This week I was sent a video where evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, a big hero of mine, interviewed Peter Singer, an Australian moral rights activist often described as the most influential living philosopher. Singer wrote a book called Animal Liberation in 1975, which is widely considered to be the founding text for animal rights. In the interview Singer made it abundantly clear how small a price it is to pay, not consuming animal products, when considering the unfathomable suffering animals are subjected to each year to fill our supermarket shelves and designer stores.
It encouraged me to dig around more, and doing so, I stumbled across a debate involving Peter Singer and Philip Wollen versus a panel of pro meat-eaters. Philip Wollen is a former Vice President of Citibank. At the age of 34 he was named one of the top 40 most headhunted executives in Australia. Six years later he gave away all his money and devoted his life to animal activism. They were joined by pro-vegan food critic, Veronica Ridge.
On the opposition panel was a restaurateur, an organic farmer, and an animal scientist. Namely, Adrian Richardson, Fiona Chambers and Bruce McGregor. Over the course of two hours the meat-eaters provided no logical argument in support of the consumption of meat. In fact their arguments were so embarrassingly weak they struggled to convince themselves. They raised points like, not eating meat is un-Australian, cattle farming promotes natural ecosystems, and hunter gatherers on the steppes of Mongolia, or the savannas of Africa, eat meat so why can’t we? It didn’t seem apparent to them that some people depend on meat for survival and others make supermarket choices.
In that moment I realised the stupidity of where I stood. For me I’ve always been turned off by the term “vegan”. Mainly because of the stigma that comes with it. I picture a malnourished, long-haired, shoeless hippy standing on a soapbox declaring that alongside not eating animal products we should all quit our jobs and juggle for coins. That’s my foul. Now I picture, Philip Wollen, a well-educated former high-flying banker who took the time to seriously consider the ethics of his choices.
Another argument I’ve always provided is that without animal products I wouldn’t receive the appropriate proteins and nutrition I need to be healthy. Only digging into this I’ve discovered that meat is the biggest factor contributing to heart disease, cancer and infection. Sure, vegan and vegetarian diets need a lot more planning to ensure all the nutrients are replaced, but no serious health effects have been found. It seems this is nothing more than a convenience issue.
The third piece is that I didn’t want to be the annoying guy who turns up to a friends house for dinner and puts everyone else out. Only I don’t have to be that person. I can simply make do with what’s available.
I see now how terribly weak these arguments are. So I’ve decided to go vegetarian. From here I would like to transition to vegan. I would like to say I can go vegan straight off the bat, but I think it’s a far bigger decision than I’m making it out to be. I need time to settle into the change. The last thing I want is to be forced to pull out of my decision because I launched myself too deep, too soon. I want to be a man of my word. And I know there are dairy products in virtually everything in my cupboard and fridge.
I imagine many of you are rolling your eyes by now. If you are I suggest you stop reading. I don’t want to be the thorn in your side. I believe animals should have choices the same way I believe you should have choices. If you want to eat meat that’s your prerogative. But, if you’re smiling because you’re one step ahead, or you’re simply interested in what tipped me over the edge. Well, here it is.
In my last blog post I spoke about whether to save the planet, the animals, other people or myself. To help me write the post I reached out to three of my closest friends to get their views on the big issues. I spoke to a conservationist, a humanitarian and an existentialist. And, whilst each of them taught me an enormous amount about selflessness, what I failed to do was give voice to the animals. The conservationist spoke for the planet, the humanitarian for other people, the existentialist for the self, but no one had spoken for the critters of the earth.
The irony is that I actually do have a close friend who has always raised his voice for the animals. They were the one who sent me the Richard Dawkins video. I’m not sure if I didn’t ask them to answer the questions because I didn’t think they would take the request seriously or because I knew they could convince me of a fact I already knew myself. That being, that in my eyes, animals are the most precious things on earth. After all, we monkeys are animals. The difference is most of us have voices. And those who don’t we often consider our most precious. That being, babies. We forget that what makes a baby so precious is that they’re defenceless. But so too are animals. This in my opinion is what makes an animal just as precious as infant human. Neither can speak for themselves.
