When I watch a film on animal rights or read certain books, I sometimes get what I call a “heart hangover.” I call it a hangover because it usually comes the following day, after my binge is over and my body is finally able to process what it has taken in. The next day I often wake up with a heaviness in my chest and I am very aware of the weight in my heart. I move about the day slowly and maybe watch a comedy to cleanse the mental palate, gradually returning to a state of function. At some point in the day, after the worst of the hangover has passed, the tears well up and I allow myself a few minutes to grieve for what my eyes have seen. I take that time to quietly weep for the animals who continue to suffer as I sit on the edge of my bed, feeling the softness of the mattress underneath me, knowing that billions of them will never experience anything close to such comfort or quiet.
Perhaps the even greater sadness is that most people today would have no idea what the fuck I was talking about if I told them this. If I were to describe my sadness over war, disease, murder, riots, bullying, domestic violence, child abuse – any other crime or injustice affecting our world today – they would likely nod their heads in sympathy and understanding since even the most sheltered and privileged among us have been forced to think about at least one of these realities on occasion.
But animals? For food? Or clothing? There are still so many who have never asked themselves the question: “How did this food get to my plate?” or “How did this coat get on my back?” There are still so many who’ve never given animals any thought, much less a second one. We in North America have been heavily conditioned to live in what I call the gap: that great gorge of space between how something first came to be and us consuming the end version. The in-between is rarely discussed. Scrutiny is discouraged and ignorance is enforced, creating a giant void that permits the worst crimes against animals to go on right under our noses and in our very cities.
This is where vegans live, in the gap, and I believe it is our job to help fill it. Fill it with information, education and when necessary, non-violent confrontation. It is our responsibility to be a voice for the most voiceless beings on the planet: animals. How that will look for each individual will be different. We each have our own personalities, daily struggles and lives to live; only you can answer what your voice will look and sound like. But I’m tired of living in a world that will applaud me for mourning a pet and dismiss me for crying over a farm animal. To quote Ingrid Newkirk: “There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights: a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.” And of course, perhaps the greatest summation of animals rights ever written by Jeremy Bentham in 1780: “The question (of animals) is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?'”
Eddie Lama from the documentary, The Witness, helped to fill the gap by converting his panel van into mobile video screens that displayed undercover footage of the fur industry while he drove it through the streets of New York, stopping to talk to people and providing them with information on how fur is “made” for clothing. Everyone already knew animals had fur – they’d seen pictures of foxes before. Everyone knew a fur coat was made from animals – they’d seen the coats. What few knew was the in-between – the gap where the fox is caught in a leg trap and left to starve and bleed anywhere from hours to days until the trappers come to retrieve them. No one knew the in-between where the fox is taken to a fur farm and stuck in a wire cage not much bigger than their own bodies and left to pace back and forth, often sharing the cage with another dead or dying animal. Not many were aware of the in-between where the fox is then removed from the cage and inadequately gassed so that they regain consciousness in the middle of being skinned alive for their pelts. Or when a gel is placed around their anus and a metal bit is shoved in their mouth and an electric prod is inserted into their rectum, electrocuting the fox from the inside out, causing a cardiac arrest while fully conscious. No one knew about the gap. They only knew about the fox and the coat. They only knew the original version and the final version: they’d been raised not to consider the in-between.
I once lived thinking there was no in-between. I did what I was told and I believed the status quo of what I deserved, what I needed and what I should and should not do to be considered “normal.” I didn’t know there was a gap until someone took my hand and walked me to the edge of my comfortable existence and made me look over. There I saw unimaginable horror, all so I could eat a hamburger or wear a down-filled coat. To this day I remain on that edge, always aware of the chasm in front of me.
But I also look ahead, across to the other side, and to my surroundings. Some people acknowledge me when I invite them over to come and look; others ignore or patronize me. But no matter what the response of others, the best thing I can do is continue to stand here representing those in the gap, the billions of living and dying animals everyone wants to imagine don’t exist or don’t suffer on behalf of our endless “products”. It’s scary and often lonely but not nearly as scary and lonely as it must be for the animals. That is what keeps me standing at this threshold and what gives me the courage to speak up. The gap must be made visible to people so they can see what is right in front of them at every meal and shopping excursion. There is an in-between. There is a consequence to our choices. Above all, there is something we can do to end it: refuse to put suffering on your back, in your stomach or on your skin. Buy products that are free of any animals or their by-products. It can be overnight or it can be a process. Either way, every choice you can make that doesn’t promote the use of animals for their skin or flesh is not only a way to acknowledge the gap, it is a step closer to filling it.