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Food Justice and Personal Rewilding as Social Movements

Social justice mandates animals should not be treated as marginalized "others”

Social and food justice: If you truly believe in social justice you might want to rethink whom you eat

In her excellent essay, Dr. Hope Ferdowsian clearly showed "Why Justice for Animals Is the Social Movement of Our Time." Here, I want to follow up on how issues of rampant and brutal animal abuse, specifically in the profit-driven animal-industrial food complex, and social justice, are closely linked. Numerous people worldwide either don't know about the horrific treatment of so-called "food animals" or are very good at denying the enormous amount of pain and suffering these sentient beings experience on the way to human mouths (please see, for example, "Hooked on Meat: Evolution, Psychology, and Dissonance"). I've been thinking a long time about how issues of animal abuse truly are issues about social justice, and nowhere are violations of individual social justice more obvious than in the animal-industrial food complex where the sheer number of nonhuman animals (animals) who are killed for food is utterly staggering and unimaginable.

It’s estimated that around 190 million animals are killed each day for human consumption. This does not include aquatic animals where it is impossible to guess just how many billions are killed globally. This huge loss of life could easily be cut down to something significantly smaller if those who are able to choose other forms of food would do so. And, it's not very difficult.

It may surprise some readers to learn that the choice to serve up animals for meals falls under the topic of social justice. However, it does, because many of the horrific and pain-filled pathways by which animals and animal products wind up on the table, or at the end of a fork, involve a violation of the trust these non-consenting sentient beings had for the humans who claim they really care for them.

Minding animals

I’ve never doubted that other animals were feeling, sentient beings. I always attribute my compassion for nonhuman animals to my mother's warm and compassionate soul and my positive thinking and keeping my dreams alive to my incredibly optimistic father (please see "Why Women? My Mother's Legacy of Empathy, Compassion, and Love"). In retrospect, I know I was very lucky to be born into a home where playfulness and laughter were highly valued, as was hard work. I didn't live with any animals except a goldfish. I used to talk to him as I ate breakfast. It felt very natural to do this. I told my folks that it wasn’t nice to keep him cooped up alone. My parents told me that when I was around 3-years-old I started asking them what animals, especially the dogs, squirrels, birds, and ants with whom I had contact outside of our apartment in Brooklyn, were thinking and feeling. They said I was constantly minding animals; not only was I attributing minds to them, but I also was very concerned with how they were treated and always said we also needed to mind and care for them because they couldn’t do it for themselves (please see Lybi Ma's "Take a Walk on the Rewild Side"). In 2002 I published a book called Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, and my concern for individual animals has continued on for decades as I also work in the rapidly developing fields called cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and compassionate conservation (please also see and the website for Minding Animals International).

The horrific life of animals used for food production

Many animals come to the table via the auspices of what is called factory farming. Of course, factory farms are not farms at all. They are businesses that put profit above everything else, even what they call the “humane” treatment of the animals who they are preparing for future meals. A number of these places – rightfully called slaughterhouses -- have been closed because of violations of even the most minimal of humane standards. And, of course, what happens on the kill floor at the slaughterhouse comes at the end of a hard life filled with deep and reprehensible pain and suffering on the way to getting a bolt shot into their head using what’s called a cattle gun or a life-ending shock, neither of which is especially efficient. After being stunned and thought to be unconscious, the animals are hung and allowed to bleed out, some, no doubt, experiencing deep pain as they dangle in the air.

Born again carnivores: Raise “happy” animals, love them, kill them, and eat them

Here I want to briefly consider other ways that animals are prepared for meals, namely, on family farms and “cruelty free” farms where animals, often called “happy animals,” are bred, reared, loved, and then killed for food. Some of the people who practice this sort of slaughter with great zeal are former vegetarians and vegans who justify killing their friends by claiming how much they love them and care for their souls—even going so far as to pray for them in some cases. But really, the animals are simply a convenient means to an end: a supposedly tasty meal.

The so-called "stairway to heaven" is a "feel good" scam

I call this practice born-again carnivorism and see it as a violation of friendship, trust, and justice – a double-cross – and a good example of the lack of food justice in a meat-eating culture. It’s the same sort of double-cross animals experience when they are “lucky enough” to trod along what iconic animal welfarist Dr. Temple Grandin calls the “stairway to heaven” in their final moments, before they receive a bolt to the head that is supposed to kill them instantaneously, without pain. Clearly, animal welfare in the animal-industrial complex isn't working. Those who support Grandin's work say she’s making a better life for cows. But really? Maybe for 0.000001% of cows in a very small way. But they still get slaughtered. A better life does not mean a good life.

Of course, Dr. Grandin’s poetic rendering of the stairway to heaven doesn’t fool many because it’s really a stairway to slaughter -- a stairway to death – and a walkway that does nothing to end the horrific practice of factory farming. It’s a feeble attempt to hide the incredible pain and suffering food animals endure before they are slaughtered, and likely while and after they are slaughtered, all the time thinking and feeling perhaps, that people like Dr. Grandin and others really have their best interests in mind.

"Cattle appear unaware that their throat is cut” (Dr. Temple Grandin)

Dr. Grandin also writes, “Cattle do not appear distressed even when the onset of unconsciousness is delayed. Pain and distress cannot be determined by measurements such as an electroencephalogram. Behavioral observations, however, are valid measures for assessing pain." She also claims "cattle appear unaware that their throat is cut.” The use of the word “appear” should be caution enough that the animals are not being killed pain free. Even if the cows don’t have a clue what is going to happen, and I doubt this is the case, they are still being killed either on the killing floor or at the hands of their best human friends on “humane farms” where they were “happy cows.”

Furthermore, Dr. Grandin claims she has a more privileged access to the minds and feelings of other animals because she thinks in pictures as they do. However, a scientific study does not support her belief. This is not to say Dr. Grandin does not connect with other animals, but rather I'm not convinced she does so more deeply than many others. However, if she connects in any way with the cows whom she is sending to their unnecessary deaths, why doesn’t she work to shut down factory farming once and for all and put an end to the pain and suffering these sentient beings endure from birth to slaughter?

All in all, the “stairway to heaven” is a “feel good” scam, a foil to make people think that the cow they’re eating arrived on their plate having previously had a “good life” as Dr. Grandin puts it. Even if “the stairway” worked well, it really only makes “life better” – but it is hardly or marginally a “good life” -- for a tiny percentage of industrial cows for a tiny fraction of their lives for, as I mentioned above, their journey to the kill floor is filled with heinous pain and suffering long before they arrive in the torture chamber. Furthermore, the death of these sentient beings is an irreversible harm for which all of the people working and purchasing in the “industrial food complex” are responsible. Ascribing love to this relationship is done in bad faith and does not address the injustice of subjecting these feeling beings to ruthless slaughter. I often ask if people would allow their dog to have the life of a food animal and they’re aghast when I do. They fail to realize that cows and other food animals don’t suffer less than their “best friend.”

Let me return for a moment to the flawed notion that killing or consuming “humanely reared” animals is somehow a form of social and food justice. The animals who are raised are sentient beings who experience rich and deep emotional lives. The scientific literature on the emotional lives of food animals is large and growing (please also see). Thus, these beings are not “others,” or objects, and ought not be oppressed as if they are a marginalized, lower class of beings.

Indeed, following Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity, nonhumans, like us, are emotional beings, who care about what happens to themselves and their families and friends. Some argue that it’s okay to kill these sentient beings because “we gave them a life they wouldn’t have otherwise had.” I find this line of reasoning to be an absurd justification for the unnecessary slaughter. Also, while some say they “euthanized” the animals, this is not so. Euthanasia is a form of mercy-killing for very sick individuals, but the animals who are killed for food when a human decides “it’s time to go” are healthy and, the people claim, "happy animals." So, what right do we have to kill happy animals? I find their line of reasoning to be utterly baffling and self-serving.

Rewilding as a social movement and spiritual path toward promoting social and food justice

In Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence I argue that a personal and spiritual transformation, personal rewilding, can help us reconnect and become re-enchanted with nature, including nonhumans and their homes. A review of my book published on the email list JewishMediaReview noted that it is “A fascinating book that reminds one in certain ways of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who encouraged humans to have a sense of awe, and radical amazement. Bekoff connects our awe of nature to the need to respect all animal life – human and non-human, and to embody those traits into our heart and soul. A very inspiring and informative read.” (email, February 2, 2015 from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins).

Rewilding can also be a social movement and spiritual path toward promoting social and food justice. Indeed, it can promote justice in all areas of animal abuse. Rewilding is a spiritual practice that entails acting from the inside out, allowing our actions to be motivated and guided by compassion, kindness, respect, and love for nonhuman beings. In effect, we, the see-er, become the seen. Rewilding can be as simple as watching birds in flight, squirrels playing and chasing one another, bees going from flower to flower in search of nectar, or taking a walk along a creek and allowing these (re)connections that warm our hearts to motivate acts on behalf of other animals, other humans, and their homes. Personal rewilding is a “good,” a virtue that will allow other animals to be viewed as whom they are, not as what we want them to be. If enough people make this choice, rewilding can become a cultural meme that would spread across the globe, for compassion begets compassion.

"Even after reading the book and confirming the sordid details about my destructive habit, I’m still not ready to go vegetarian – I just really love to eat meat." (Caroline Morley, "Meathooked: How eating meat became a global obsession")

It's easy to add more compassion to the world and to expand our compassion footprint. Excuses such as "Oh, I know they suffer, but don't tell me about it because I love burgers too much to give up meat" add cruelty to the world, even if the animals people eat weren't raised on factory farms and killed in slaughterhouses. No matter what, you're eating a dead animal who really did care about what happened to him or her.

When I ask people how they can dismiss the fact that an animal was killed for their pleasure, they usually cannot provide a meaningful answer. When I ask them if they'd eat a dog, they look at me with incredulity and emphatically say, "No!" When I ask them why they wouldn't eat a dog, they can't really tell me, offering statements laden with dismissive phrases, such as "Oh, I know they suffer but I love my burger." Because I travel to China to help in the rehabilitation of Asiatic moon bears who have been rescued from the bear bile industry, people sometimes ask me, "How can you go there? Isn't that where they eat dogs and cats?" I simply say, "Yes, it is, and I'm from America, where they eat cows and pigs, who are no less sentient and emotional beings." Nonhuman animals really are very much like us.

Personal rewilding, no matter how one decides to approach it, calls for a radical system change, a revolution in heart that will make the lives of other animals much much better. It will surely help to put an end to social and food injustices for billions of sentient beings who really are very much like us, simply wanting to live in peace and safety. And of course, for those who choose to eat other animals, it’s a matter of who’s for dinner, not what’s for dinner. Words matter (please see "Is an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?").

No matter how "humanely" raised they are, the lives of animals raised for food can be cashed out simply as "dead cow/pig/chicken walking." Whom we choose to eat is a matter of life and death. I think of the animals' manifesto as "Leave us alone. Don't bring us into the world if you're just going to kill us to satisfy your tastes." This surely would be a move consistent with food justice for the billions of sentient beings who are brutally killed for human meals.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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