This past month, I came across two articles that highlighted new discoveries in animals who are regularly exploited for food. A piece in The Atlantic spotlighted the work of ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein, who documented pigs using tools for the very first time; National Geographic featured research which shows cows experience happiness by forming close friendships with specific members of their herd – they can even recognize their best friends from photographs.
The more humans study non-human animals, the more we come to the realization that they are much more like us than not. And I’m not just talking about orcas or elephants or chimpanzees – animals we’ve historically considered “intelligent” – I’m talking about chickens, who were the first birds ever documented to use referential communication. Or fish, like Coral trout, who communicate and work with eels to find food in the sea.
But it’s not just how close animals are to human intelligence that should determine how we see or treat them. It’s also their rich emotional lives. One story that’s stayed with me over the years is from 2013, when several residents of Newbury, Massachusetts called the police over concerns of terrible cries and moans coming from a local dairy. When law enforcement showed up, they were informed that these haunting sounds were “normal.” You see, in the dairy industry, baby calves are routinely separated from their mothers shortly after giving birth so we can take the cow’s milk intended for their offspring. As a result, mother cows bellow for days or sometimes weeks in distress after their missing newborns.
In 1789, philosopher Jeremy Bentham posed this essential query about animals: “The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?” We now know animals can do all three.
So, how is it that more than 200 years later, people are making lives miserable for more animals than ever before in human history?
Each year, more than nine billion land animals are bred into a life of abject suffering before they’re violently killed to become our food. In fact, factory farming is where the vast majority of all animal cruelty occurs in our nation. It’s also where the vast majority of America’s meat, dairy, and eggs come from.
If you’ve never seen video footage from a factory farm, google it. Countless undercover investigations by activists have exposed the horrors behind the closed doors of what the industry calls “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFO’s) and slaughterhouses. The scene I described above with the mother cows is only one example. On today’s farms, animals like pigs and chickens are kept in cages so small they can barely move. Turkeys and cows have parts of their bodies like toes and tails sliced off with no anesthetics, and pregnant cows exploited for dairy have been forced to give birth in slaughterhouses minutes before their throats are slit.
How can we continue to defend these horrors when we know without a shred of doubt just how sensitive and complex these animals are?
Some would argue that we have to do this in order to feed the growing world population, but that is a lie. The truth is that we do it because we want to, not because we have to. We do it out of selfishness and greed. Yes, these “foods” are ingrained in our culture – but what does it ultimately say about our culture when we perpetuate needless violence in its name?
The truth is that just like the science is in on animals, it’s also in on plant-based diets. Study after study shows that eating vegan is better for our health. It results in lower rates of everything from heart disease to diabetes to cancer – some of our nation’s top killers.
The Climate Crisis
But the above is only half the story. Factory farming not only harms billions of animals, it’s also destroying our planet.
We all recall the global outcry that erupted this summer when the Amazon was revealed to be burning at an unprecedented rate. But that collective scream quickly became a murmur when it was exposed that the reason the Amazon was being torched was for beef. Could it really be that our appetites for burgers caused so much destruction? The answer is yes.
In the same month that we learned we were losing acres of the Amazon every single minute, the UN’s IPCC report on climate change and land use revealed staggering statistics that blamed agriculture for 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – the majority of that coming from animal agriculture, with the biggest culprits being beef, lamb, and dairy production.
What’s more, farming animals for food wastes precious water (it takes 99 percent less water to create a Beyond Burger versus a beef burger) and it pollutes rivers, streams, and local communities with gallons of feces and urine.
Perhaps the most startling truth that puts how horrendous factory farming is into sharp focus is the fact that it actually creates more greenhouse gases than all the cars, airplanes, trains, ships, etc. in the world combined.
While a movement of people who say they are reducing their consumption of animal products is growing, I’d argue this is not nearly enough. Why? Because it totally lets people off the hook. That thinking says that it’s OK to still breed, abuse, and kill animals as long as we’re not doing it on Mondays. Sorry if that sounds harsh (I’m actually not sorry), but we’d never make that argument for any other moral imperative.
The same goes for “humane” or “happy” meat. One of these days someone will have to explain to me how killing someone who doesn’t want to die can ever be described as humane – though something tells me I’ll be waiting a long time for that answer.
If we look to science and the facts, we must come to the conclusion that animals are much more than we’ll ever know. And that they should belong to themselves, not to us.
Main image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals