Learning to Look Without Seeing

As you can probably tell from reading this blog, I’m fascinated by the human and animal relationship. More specifically, I’m curious about how humans have come to treasure certain animals’ lives and not consider another’s. I’m sure this will be a life-long exploration for me as I come to terms with my own changes in attitude towards them.

I can only speak to my own experience but living in North America, I can also speak to some of the messages that Western culture continues to perpetuate and certainly contributed towards my former prejudice against animals.  The Bible, for one.  I was raised in a born-again Christian home and the first chapter in Genesis was one of the earliest things I learned in Sunday school. The first chapter describes the six days of Creation and if there’s a single word that has done more damage in justifying the suffering of animals, it’s the word “dominion” that appears in verse 26.  While different versions of the Bible use different words (i.e., rule, master, etc.), that D-word has stuck like the A-word has when it comes to the church discussing gay rights (the famous “abomination” word in Leviticus 18, verse 22).  Both words are still used today like a trump card some people whip out when they want to have a quick response as to why they shouldn’t pursue either cause any further. Forget that three verses down in Genesis verse 29, God also tells Adam and Eve, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be your food.” (New King James version.)  Or that God created man and woman last, after the animals, implying that animals would have been just fine without us, thank you very much.  So yeah. The Bible was probably my first introduction to animals as “less than” even if it wasn’t necessarily phrased that way. It was definitely understood at a young age that there were beneath me in some way.

As I grew up, different animals came to mean different things: my friend’s dog was a pet, a pig was a farm animal, a lion was wildlife, and monkeys lived at the zoo. Thus the subtle categories began to take shape.  In his book, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson opens the book with this sentence: “Walk into any bookstore and say that you want to read something about farm animals and you will be sent to the children’s section.”  Carol J. Adams in her groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, illustrates a similar example: animals in a children’s book are the subject but in a cookbook, they become objects.  She also quotes the late writer Geoffrey Stokes in her chapter on language as a mask for what we eat: “Remind a kid that chicken was alive and there’s a nasty scene, but let him think they make it in factories and everything is fine.”  

As I continued to grow into my teen years and beyond, particularly when I became a consumer with my own money to spend, advertising and marketing became a key factor in cementing those early impressions of animals: milk did a body good, bacon was part of weekend brunch, and chickens were nuggets.  Of course by that age, I was hooked on all the same flavours so many of us were, getting fast-food cravings and “needing” cheese on every sandwich, burger and pizza. My first job as a cook in a restaurant further bolstered the categories of importance I had placed various animals in and it was there that I first actively killed sea animals – there was no middleman.  Thanks to my conveniently structured categories, I was able to dismiss their lives as “just seafood” as I did not relate to them in the same way I would land animals.

Running concurrently with all of this was the message that animal rights activists were “crazy” and “weak” and tofu was gross.  Either subject was considered laughable and an easy way to fit in with fellow “foodies” or almost anyone, for that matter.

It wasn’t until I met a vegan in my thirties that I was literally face to face with someone who challenged my baseless stereotype of them.  I was defensive at first, just like people are with me now, and I asked stupid questions not because I really wanted to know but because I wanted to trivialize them and their beliefs. I had no interest in actually learning anything, I just wanted to make the point that I was still at the top of the food chain.  It’s funny to me now: I thought I was defending my “personal belief” when at no point did I actually make the choice to eat meat – it was decided long ago for me when I was still a powerless child.

It wasn’t until after nearly five years of being around vegans and constantly trying to shut off the part of my brain that dared to question my eating habits when I was around them (they were never anything but accepting and kind) that I decided I couldn’t take it anymore – I had to find out for myself.  What were the issues?  How did food get to my plate?  Were animals even important?  Only I could put my own mind to rest which meant I had to find out for myself. So on a quiet Sunday evening, the week of my 39th birthday, I started the process.  It began with a documentary, then the decision to try going vegan for six weeks, then slowly tackling all the books, articles and films about animals and their welfare, treatment and rights.

When I think back to that time now (I had no idea what was in store for me as a person!), two things jump out as tipping the scales for me: one, I had to put aside what I thought I knew, including the stereotypes, and look at animals objectively. Two, I had to be willing to see them as something completely separate from my own perceptions, opinions and experiences.  I had to see them just as they were, with their own behaviours and purpose. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was choosing to see them as someone.

There are several obstacles to the animal rights movement (some of which I’ve written about before) and it really is a personal choice not because animal suffering is debatable but because it requires the action of an individual: deciding is an action. Only you or your spouse or your friend or your co-worker can answer why they eat the way they do and it must be more than, “That’s just the way it is.” That’s not a personal choice.  That’s an excuse.  It’s up to individuals to answer those questions. Do I think animals are beneath me?  Why do I think that?  Does that need to change?  Why does it need to change?

To be fair, most people don’t interact with “food” animals on a regular basis the way we do with cats and dogs. I firmly believe that one of the reasons people are appalled and outraged and very vocal when dogs and cats are abused is that they’ve had a personal connection with them at some point – they’ve had that moment where they see them as someone.  They’ve spent time with an animal and know them by name, their likes and dislikes, their personality.  This is what gives me hope for humanity.  If more people took the time to look at how food animals were treated, look without actually having to see them in person, I know more people would get behind the push for animals rights.

This was a particularly long post and if you read the whole piece, please accept my thanks.  My advice to anyone: find out for yourself.  You don’t have to start with factory farming videos or graphic footage.  Start with just reading about animals in their natural habitat – where do they live? What do they do?  What do pigs eat? What about cows or chickens?  How do they look for food, detect predators or build nests?  Get to know animals as you would anyone.  In the digital age, the info is right at our fingertips and the very least we can do is find out why they’re on the end of our knives and forks.

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