People are fascinated by disasters. Whether it’s a wrecked car on the freeway, a flood, or a terrorist attack, we are horrified and grief-stricken—but we can’t stop staring. Remember how all of us were glued to the television screen in the days after the triple disasters in Japan?
This fascination is strongest with disasters that we feel personally connected to. Driving past a car crash near our home has a bigger impact than seeing footage of a crash that happened three states away. News writers know that a personal connection keeps us engaged, and they achieve it by adding human-interest elements to their stories. Four thousand people dead in a flood halfway around the world? That’s just a statistic, passively ignored as we carry on with our busy lives. But when the article has a picture of a mother carrying her children away from her flooded home or an interview with a man who can’t find his family, we can relate to their suffering—and we become more interested in their story. The recent tsunami in Japan had a devastating effect on Japanese people and animals. For people without personal connections in Japan, stories like this one helped us to feel the full impact of the disaster.
But not all disasters become front-page news. In the U.S., 10 billion land animals are slaughtered every year—not because people need to eat them to survive, but because they like the taste or are accustomed to eating them. While many may believe that they need to eat meat to be healthy, the American Dietetic Association disagrees, stating that appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate. The needless deaths of so many sentient beings are a disaster by any measure, not to mention the fact that the process of raising and slaughtering such staggering numbers of animals is fraught with cruelty and abuse.
It’s almost impossible to grasp just how big a number 10 billion is. That’s more than 300 cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys killed every second, each of whom is capable of the same suffering as we are. The vast majority of the 10 billion animals are birds, who are completely exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which requires animals to be stunned before the slaughter process begins.
What would it take for people who eat animals to make a personal connection with the ongoing disaster of factory farming? Part of the problem is that animals on factory farms and in slaughterhouses are invisible to most people. Four-fifths of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, where most people’s only exposure to animals raised for food is an occasional glimpse of cows grazing by the side of the road. Cattle feedlots and dairy farms are usually located far from public view, and most pigs, chickens, and turkeys are now crammed inside huge warehouses for their entire lives. You can be sure that the owners of these factory facilities are not offering tours for schoolchildren.
But even if we had more visibility of farmed animals, many people would still ignore their plight because they can’t relate to them personally. Everyone is horrified by stories of people abusing dogs and cats. Why? Because most of us have either lived with an animal companion or have known an individual dog or cat personally. Most people don’t have that kind of personal connection to animals raised for food, and so the animals’ suffering just isn’t that important to them.
To let yourself feel the grief and despair of a large disaster is very painful. Challenge yourself to do it anyway. Visit your nearest farmed-animal sanctuary and get to know a cow, a chicken, or a pig personally. Then watch a video about factory farming. Let it in and really feel it, and use that emotion to help you speak out for animals.
Make your time with your friends and family—including your animal companions—even more meaningful.