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  • Sep
  • 26

Knowing Animals

Posted by at 6:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Many people treat the various animals in their lives very differently. A man might adore a dog named Rusty and treat him as a much-loved family member while at the same time consuming meat from a pig raised on a factory farm. This is despite the fact that both dogs and pigs are intelligent and engaging companions. A girl might feed her guinea pig Daisy fresh vegetables every day, while the girl’s mother feeds deadly poison to a rat living under the house. Yet both types of rodents are clever, sensitive, and a pleasure to spend time with.

What’s the difference? Why do people love one animal but ignore the suffering of a similar animal? Part of the answer is that it’s hard to feel compassion for someone you don’t know. Many of us share our homes with dogs, cats, and other animals. These animals are our friends—they have names and endearing personality quirks, and they often return the affection that we give them. People are horrified by news stories about cruelty to cats and dogs, and that’s because we know and love these animals personally. We can imagine what it would be like for these terrible things to happen to our own animal friends.

Recently, I traveled to Alaska to see brown bears congregating for the annual salmon run. My bear-viewing permit allowed me to watch the bears who were fishing at a waterfall for four full days. I’ve always found bears to be awe-inspiring animals but have seen them only from a great distance or in nature documentaries. To see dozens of bears up close for so long was a revelation. The first day, I marveled at their agile strength, their fish-catching talents, and the sheer number of animals in such close proximity. But by the second day, I started to notice the individual personalities of the bears. Some bears were affectionate and playful; others were more solitary. One bear caught his fish by doing cannonball jumps into a deep pool. Another used his broad body to create an eddy in the water that served as a fish trap. One gutsy young bear found opportunities to steal fish carcasses from the bigger bears. It was fascinating. I wondered initially if I had the patience to spend four eight-hour days sitting still at the viewing platform, but I could hardly tear myself away—the longer I watched, the more I felt connected to these particular bears and their lives. I started to feel the same depth of compassion for bears that I feel for a dog or a cat.

I had a similar experience after visiting some pigs at a sanctuary for farmed animals. It was only after many hours that I began to know their individual traits. Each pig had his or her particular friends. One assertive piglet playfully knocked me over. Some of them requested belly rubs and thanked me with contented grunts. By the fourth day, they weren’t just pigs to me anymore; they were individuals. And now when I tell people about the suffering of pigs on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, it comes straight from my heart.

Even the most compassionate among us has a tendency to maintain a little emotional distance from animals we don’t know. But we’re less likely to fall into the trap of “us” vs. “them” thinking when “they” aren’t strangers. What if everyone who chooses to eat meat could do so only after spending a week with some farmed animals? What if hunters had to spend a few days with the family of the animal they killed, watching those animals grieve?

If you or someone you know still eats meat or milk or eggs, challenge yourself—or them—to personally meet some pigs or cows or chickens. These animals suffer and die to provide these products; we owe it to them to look into their eyes and know them. And with that knowledge comes the compassion that enables us to stop eating them.


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  • kuku says:

    dear cath ens, you can make tzatziki with soy yogurt maybe? 🙂

  • Eileen says:

    Very nice article. I have a different view, however, on eggs and goats milk, for myself anyways. My friend raises chickens in her backyard. I often take food over for them- they are so sweet and love the vegetable pulp I bring from my juicer. My friend gives me eggs from these chickens. These chickens are not suffering- they are happy and loved and freely give their eggs. There is such a thing as cruelty-free eggs. I also enjoy goat’s milk cheese sometimes- from a small farm that very lovingly cares for the animals. I prefer a largely vegan diet- no cows or pigs- started that over 40 years ago. I have learned over the years however, that dogma isn’t always effective. Just my thoughts!

  • Michael says:

    This is an amazing article! Thank you so much for this. I have spent my entire life feeling for every single being – whether an ant or an elephant. I can never understand why others are incapable of this. This article could also easily apply to humans and racism – it is really the same issue. People have a hard time relating to anyone they are unfamiliar with and for some odd reason assume these ‘strangers’ must not have feelings! Why that seems to be the first assumption for most people is beyond me.

    I would like to believe that whoever spends time with ‘strange’ animals would change their minds about them but how does one explain farmers who know animals so well and then can still so easily kill them? That is what frightens me.

    Thanks again for this amazing, well-written article.

  • cath ens says:

    When you say you ” hosted a delicious vegan bbq and made sure to include “dairy” dishes like tzatziki and cheesecake…..” i’m gathering you meant non-dairy versions…what did you use for the non-dairy version tzatziki???

  • Tammy says:

    I agree with you completely, so i found a way to introduce animal rights to a few of my non veg friends. I hosted a delicious vegan bbq and made sure to include “dairy” dishes like tzatziki and cheesecake. I wasn’t pushy about it, but did mention that these dishes were much healthier and 100% cruelty free. They were amazed at how good the dishes were.
    As a follow up, the same friends will be spending a day at a farm animal sanctuary, I thought that a chance to meet the animals would really effect how they felt about eating them.
    I just wanted to share this idea since the outcome was so good and maybe other animal rights activists might want to try this. People really had great responses, I’m guessing because it was done in a way that was fun and not pushy!

  • Jodie says:

    The ‘Knowing Animals’ article is the most sensible article I have ever read. Hope to see more on this subject. I would also like to see animal lawyers to stop animals being used, maybe an article on this would be good, I have always wondered if the millions of companies, sporting clubs, etc, that use animals in pr and logos ever give back to the particular animal they use or organisations linked to these animals.

  • Jodie Oliver says:

    What a beautiful article, I feel so alone sometimes, I wish more people would love all animals equally. When someone says to me they hate a certain animal, whether it be a spider or cat, I always ask where this phobia came from, and everytime, after a little digging it always comes back to learnt behavior. Most people think I am mad loving every animal species on this planet, and it’s nice to know there are people who really do care and are trying to spread the word.

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