The use of animals in our society is so normal that my choice to be vegan is often questioned and misunderstood. The idea of being vegan is just too radical for some. Their reactions are not exactly unfounded. Animal use is everywhere- the milk in your coffee, the pet hamster on the TV show you just watched, the leather in your watch strap, the gelatin in your halo-halo. So why be vegan? I throw the question back at you. Why not? Veganism is not just a diet, although going vegan can do wonders for your health. Veganism is not necessarily a religion-based code of ethics, although the ancient religion Jainism does prescribe Ahimsa or a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Even among vegans, we disagree about what the term vegan must mean, and we each project our own ideals onto the label. Must it be limited to the ethical motivation to be compassionate? Must it be inclusive of respect to your own health? What is not up to debate is that vegans abstain from any use of animals, animal products, animal byproducts, and animal excrements for food, clothing, medical research, entertainment etc in as much as it is practical and avoidable. The underlying principle is that we oppose murder and rape and other forms of violence and we see our use and abuse of animals as just that. These pre-meditated crimes are not acceptable just because they are committed against beings other than humans. Violence is violence. Rape is rape. Murder is murder. Suffering is suffering. Veganism is a way of life that acknowledges that version of our reality.
The core of veganism is the reduction of suffering and violence. It is crucial to emphasize that the violence against animals is not limited to the obvious aspect of slaughter. It also includes the way in which they have been born and raised- or to be more accurate, the way in which they have been manufactured and stored. Standard practices in the industry include cutting off the beaks of chicks without anesthesia, castration without anesthesia, slamming down baby pigs who do not meet weight requirements on the floor, branding cattle with hot iron without anesthesia, killing and skinning animals when they are still conscious, not to mention the atrocities of their living conditions that basically confine them to a single area equal to their body size for all their short miserable lives. Through our use and confinement of them, they have become artificially disabled. They cannot flap their wings, milk their young, or run freely as they would in their natural environments. Even their physiological form has been manipulated so consumers can have more meat and become more obese and business owners can have more cash in the bank. Animals are forced to be cannibals as the industry commonly feeds cows other cows, pigs other pigs, and chickens other chickens. Whatever the animal industry and whatever their use, the bottomline is the same. They suffer. Needlessly.
Factory farming aside, what is so wrong with eating animals or wearing a leather jacket or going to a zoo or dissecting frogs in Biology class? Doing any of those things presupposes that human beings own animals, that we can do with them as we please, regardless of their sentience or capacity to feel pain. The common argument I hear is that we are the more intelligent species. I find this illogical for a number of reasons. Why should intelligence be an excuse for abuse and savagery? If we were to accept that the more intelligent can do whatever they want with the less intelligent, does it mean we can kill infants with mental disabilities and make sausages out of them? And supposing that another species would emerge that appears to be more intelligent than us, are we ready and willing to be skinned alive to serve as materials for someone else’s jacket? Another similar argument for animal use is that humans are on top of the food chain. The food chain again presupposes that there is an order in nature, but there is nothing natural about the way food is produced and transported and consumed today. Other animals do not factory-farm other animals. It is only us humans who do.
An ethical aspect that people often overlook is human welfare. We are creating jobs that force people to kill, where desensitization is a near certainty and injuries are habitual. In slaughterhouses, many workers urinate and defecate in the assembly lines in order to keep up with the production speed requirements. They are also injured by the struggling half-alive half-dead animals who either still summon up enough will to fight back or are so delirious with pain they can only react in violent convulsions. In leather factories, workers are immersed knee-deep in toxic dye substances. In zoos and aquariums, trainers are given commands to treat the animals like things, to use electrocution freely, to stop themselves from making any emotional or empathic connection with the animals. We are building a world where the demand for assassins is growing, where we hire them to do our dirty work all the while absolving our own accountability. And for what good reason? Because they taste good to our chemically-drowned palates or because we need a new variation of shampoo to treat our colored hair. The world we inherited has brainwashed us into thinking this is the way the world works –that this is who we are.
Veganism is about awakening our senses, learning the truth, sometimes having to dig through it, and ultimately facing it. It is connecting the dots. It is knowing that if I eat animals, I am directly responsible for both the screams and screeches of the animal and the unabashed violence of the slaughterhouse worker in and outside his workplace. Veganism is about examining my values, weighing the importance of my personal trivial interest of swimming with the dolphins in an aquarium against the importance of letting the dolphins live their natural lives in a vast ocean. Veganism is listening to my true nature as a human being, that even if I did not have the literacy to express the wrongness of killing, I would already know it. Veganism is looking at cruelty and seeing it for what it is and saying “No, I simply cannot be a part of this.”