By Stephanie Rogers
I am on the cusp of another amazing transformation.
It is no surprise that we hardly ever question the conventions we grew up with. Things are the way they are; but so often, they are the way they are because of the way we think about them. As societies evolve, become wiser, more just, things change.
For example; I’m sure that when slavery was a part of life, it wasn’t even questioned by most people. It was just the way things were. And besides, everyone knew Negroes didn’t have the same emotional life as white men did. They didn’t have the same intellectual capacity. They were a lower species. White European males were superior to every other race on earth. It was proven, time and again – by white European males.
Then, women. Read the Bible or the Quran, read any of the plays of Shakespeare. Women are prizes, gifts and bribes, put on earth to serve men, as companions and servants. The idea that they should have any autonomy over their lives or bodies; absurd. They don’t have the same emotional lives as men, or the same intellectual capacity. A woman doctor? Astronaut? Supreme Court Justice? Absurd!
Children? Put them to work in the mines, in the factories, in the blacking shops, as soon as they can walk. Life is hard. The sooner they find out, the better. Besides, they don’t have the same emotional life as adults. They don’t have the intellectual capacity.
Of course, we think differently about all of this, now. There is another constituency, however, about whom we still hold the same ignorant, thoughtless, dismissive ideas. In 1866, Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City in the belief that animals are not disposable objects, but beings entitled to decent treatment at the hands of the humans who completely dominate them, and must be protected under the law.
I think pretty much everyone can agree, and so many of us have pets we love, it would seem we’ve accomplished that goal. But there is a whole other class of animals we encounter every day, who enjoy nowhere near the affection and compassion we show our pets. They are the animals we eat.
I came to revisit this when I met Bill Crain through Pawling Public Radio. Dr. William Crain is a pychology professor, and the author of “The Emotional Lives of Children and Animals, Insights from a Farm Sanctuary”. He and his wife, Dr. Ellen Crain, retired emergency room pediatric physician, founded Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag in 2008. They are largely self-funded, and do most of the work – cleaning, grooming, feeding – themselves. Their website, like they themselves, gently urges a more compassionate view of these animals, with information and guidance on shifting to a vegetarian lifestyle.
Now, even though I love animals, I always thought that vegetarians were kind of kooks. But I have to acknowledge, that my relationship with meat has always given me moral discomfort.
Under certain circumstances, I have no problem with eating meat. As a finance professional, I every day dealt with the “risk/return ratio”, the idea that the less risk you take, the lower the return you can expect, and vice versa. I rationalized that, in exchange for a lifetime of care, for freedom from hunger, cold, predation, disease; it was a fair exchange to end that life earlier than Nature might have intended because of its ability to sustain mine. In the days of the family farm, perhaps this paradigm applied; but it is wildly naïve to imagine that there can be anything remotely humane about factory farming, or industrialized slaughter on the scale required by a population of 300 million humans . As an example – recent efforts by animal rights groups have succeeded in legislating that factory farmed animals must now be contained in cages or enclosures that allow them enough room…to turn around. Can you imagine the lives our food animals live, as they are “manufactured” with no concern other than how to generate the highest possible profit?
The Crains, and their farm, offer no horror stories, although if you look for them, you can imagine them in the cut beaks and amputated toes of some of the fowl. The Crains seek to break down the cognitive dissonance that enables the production and consumption of meat today, and show that there is a more compassionate way. And, since I visited their farm on Mar. 21, I found, I have not eaten meat. It was not a conscious decision; but I found I could no longer pretend that when I eat meat, I not eating animals whose lives are spent in inconceivable misery. I have begun researching what I need to know in order to live as a vegetarian.
We like to make a distinction between “humans” and “animals”. Of course, that’s ridiculous. Humans are animals. We share DNA with all life on earth. You know, when they re-interred Richard III recently, I read up on the genetic research that enabled them to identify him conclusively. As I pursued the references, I discovered some astonishing facts; that 99% of the human genome is identical to that of chimps; that there are only 16 genetic markers differentiating us from whales. Our biological consanguinity to all the other animals on earth is equally remarkable.
And, on the side of the non-empirical, to righteously maintain that animals do not have the same kind of emotional lives as humans do is artificial, serving only to rationalize their exploitation. To insist they haven’t the same intellectual capacity is to assume the kind we have is the only kind worth having. We now know elephants mourn, horses paint, chimps use tools, crows make tools. Apes have learned American Sign Language. How many of us have learned to speak in ape? And then, there’s Alex, the African grey parrot, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 31. If you have any doubt about the complexity of the animal mind, I urge you to learn about him. He is famous, among other things, for having once asked a question that flabbergasted the research community. “What color am I?”. Not only had Alex learned that “color” was not connected to an individual object, but was a concept; by asking about himself, he demonstrated that he was self aware; that he recognized himself as an individual. Can you imagine what it would mean if all of the millions of animals we send to slaughter, are also, self aware? Is there a name for a crime of that magnitude? Are we perpetrating another Auschwitz, as unaware of our complicity as the German citizens of the 20th century?
Animals form bonds across species that rival our own; and they have a power to heal and console that often succeeds where humans fail. Ask anyone who has been saved by the love of an animal. Or by the trust of an abandoned horse.
I am excited about this next step. It comes in hand with another recent change in thinking, not nearly as significant, but, well, here it is. I decided to stop coloring my hair. I decided I no longer needed to reach back to try to hold on to who I was. I wasn’t even very happy there, anyway. I am much more excited to be who I am becoming. I look forward to what’s ahead.