Why are you vegan? It’s not an easy question to answer, especially during a rushed social encounter. I find myself stumbling over my words, desperately trying to squeeze the entire bloody universe into one or two non-threatening sentences. I’ve toyed with the idea of printing out brochures, neatly bullet-pointing my “opinions” and “feelings” about animals and food.
While my lifestyle choices differ from those of most humans, I do not think I am at all unique in my actual beliefs about animals. I certainly do not love animals more than most people I know. In fact I am often blown away by the bonds I observe between humans and their dogs – the depths of their affection – the sparkle in their eyes. Many even claim to love their pets more than they love their friends, their partners, and even their children. While I too love dogs, I am not at all keen on sloppy licks, I don’t enjoy sharing my dinner, and I would never sleep in the same bed as one. The idea that eating animals and their byproducts is unethical, is not something I consider to be a personal, unique or radical opinion. It is an opinion that I believe all homo sapiens share, though all too often, it is stifled.
It takes courage to question the beliefs we have been taught since day one. Since the day you learnt to chew, your mother placed meat on your plate and sent you to school with ham and cheese sandwiches, yogurts and kisses. Daddy told you milk would make your bones grow big and strong, rewarded you with ice-cream, chocolate and cake. To your baby brain, a sausage was not a pig, a steak was not a cow, and chicken wings were never made to fly. You may have also had a cat or dog at home – a fluffy thing that likes belly rubs and walks in the park. Your mother never had to tell you not to take a knife to his throat or sink your teeth into his warm flesh. This is never something you had the desire to do. In western countries like the US and Europe, eating cats and dogs is unnatural and disgusting, while eating cows, pigs and chickens is normal and even healthy. This disconnect in our collective attitude towards other animals is taught to us from birth, and it is not backed by logic, science or reason. Pigs, like dogs, are social animals. Cows, like cats, are highly intelligent creatures. These animals, like humans, all feel pain, feel joy, and have the common ability to suffer. It is my opinion that every individual life is incredibly beautiful, valuable and important, regardless of the size of its paws, the length of its whiskers or the shape of its ears.
“You put a baby in a crib with an apple (or perhaps a bowl of apple puree, depending on the age of the baby) and a rabbit. If it eats the rabbit and plays with the apple, I’ll buy you a new car.” This famous quote by the author Harvey Diamond is meant to demonstrate that eating animals is not a natural or intuitive human behavior, but a product of our society. Let’s expand on this idea: If you place a hungry adult in a locked room with an apple and a rabbit, which will he eat? How about if you add a knife and an oven into the mix? If you were this adult, what would you eat? Unless you are allergic to apples, or have has a particularly unpleasant experience with one very violent rabbit that has made you despise the entire rabbit population, I would bet you would first eat the fruit. Then perhaps after a day or two, after the rabbit dies a natural death, you might then cook and eat it to save yourself from dying of hunger too. If you are especially kind, you might even half the apple and share it with the rabbit (but I certainly wouldn’t give up any of my final apple, unless he was incredibly fluffy rabbit). You get the idea – if you had to personally slaughter and prepare every animal you ate, I bet you would eat a lot fewer animals, if any at all.
I am not so egocentric (and I think you might think similarly) as to believe that my life is so much more valuable, that it is worth sacrificing the life of another individual, perhaps two or three times a day, for each day that I exist on Earth – certainly not when my taste buds can be equally pleasured by foods which do not require such an atrocity. Why is it that we place such value on the sense of taste, above all other human senses? If the scream of a cow was to make the most beautiful sweet song, would you slaughter it to hear that music? If the blood of a horse could produce the most exquisite works of art, would you kill it to see those paintings? Many condemn the use of fur for clothing, while eagerly sporting leather and wool coats. Many criticise animal testing for cosmetics, while routinely purchasing meat, dairy and eggs for food. There is a murky disconnect in the way we humans think about and treat animals, and it needs to change.
Every day, I choose to be vegan because I sincerely value every individual life, and I do not want to be responsible for his/her suffering. There is a problem in the way we humans think about animal abuse and suffering – we think about “The cows” and “The chickens” as collective entities. Rarely do we consider each individual being – a being with its own family, its own unique personality, the potential to acquire passions, hopes and dreams. Every time that you pay for a chicken burger or a packet of sliced ham, you must know that you are paying for suffering, cruelty and murder of individual lives.
Now, do not think that I would ever favour the life of a cow, a pig or a chicken over the life of a human. If faced with the choice of killing a young calf or a young boy, while it would pain me to commit either murder, being a member of my own species, of course I would favour the boy. I hear this spouted sometimes as an argument against veganism – that human lives are more valuable than animal lives – but this argument is meaningless, because veganism causes not harm to human lives, it only saves animal lives.. So let’s assume that a human life is inherently more valuable than the life of a calf. How many calf lives would you say are equally valuable to the life of a single human boy? Ten calves? One hundred? One thousand? There is of course scope to argue that the human boy would likely cause the deaths of thousands of calves and other animals during his lifetime, and therefore from the perspective of limiting suffering, killing the boy would be the obvious ethical choice.
When it comes to animal exploitation, the magnitude of the suffering – the actual numbers – are rarely considered. Did you know that more animals are killed for food every day in the US than humans have been killed in all the great wars of history? Did you know that on average, a human in western society is responsible for the death of one animal per day? – given the average life expectancy in 2018 is 82 years, that’s about 29,848 individual deaths that you, as a meat eater, are paying your hard-earned money for in your lifetime. These figures only take into account land animals. Humans care more (though seemingly not much) about things with hair and legs. The amount of individual fish killed per day for food is too large to calculate, and instead is measured by mass. The estimated annual fish kill is a whopping 970-2700 billion – almost four hundred times more than the amount of humans on the planet today. I cannot provide you with the exact figures of your own daily impact, nor do I think such figures would offer you much solace. What i can do is shed a light on the magnitude of this problem, and urge you to reflect on your values and choices. Do you truly value the individual life? Are you opposed to undeserved suffering and murder? Do your everyday behaviours align with these values? If not, why? It is easy to live in denial – to continue to follow established habits and repress better judgement. It takes courage to make a change, to educate yourself and free yourself from destructive societal norms. I encourage you to be so courageous.