I suppose it’s a fair question. Here I am, pouring out my heart about animals; why do I think anyone is interested? Why do I think anyone cares? Maybe it’s just me….? Certainly I’ve had comments and messages to the effect that it’s just me and no one is listening – it’s like the ultimate ‘gotcha’; the counter argument to end all discussion. It goes along the lines of, ‘You’re wasting your breath, I don’t care about animals so I’ve no reason to stop using them,’ although it’s often less polite.
Well, I have to concede that I’m sure that there are people out there like that. I’ve lived long enough in the world to be quite hard to surprise. There are all sorts of people, with an infinite range of views; in fact almost any view we can conceive of, will have someone who holds it. But there are some attitudes, sentiments, beliefs, views that crop up frequently and are shared by many people, and love for our nonhuman family members is one of these. It’s common ground for us all and today I’m going to stand on that common ground and share something with you. I’m guessing that many of you will relate.
A dog’s life
Before I was vegan, I shared my life with a dog. In 1993, Rannoch came to me as a puppy, a black and white springer spaniel. I shall never forget the first time I saw him because he took my breath away. He was as uncoordinated as a spaniel puppy can be, all whirling legs and huge feet and flapping ears, brimming with enthusiasm and joy, overflowing with his love of life, happily wagging his whole self as he threw himself headlong into my life. Rannoch tackled the world head on, living at full speed, putting his heart and soul into everything he did, holding nothing back.
As my constant companion, he made me smile every day. I didn’t care that the furniture was scratched with his scrabbling paws, I didn’t care about the mud and leaves that became a feature of every floor in the house, the treasured sticks and gifts of stones, the dog hair everywhere. None of it mattered at all. His soft eyes shone with love every time he looked at me; my hands still remember the softness of his fur, and if I sit quietly I can remember the weight of his head in my lap, and the feel of his sturdy shoulder leaning against me as we sat together in the evening.
We spent 16 years together. If I close my eyes, I can see him capering in the fields around the house with my sons, playing king-of-the castle on the hay bales with them down the years as they grew from human pups into young men. I didn’t notice him starting to slow down, his muzzle turning greyer, his eyes becoming slightly dimmer until one day I looked at him and saw that he was old. It’s so unfair. I had treasured every day, I had loved him every minute, I hadn’t taken a moment for granted but the years had sped by in a heartbeat and with a chill, I knew our last parting could not be far away.
In the end, despite the efforts of a wonderful vet, I could no longer keep his pain at bay. I remember the last night he spent with me. He was suffering too much to climb onto my bed so I lay beside him on his bed with my arms round him. That pile of blankets and duvets and pillows that cushioned his poor aching body from the floor at the foot of my bed was his post of honour that even on that night he refused to desert. I didn’t sleep at all that night. Every second was precious, numbered, every breath he drew was agony to us both yet he so often licked my hand as if to console me for the tears that I just couldn’t stop. I knew that the next time I slept it would be in a world where he no longer breathed and I really had no idea how I could face such a world.
In the morning, the vet was waiting for us, and Rannoch died in the arms of my son and me. The last things he saw were our loving faces; the last sounds he heard were our gentle, tearful, words of love and hope of a place without pain to be together again.
He left me in 2009 and not a day has passed that I have not thought of him. I would gladly trade years of my remaining life just to see him once more, just to sit with my cheek against the soft fur on his head, just to share his exuberant love of life for one more day, one more hour even, anything.
Going with the flow
We all like to think we’re different in some way from everybody else. We pride ourselves on our uniqueness, we tell ourselves that we do not slavishly follow the masses and that we would never allow the mob to dictate our behaviour. It’s one of these human things we do, and in keeping with some of our other qualities and traits, it’s one that we leave largely unexamined and unchallenged.
Our choice of the species we regard as ‘pets’ – which I prefer to call ‘companions’ – is actually one of the ways in which most of us do actually follow the dictates of our culture. Our culture considers dogs, cats and a few other species to be an appropriate choice of companion and the majority of us – my former self included – accepts that selection without question. Other cultures favour different species. Anyhow, bearing in mind that this occurred many years before veganism came along and smacked me between the eyes, I chose to to have a dog as my companion.
