Nonhuman animals have many of the same feelings we do and share the same neural structures that are important in processing emotions. So, why do we unrelentingly slaughter sentience? Animals experience contagious joy and the deepest of grief, they get hurt and suffer, and they take care of one another. They have a point of view on what happens to them, their families, and their friends. Nonetheless, in innumerable situations their lives are wantonly and brutally taken in deference to human interests. The activity that claims the lives of far more individuals than all other venues combined is eating them, and it's here where each of us can make an effortless and graceful difference. We can expand compassion and at the same time save environments and enjoy better health.
Some hard-to-digest facts: If it takes you five minutes to read this essay, more than 250,000 animals will have been slaughtered for food in the United States alone; that's about 27 billion a year. Countless others (1 million pigs in 2006), called "downers," will have died on their horrific journey to slaughterhouses. The shocking abuse of "downer" cows occurs not just at slaughter plants but may be an everyday happening at livestock auctions and stockyards around the country—the midpoints between farm and slaughter—as shown in an expanding undercover investigation by The Humane Society of the United States. Some good news - in March 2009 the government banned the use of downer cows for food.
After their shameful trip to the slaughterhouse, it takes less than 30 minutes to turn a cow into a steak, during which time these sentient beings continue to suffer interminably, and they also see, hear, and smell other cows on their way to becoming a burger. One slaughterhouse worker notes of food animals, "They die piece by piece." In her wonderful essay "Am I Blue?" Alice Walker wrote "As we talked of freedom and justice one day for all, we sat down to steaks. I am eating misery, I thought, as I took the first bite. And spit it out."
We not only eat millions of mammals but also billions of birds, fish and invertebrates. We know fish feel pain and recent research at Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, shows that lobsters also feel pain. The response of fish and lobsters to painful stimuli resembles that of humans. In a nutshell, fish don't like being hooked and lobsters really don't like being dropped into hot water.
There are innumerable things we can do to make the world a better and more peaceful and compassionate home for all beings. We can protest the abuse of animals in education, research, circuses, zoos, and rodeos, and we can stop wearing and eating them. We can stop killing animals whose land we stole and learn to coexist with them. After all, this land is their land too. We can alert kids that their turkey was once a bird, their bacon and sausage was once a pig, and that their hamburger was once a cow. It's amazing how few children know this and when they discover that they're eating Babe even without knowing how the animal suffered, they're often incredulous. Kids know animals aren't "things."
Naming animals also is a good way to decrease the distance we construct and the alienation that follows when we think of animals as things or numbers, rather than as individual beings. Recently I heard about a crayfish who went home with a student after a class in which kids observed the behavior of these fascinating crustaceans (who, like lobsters, feel pain). The woman who told me the story wasn't sure what to do her new tenant but after the crayfish was named Bubbles it was impossible to think of doing it any harm, including eating it. We name our companion animals, so why not name the other animals with whom we have contact?
Major media is deeply concerned about what we're doing for and to animals. In late October 2008 the popular television show Grey's Anatomy had an episode in which physicians refused to perform experimental surgery on pigs. Every now and again national news shows have a piece on animal protection in which animal advocates are shown to be rational human beings rather than radical extremists. In October 2008 the New York Times magazine had a major essay about the plight of farm animals, focusing on the horrible conditions at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company and Proposition 2, a bill that was pending at the time in California designed to improve the lives of farm animals by phasing out some of the most restrictive confinement systems. At Westland/Hallmark workers were videoed using chains to drag sick and injured cows and jabbing them with electrical prods. As a result of undercover work the San Bernadino district attorney shut down the plant. On November 4, 2008, this proposition passed with 63% of voters saying "yes, let's improve the welfare of farm animals." This law phases out some of the most restrictive confinement systems used by factory farms – gestation crates for breeding pigs, veal crates for calves and battery cages for egg laying hens – affecting 20 million farm animals in the state by simply granting them space to stand up, stretch their limbs, turn around and lie down comfortably.
Calling attention to how we abuse animals and passing legislation such as Proposition 2 in California is an excellent example of what we must do. The punishment of people supporting cockfighting, including law officers and other public officials also is encouraging. It means not hiding behind the abuse by misleding the public who don't know what goes on behind the closed doors of laboratories, slaughterhouses, movie companies, racetracks, puppy mills, circuses, rodeos, or wherever else humans and animals meet and animals lose.
We're immersed in an "animal moment" and globally there's an increasing amount of interest and activism by people who want to make a difference, by people who have had enough of the unthinkable cruelty to which we subject billions of animals a year. Animal nations are made up of individuals who are treated as second-class citizens whose lives are routinely taken as long as they serve human ends. We slaughter, silence and squelch sentience with little more than a fleeting thought and with indignity. While we may not be able to define dignity, we all know when we lose it, and so do the animals.
It's really easy to make a positive and noble difference in the lives of animals, and we can all begin right now. You don't have to go out and protest or found a movement. You can just stop eating other animals and make an immediate difference with your next snack or meal. No need to go "cold turkey" on meat; do it slowly and steadily so it's a progressive and lasting change. It's really that easy. And, this really isn't radical activism, is it? Even if you don't give a hoot about the ethics of eating animals, since factory farms are notorious for causing irreversible local and wider environmental damage, we can make a huge positive difference by cutting back on carnivory. If you're an environmentalist it's impossible to justify eating factory-farmed meat. The facts don't lie. In addition, an essay in the New York Times showed that there is a price to eating red meat - " … a new study of more than 500,000 Americans has provided the best evidence yet that our affinity for red meat has exacted a hefty price on our health and limited our longevity." So why do it. There are numerous non-animal and healthy alternatives that don't destroy the environment or the lives of other animals.
So, it's pretty straightforward. We must respect and love other animals as our fellow beings on this planet that we all want to share in peace. We must stop abusing animals now, not when it's convenient. We must expand the size of our compassion footprint. No more lame excuses. As Barbara Cook Spencer notes, when we abuse animals, we debase ourselves. And, it's a win-win situation for all because compassion begets compassion; compassion for animal beings spills over to compassion for human beings. And, wouldn't the world be a better place with more compassion and far less easily avoidable cruelty? Every human being can make more humane choices as she or he goes through their day.