When my boyfriend and I first started dating, he confessed to me one night that he sometimes wished I wasn’t vegan, not because it bugged him personally, but because he felt that sharing his food with me was a missing part of our relationship. I understood. Food is so much more than sustenance. As Jonathan Safran Foer suggests in his book Eating Animals, food is tradition, it is nostalgia, it is story-telling.
But knowing I would never reverse my veganism, I asked my boyfriend:
“Well do you at least understand why I’m vegan?”
“Sure,” he said, “you love animals.”
“You love animals,” is something I hear a lot in conversations about my veganism. And while it’s absolutely true, it’s a reason I try to avoid listing in my rehearsed responses to the ever-present, “So, why are you vegan?”
I grew up surrounded by animals: chickens, horses, a huge potbelly pig named Precious, multiple dogs, cats, pet rats, ducks, and even an occasional baby squirrel my mom was nursing back to health for the SPCA Wildlife Center. Being raised in the company of so many other species does lead to a natural ‘animal lover’ personality trait. I love them for their quirks, their cuteness, their silly guilty faces when they misbehave, and for their dynamic and various personalities. Loving my pets and being vegan are very interconnected experiences, but it is not my love of quirky companion animals that defines my choice to exclude animal products from my life.
When I think of someone that loves animals, I picture the girls in elementary school that had glittery kittens on their folders. I think of high schoolers that take selfies with a cute puppy on the beach. I think of the elderly that volunteer at their local animal shelter. All of these people love animals, and it rubs me the wrong way when the vegan community tells people that they can’t actually love their companions if they eat meat. These people truly love animals, and if we could peer into their hearts, I don’t think we would find anything to the contrary.
But, there is a fundamental difference in people that simply love their animals and people that are vegan. I am not vegan because I love animals. I am vegan because I do not see myself as superior to animals. How can I be superior if I am just an animal myself?
Humans have what my dear co-worker would refer to as ‘special snowflake syndrome’. We tend to think of ourselves as above every other species because of our intelligence and high functionality. We think we are the best, the most wise, the dictators. The truth is that we share this planet with species that have fought just as hard in their own ways to survive and stay afloat amid evolution’s tireless tests. While we might have more complex intelligence than other animals, it does not mean that we have more of a RIGHT to anything. We do not have the right to dominate, exploit, or enslave another species simply because they are different from us. It’s the same reason why we can’t enslave other races, place lesser value on women, or persecute those of different religions. When we believe different means lesser we lose our humanity.
I am vegan because in looking into the eyes of a pig on the way to slaughter, I feel its pain as my own. Not because I am sensitive or naive — as some would suggest — but because empathy is one of the most useful tools I have. It allows me to place myself in the perspective of others, and in any exploitation or tragedy, we must look at the world through the eyes of the victim. Our natural empathy gives us this ability; it allows us to make judgements and decisions based in morality. Humanity has always progressed toward a better world because of our empathy and our evolving sense of right and wrong.
I feel these pigs’ fear, pain, exhaustion, and hopelessness. I know that no one should have to go through what they are enduring. I know it so deeply that it leaves me in psychological pain to not be able to stop it immediately. Just as we know it is wrong to force dog fights, starve a cat, or kick a helpless creature, we also know that it is unjust to condone wrongdoing to any other species.
Consider this: We can’t personally love every human on this planet, and I’m sure there are many that we wouldn’t even care for, but it’s wrong to intentionally harm or exploit humans nonetheless. Rape, slavery, abuse — none of it is ever justifiable. This is not because we personally love the people that suffer this abuse (like we love our individual pets), but because every living being should be free from torture, free from exploitation, free from intentional suffering at the hands of another.
Animal agriculture thrives on what Melanie Joy of Beyond Carnism would call the “mentality of domination and subjugation”. We see ourselves as superior to beings with whom we share the Earth. Viewing animals as lesser “causes us to turn some-one into some-thing,” says Joy, “to reduce a life to a unit of production.” Veganism brings us back to our humanity. It removes the barcodes, tags, and numbers attached to living beings.
Veganism is not exclusively for the overly-sensitive or for the people that grew up with glittery kittens on their school folders. It is a natural step we take when we start to act on our empathy. Veganism is morality in action. We stop supporting the exploitation of animals not because they are cute, cuddly, and silly, but because a difference in species does not translate to a difference in how one should be treated.