How much does species matter?
Recently, however, an interesting thought occurred to me. If, after I had opened my heart and my life to Rannoch, I had discovered that he was not, as I had thought, a dog at all but some unknown species of individual, would my feelings towards him have changed in any way? The answer is a resounding ‘No’. The fact that he was a dog and that dogs are acceptable companions in our culture was what motivated me to make him part of my family. But as soon as I got to know him as the unique, special individual he was, once I knew who he was, his preferences, his feelings, his emotions, his quirks and habits, I came to love him as an individual, as a person – a furry one – but a person nonetheless and his species was no longer relevant.
So what? My point is that the distinctions we draw between the species that we love as family and those we persecute as resources and commodities are completely artificial. As individuals, they all share with us the quality of sentience, experiencing the world through their senses, through their environment and through their interactions with others. This is not, as some prefer to claim, fanciful anthropomorphism, but rather is accepted scientific fact. It is a fact that is not doubted for a moment by those championing companion animals, although for most, the arbitrary prejudice of the line between our loves and our victims remains unchallenged.
It is this totally irrational distinction that gives rise to the greatest injustice of our age and the utterly horrifying truth of the matter, is that the majority of those who perpetrate the injustice sincerely believe that they care about members of other species. Many of us go out of our way to care for members of one species, while with the choices we make in our meals, our clothing, our household chemicals and toiletries, our ‘entertainment’, we are supporting and perpetuating a nightmare that would prevent us from ever sleeping untroubled again if we allowed ourselves to acknowledge the truth. Were we to see the gore, hear the screams of agony and fear, allow ourselves to empathise with the anguished mothers as their desperate babies are dragged from them, we would find it impossible to believe that such things go on – never mind that they go on AND that with every nonvegan consumer choice, we condone it and maintain demand for it to continue.
When Rannoch died, he died in my arms. I watched every move the vet made and I needed to be reassured that my beloved friend knew neither fear nor pain. To this day, my throat closes up every time I think of that bleak day I agreed to kill my sweet lad, wondering even now, many years after the event, if I really had no choice, if I could have tried harder, if I could have done better, if there was any way I could have given him more time or would my motivation have been purely selfish?
It was several years before I would realise that the helpless individuals whose desecrated corpses, breast milk and eggs were on my plate, whose pitiful remains I was wearing in those days, had no one to weep over their terrified bodies as they faced the horror of untimely death. While I was agonising over the death of my cherished companion, they were facing a brutal existence as a resource, culminating in the lonely terror of a slaughterhouse where they stood in line behind their peers, whimpering in the stench of the nightmare of degradation that my completely unnecessary choices had callously forced on them.
And yet if I had known them, if I had let them into my life and my heart, I would have learned to see every single one as the unique individual they were. I would have got to know who they were, their preferences, feelings, emotions, quirks and habits. I would have learned to love each one as a person – a furry, scaled or feathered one – but a person nonetheless. Because – and this is the really critical thing that is so hard to acknowledge when we are not vegan – because there is no difference between those who are being driven into the slaughterhouse with electric prods, screaming in pain, whimpering in terror, sobbing for their mothers as I type, and those whom we have adored as companions, whose memories are cherished and whose loss has wounded us so very deeply. That we allow this artificial distinction to govern our behaviour is a phenomenon known as speciesism.
Living our values
Members of other species, the breast milk they make for their infants, their eggs, their body parts, are not ours. We have no need whatsoever to use them and no right to take from them everything they have, for something that we don’t need at all.
There is no difference between those whom we love and those we torment except for culturally accepted but unchallenged categories into which we place other species. If we care about members of any species, and if honesty, respect and justice matter to us, then we must acknowledge the common ground that sentience confers on us all.
And having done that, the only action that makes any sense is to become vegan. I wish with all my heart that I had done so decades earlier.