You see I’ve always felt akin to animals. I look back to when I was six years old. I raised a mouse on my own. At such a young age most kids needed their parents help to stay motivated topping up the food and cleaning the cage, but for me it was easy. I tended to him daily, changing his newspaper and building him cardboard cubby houses. The little creature gave me so much joy, I wanted to give back.
Fast forward to my mid teens. I remember getting up before school every morning at 5.30am to walk my dog. It didn’t matter that my mum walked her in the evening as well, or that other kids who set their alarms for 30-minutes before class thought it was ridiculous. Spending the first hour of my day with a silent kindred spirit gave me the strength to get through one of the darker periods of my life.
Fast forward again to when I was 21 and living in England. After my door knocking stint I had a job in a fundraising call centre. I was recruited with around 15 others. We were asked what campaign we preferred to work on most. We could choose from charities related to cancer, homelessness, poverty, domestic abuse and the like. We could also choose The Aspinall Foundation, which was an animal conservation charity campaigning against gorilla and elephant poaching in Africa.
We were told the difficulty of each of the campaigns. The Cancer Council had the easiest odds: 1 in 3. That being, previous callers had signed up one in three calls on average. The campaign involved calling warm leads. Each person on the call sheet had been stopped on the street and willingly handed over their phone number.
The Aspinall Foundation had the toughest odds: 1 in 27. The leads were cold. The list of phone numbers had been pulled from those who had visited one of the organisations two animal parks. I remember no one else in the room putting up their hand to do the campaign except me. I didn’t care that I had a lot less chance of getting the same commission as the others, or that warm leads guaranteed a lot less abuse on the phone than cold leads, it was the only charity that resonated with me.
After training us for a couple of days seven of us newbies were put on the Aspinall Foundation’s campaign. Everyone was kicking themselves except me. We knew what we were up against. There must have been 50 to 100 people in the call centre already and virtually all of them had failed to reach the charities hopeful targets. They had even thrown their team leaders on the phones hoping to prove it could be done and all of them had called it quits. Hence the new recruitment drive.
Over the next fortnight I watched as each of my fellow newbies either quit or were dismissed. Eventually it was just me and the gorillas. I remember one day, instead of cold calling, they put me on a warm campaign where I was to call people who were already donating and encourage them to increase their current figures. I encouraged 13 callers straight to increase their monthly debit, convincing most to double their initial pledge. I had a knack for it because I cared so much.
And, then I see the statistics. For instance I looked up the 50 largest US charities. 49 are humanitarian organisations. One is a nature organisation. 1 in 50. Then I think back to those three stories. Raising a mouse on my own when I was six. Walking the dog before school everyday when I was in my teens. Choosing the most challenging campaign because I cared so much when I was 21. And I realise, I’m the 1 in 50. Not the 1 in 50 who cares more than most, but the 1 in 50 who cares for animals more than most.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe others care for just as valid causes. If anything I think I’m behind the eight ball when it comes to showing compassion to other humans and the planet. But, the animals, that’s my bucket. So, what have I been doing all this time?
I don’t have an excuse. I’ve seen inside factory farms. I’ve seen chicken sheds where thousands of individuals are forced to live on top of one another. I’ve seen them trample and peck one another to death. I’ve seen the tiny doors on the sides of the sheds that allow the farmers to classify them “free-range”. It didn’t matter that 99% of the chickens didn’t know there were doors because between them and the pinhole entries were thousands of crammed bodies.
I’ve seen inside a piggery. I’ve witnessed a mother pig, who was pumped full of hormones, split open during childbirth. I watched her piglets squeal and roll around in her guts as she bled out. And, I’ve watched documentaries like Earthlings, The Cove and Blackfish. I haven’t denied myself the truth about just how much animals suffer for our plates, and our entertainment, but I have ignored it.
Why? I guess for a long time I’ve been trying to figure out my own shit. I’ve been compelled by questions of identity and self-development. Now I see that identity is intertwined with compassion, and compassion tells me not to participate in the suffering of other sentient beings. After all, if I the 1 in 50 can’t remove my contribution to the suffering of animals, who will?
Going forward I refuse to make dietary inconvenience an excuse for the terrible atrocities happening to animals. Chickens raised in tiny battery cages and pumped full of antibiotics. Baby cows locked away in compounds with no room to move and no access to sunlight. Their mothers pumped full of hormones to produce milk at an atrociously unnatural rate. Their fathers transported for days on end in the blistering sun with no food, no water, and no rest, often with broken legs, for a slightly “fresher” taste.
