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June/July 2005
The Hidden Lives of Animals: The Secret Weapon for Vegan Outreach
By Bruce Friedrich

 

Illustration by Mark Wells
Illustration by Mark Wells

Up until a few years ago, when someone would ask me, “Why are you vegan?”, I would launch into a fairly detailed description of factory farms denying everything that is natural to animals, of the mutilations, of slaughterhouses.

The discussions went fairly well—they moved many people who had no idea that farmed animals are not legally protected from horrible abuse—and I gave away a fair bit of literature.

About two years ago, my wife and I went to Oklahoma and a high school friend’s mom replied with the very common, “So what? They’re meat animals.” But this time, I was armed with information based on recent reading I’d been doing about farmed animal intelligence.

I told her that chickens do better on cognition tests than dogs and cats—that they know a hidden object still exists; that pigs are smarter than dolphins and elephants—that they learn from one another and play video games far more effectively than dogs; that fish form communities and have personalities—much like a pack of dogs; that cows have “Eureka!” moments when they solve a problem—that, basically, these other animals are just as interesting, intelligent, and individual as the cats she loves so much. I pointed out that, of course, she would never eat her cats.

Surprisingly, she was intrigued. She asked questions.

As I pondered this interaction, and started to use this information more and more in my talks with people, it occurred to me that most people, although they didn’t have the honesty to say “so what” out loud, really were thinking “so what?” At some level, most Americans understand that farmed animals are treated horribly on factory farms and in slaughterhouses—they may not know just how bad it is, and it’s incumbent on us to tell them, but they aren’t that surprised to hear that things have gone horribly awry.

But most people have no clue that farmed animals are interesting individuals. What I’ve found, in my past two years of talking with people about farmed animal intelligence is that people really are, like my buddy’s mother, deeply interested. Since I started talking about farmed animal intelligence, I’ve gotten far fewer glazed stares than when I used to launch immediately into a cruelty to farmed animals laundry list. I can still get those facts into the discussion, but padded with information about farmed animals that is new and interesting to people. Actually, the amazing Tribe of Heart documentary, Peaceable Kingdom, seems to work on this same principle.

My barometer of effectiveness is how long the other person spends asking me questions, and how many questions they ask about the actual ins and outs of eating a vegetarian diet. Even if all you do is talk about the cruelty and abuse, many people will ask a lot of questions. But I’ve found a clear and noticeable difference in the response when I’m also talking about farmed animal intellect and personality: The question frequency is much higher, people take the vegetarian kit readily and are interested in finding out about vegetarian restaurants, meat substitutes, and so on—more often than before, they are interested in at least considering what would be entailed in not eating an animal who, now, they see as similar to their companion animal.

Most vegetarians do make the basic argument, of course—you would never eat your cat or dog, so why will you eat other animals? But for most non-vegetarians, it’s an absurd comparison. Their cat or dog is like their child. A chicken, fish, cow, or pig is like a plant—they see them as crops to be harvested. And they assume they’re stupid—too stupid to feel pain, in the view of many people. They don’t know these animals, so they don’t realize that, actually, in the hierarchy of intelligence, dogs and cats fall below all farmed animals except fish, and even fish do better on some cognition tests than do dogs or cats—even fish have personalities and can even use tools, which was thought to be the exclusive province of human beings up until not too long ago.

The trick, for vegetarian advocates, is to help people to transcend the logical inconsistency of loving some animals, while eating the tortured corpses of others—to let them know that eating animals is inconsistent with their own values and morals, since there is no moral difference between torturing and then eating a dog and torturing and then eating a pig, chicken, or fish.

I will admit that I viewed my answer as a sell-out: The issue for those of us who believe in animal rights is one of pure physiology. That is, an animal’s intelligence is irrelevant; what’s important is that animal’s capacity to feel pain. And what we know to be true is that birds, mammals, and fish have the same capacity to feel pain, so who cares about how interesting or intelligent they are?

That’s fair enough as an intellectual argument, but if our goal is to have the greatest possible effect, to convince the most people to adopt a vegetarian diet, then it will behoove us to understand that the animals people eat are actually interesting individuals, and to be able to explain that to people.

Because it works, as just two almost accidental examples prove: Said Cameron Diaz, in explaining her decision to stop eating pigs when she learned that they are smarter than three-year-old human children, “I thought, Oh, my God, it’s like eating my niece!” And Paul McCartney, in explaining his own vegetarianism, explained, “I am a vegetarian because I realize that even little chickens suffer pain and fear, experience a range of feelings and emotions, and are as intelligent as mammals, including dogs, cats, and even some primates.”

So my challenge to Satya readers who are already vegetarian is this: Visit www.GoVeg.com, view our “Hidden Lives” sections (we have features for each of the farmed animals, and also some of the vivisected animals), and be ready to talk with people, not just about the mutilations, deprivation, and abuse that is done to farmed animals, but also about the intelligence, individuality, and personalities exhibited by these same animals, were they not confined on factory farms.

I’ll bet that you’ll be glad you did.

Bruce Friedrich is director of vegan campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He recommends www.GoVeg.com as your one stop source for essays on effective advocacy and information on the “Hidden Lives” of chickens, pigs, fish, turkeys, and cattle. He is also convinced that the best veggie advocacy tool is the T-shirt that reads “Ask me why I’m vegetarian,” which is available from AnimalRightStuff.com—they also have “Ask me why I’m vegan.”

 

 


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