Heidi Stephenson says:

    Thanks so much, Claire! And Andy Murray (creator of the fabulous The Heretic’s Guide To Vegan Cookery) would be the most perfect presenter! https://skepteco.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/the-heretics-guide-to-vegan-cookery/

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