Rabbits’ corneas burned out whilst conscious for the convenience of cosmetic testing. Gorilla’s hands cut off for trophies and the remainder of their bodies dumped. Sheep kicked and stomped on the way to the shearing shed. Domestic dogs abused and malnourished. Orcas and elephants, conditioned to travel thousands of miles each year in the wild, confined to tiny pools or chained to posts. In the case of captive orcas their fins droop. In the case of elephants they sway on the spot. Both are signs of extreme trauma and depression. Once this happens, their lives are over forever. All this for convenience and entertainment.
What is wrong with people? I get it, some people are sick. I remember when I was 16 I did work experience as a geologist in Australia’s Pilbara. A drilling offsider and I were driving out to an exploration camp. He was driving and I was in the passenger seat. When we came over the crest of a hill there were dozens of birds standing on the road sipping water from a puddle. There was so much time to slow down. We must have been 50 metres away. Instead, he laughed and accelerated, and we ploughed into the group killing dozens of them. He was a sick human.
I’d seen a similar thing on Australia’s Canning Stock Route. The route runs half the length of Western Australia in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Along the route are around 50 wells, each a day’s drive from one another. I remember the stench that wafted out from one well when we slid open the lid. Hundreds of finches lay dead on the surface of the water. When the birds flew in to drink, someone had trapped them inside, putting a sheet of metal and a brick across the top. Then they had simply walked away. Whoever did that was a sick human too.
Both cases were examples of absolute unnecessary savagery. And yet these examples are nothing compared to what I’ve seen on youtube. The image that haunts me most is a scene from the film, Earthlings. A live fox is cut around the tail and held by the head as its skin is pulled slowly from its body. It squeals in pain. The next shot is of the fox lying in the sand skinless, and it blinks. The person who did that was another sick human.
The problem is it’s not just sick humans who are to blame. Sick humans are the minority. Majority of people are good. But majority of people also pay for majority of the tickets to SeaWorld. Majority of people buy majority of the meat from factory farms. Majority of people encourage the locals in Asia to pluck elephants from the wild by paying for majority of the elephant rides. Majority of people encourage foxes to be skinned alive by purchasing majority of the fox-fur garments.
I know, I’ve got up onto my soapbox. This post is not about making a decision for you. I’m sure that’s how it feels but it’s not my intention. I’m simply expressing my thoughts. Personally I’ve decided to transition myself away from the majority. That’s my own choice. I harp on about it mostly because I’m trying to convince myself. I think it takes a lot to step away from the majority. Not just because it requires us to think for ourselves but also because it goes against our genetic need to belong, where we look to the crowd for direction.
For instance, there is a socio-psychological phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility”. It makes us less and less likely to take responsibility for action when more people are present. Take for instance someone being beaten up on the street. The more crowded the street, the less likely we are to intervene because we all assume someone else will step in. For every additional member of the crowd, the less our chance of taking responsibility. Whereas if it is just us witnessing someone being hurt we are almost guaranteed to take action. This is what is happening with animal suffering. We all contribute to the problem so we justify it as okay. Only it’s not. The problem isn’t the farmers, or the abattoir workers, or the transport drivers. The problem is us. The problem is our supermarket choices.
So, that’s it for me. I’m going vegetarian with the plan to transition to vegan. The amazing thing is I’m actually quite late to this bandwagon. According to a 2016 study 11% of Australian adults have a diet that is all, or almost all, vegetarian. That’s remarkable. It really does show that one day the human race will forever change their ways, and we’ll look back on animal slaughter the way we look back on the holocaust. Concentration camps being the factory farms. Only instead of 6 million jews, we’ll talk about the annual slaughter of 60 billion animals.
Thanks to millions of early adopters, and forward thinking companies like Memphis Meats, who are manufacturing meat from stem cells in the lab, this movement is already in motion. I imagine it is going to be an epic battle to drive the 11% to majority, but when it happens, I believe the rest will follow suit almost overnight. We’ll still eat everything we want, but with the help of science, we’ll do it without the suffering. In the meantime, consider this post another small win for the animals.