Empathy and the Eating of Animals

pyewackett the magical cat
Pyewackett, the cat

It wasn’t so long ago that the smartest people in the world — philosophers like René Descartes and Royal Society fellows believed animals were incapable of pain or any kind of sentience. A popular parlour trick was to take the family dog and beat it in order to make it yelp. An entertainment that would sometimes lead to the pet’s death. Whereupon, the learned gentleman would conclude that the machine was broken and mock the tears of the women and children of the house for their sentimentality. The point of the exercise was to show the animal’s mechanistic nature though other more damning conclusions about the character of such men are perhaps more easily drawn.

What Inspires Us to Care about Animal Welfare?

Wikipedia has a great copyrighted picture of Henry Spira, the animal rights activist. It was taken in the 1970s. Spira is looking into the camera but behind him is an ordinary house cat watching over like some kind of guardian angel or shadowy conscience. Spira used to tell a story that it was a cat who inspired him to do his life’s work. After a girlfriend left him to take care of her pet he said, ”I began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another.” Steve Best, another activist, found enlightenment in a double cheeseburger of all things! Just before taking a bite he looked at it and noticed that it was “so absolutely dripping with gore and vile, that I was completely nauseated.

I guess I am a slower learner. I had to relearn this lesson a few times. My first lesson came when I was about 8 years old and my dad took me fishing. We were in a boat on a lake. I was cold. The sky was drizzling a slow steady rain that had no trouble making its way through my plastic rain coat. The boat seats were hard and uncomfortable. More than anything I was terribly bored because we weren’t allowed to talk in case the noise scared the fish away. Not that I would say anything. I knew that this fishing trip was my dad’s gift to us. We were spending time together and it took money and effort to be there. So on top of the physical discomfort was a kind of undercurrent of guilt.

Just when I thought I would be crushed with the dreariness of it all I felt a tug on the line. Then a larger one. Something was happening! Everyone started shouting that I had caught a fish and my brothers began cheering. My dad patiently showed me how to reel it in so the line wouldn’t break. We didn’t want to lose the fish. Eventually, I pulled that fish out of the water. It was huge and sparkled like a rainbow. My dad netted it, clubbed it to keep it still and removed the hook. He casually threw the body onto the floor of the boat and got busy putting a new hook on the line. The fish landed near my feet. At first I kind of felt uncomfortable. It seemed disrespectful. With one toss the fish had been transformed into an object when just a moment ago it was a magnificent being: full of colour and definitely full of energy. I was transfixed and couldn’t stop staring at the thing laying at my feet. But then horribly it came back to life. The fish must have only been stunned; now it thrashed and smashed its body against the boat like it wanted to break through. A desperate attempt to get back into the water. I watched its mouth gasp in pain. It couldn’t breathe. I realized that it wanted to live. Fiercely.

That was the moment when I learned the connection between my food, pain and death. I had always known our pets had feelings. Now I knew my food did, too. I knew without any doubt that killing was wrong. I refused to eat that fish when it was served for supper that night: beginning a sad tradition of many supper time disagreements.

Do you get the impression that vegetarianism is still kind of a fringe practice?

I think I got that idea from reading a relatively recent and widely reported Gallup poll (2012) that said only 5% of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarian. 2% were vegan. Gallup’s conclusion was that vegetarianism remains an uncommon lifestyle. Those who own restaurants seem to believe this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked over a menu and found nothing to eat. Even menus with multiple pages might only offer one or two items and those are usually loaded with cheese or carbohydrates. The logic behind topping even their salads with meat eludes me.

Restaurants aside, something about Gallup’s conclusion didn’t feel right to me. If vegetarianism was such an uncommon lifestyle then why were there so many cookbooks and websites for vegetarians? When I make a trip to one of the boutique grocery stores I see a lot of shelf space devoted for vegetarian items. Even my crappy local supermarket finds room for vegetarian/vegan products. Is the vegetarian 5% of the population disproportionately vocal or demanding?

Maybe not. Maybe Gallup failed to ask the right question. I remember hearing Noam Chomsky once say something to the effect that journalists sometimes ask the wrong questions — perhaps on purpose to misdirect or mislead us. I think vegetarianism is one of those issues where people have been misinterpreting reality because they have been asking the wrong question.

In 2012, Gallup was interested in how many people define themselves as strictly vegetarians. What if they had asked how many people are strictly carnivores? Eating habits aren’t an on/off switch but look more like a continuum. When the Vegetarian Resource Group in the same year asked slightly different questions they got a very different return. They found that about 47% of Americans regularly eat vegetarian meals. That makes vegetarianism seem a whole lot less fringe, doesn’t it?

4 thoughts on “Empathy and the Eating of Animals

  1. These issues and our decisions around them are complex. I consider myself “flexitarian” and as I am the chief shopper/cook for my family, they are by default. It takes a lot of label reading and more of our budget is spent on food than for some folk, but we think it is worth the effort and expense to eat the way we do. I appreciate being able to read about how others have reached their own decisions and think if we approach how we spend our time and money as moral expressions we will all be happier (and healthier) long run.


    1. Each person takes a different path through life and has different opportunities and decisions. I know that meat eaters think vegetarians are judgemental but the choice to eat vegetarian food can be heavily loaded with guilt pressures from family and friends. I do finally feel comfortable with my decisions on this issue but it took some work to get here. I only hinted at that complexity in this post but I genuinely do feel these are complex decisions with multiple correct answers.


  2. When I was in elementary school, I got a dog who I loved more than anything and I developed a seemingly innate empathy for animals. In my family though, there was a shame factor in that. I was supposed to be a tough hunter and outdoorsy person. I was compelled to try to fit in with that but it never stuck. I always felt awkward trying to fill that role. Now that I’m way more honest with myself and trying to get that way with others, I can say for certain that I will never hunt, fish, or probably even camp again. Eating meat is something that I’m trying to cut back on as well, although it’s not the highest priority life change I’m making at the moment. I definitely feel and see the complex conflict in killing and eating cows and chickens while caring for dogs and cats though. There are some real ethical questions there I think.


    1. Thanks for sharing your story. These issues are complicated and complex. I think all we can do is ask ourselves what we think is right and do what we can. To follow our hearts and as you say be honest with ourselves.


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