By Sarah Moon
This post is part of the series ‘What Should I Eat? Why?’ commissioned in collaboration with H-Net Nutrition by series editors Kristen Ann Ehrenberger and Lisa Haushofer. Posts will appear simultaneously on both sites. Please visit and follow H-Net Nutrition.
There are many persuasive arguments for being vegetarian. But if anything ever made me think it was something I should do, it was the George Bernard Shaw quote, “Animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends.” In principle, I agreed, and I did try vegetarianism twice, both ending in weakness, fatigue, and vertigo. I am borderline anemic, and I can’t argue with my body’s superior physiological response to eating meat. I feel nourished when I eat meat, but I still think about the animal, the perhaps friend who ended up on my plate. What kind of life did they have?
In “The Human-Animal Relationship in Agriculture and its Consequences for the Animal,” veterinary clinical scientists P.H. Hemsworth, J.L. Barnett and G.J. Coleman begin by pointing out that outside their immediate family, “many humans interact more with domesticated animals than they do with other humans” (33). These interactions, they explain, “are often frequent and intense and consequently complex and strong social relationships can be formed between humans and domesticated animals” (35). This opening serves as a reminder throughout an article focused on agricultural practices that, for many, animals are true friends. Hemsworth et al examine farm animal fear responses to stockpersons, and the effects on production, reproduction, and physiological changes such fear responses can have. Their studies found a positive correlation between adverse treatment and fear response in pigs, chickens, and dairy cows. Conversely, they found positive correlations between low fear responses and production levels and reproduction rates.
In my reading, I was struck by the repetition of the word “fear.” Being forced to think about these animals experiencing fear aroused a strong empathic response in me. A study by three Italian psychologists looking at empathic attitudes toward animals in a different industry, animal medicine, found that empathy decreased in veterinary students over the four years of their degree program. Many students gradually adopted a perspective in which “animals were considered able to feel hunger and pain but not to experience complex feelings, such as boredom” or fear (Colombo et al 276). The researchers suggested that one explanation might be “a strategy of affective control to cope with personal distress in response to animals’ suffering” (Colombo et al 284). Both articles suggested that a professional relationship to animals, whether dogs and cats or pigs and cows can lead to what might be termed a Cartesian attitude toward animals: as mechanical automata with only the most basic emotional capacity (Colombo et al 275).
But the studies by Hemsworth et al provide substantive evidence that animals, even farm animals, do experience more complex emotions, and that they experience them in response to the way humans treat them. Most pet owners would say that they understand that “complex and strong social relationships” can exist between an animal and a human. Though they may eat meat, they don’t often consider the source of that meat as an animal with whom they could have a strong relationship. There is a safe distance in our food system that allows us to be animal lovers on the one hand and animal eaters on the other.
But for me, that safe distance disappeared when I married a pig farmer.
I was with him when he picked up his first batch of pigs, whom we named Nutmeg, Pinky, and Grumplestiltskin. They were adorable and, as we discovered over time, had distinct personalities. There are photos of me crouched down next to a pig lying on its side like a dog, inviting a good tummy rub. But it wasn’t until the second batch that I really had the experience of being friends with a pig.
Josephine was the most intelligent of all the pigs. She looked right at you, sidled up to you, and responded to touch like a loving pet. I felt a connection to her even more powerful than with my dog or cat. I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that she would go to slaughter, just like all the rest of the pigs. When she provided the Easter ham, I couldn’t take part. It was the first time I really knew what George Bernard Shaw’s words meant.
But while I appreciate Shaw’s conviction, and respect my own feelings about Josephine, I don’t agree with Shaw that I should not eat animals at all. I know that animals can be our friends. But I also support the consumption of farm-raised animals as meat to support our physiological needs. What I do feel strongly about–and this conviction is supported by studies such as those conducted by Hemsworth, Barnett, and Coleman–is that animals have feelings. They can lead pleasant lives of contentment or they can lead lives of misery, and we humans largely determine which it is.
The conclusion I have come to is that what needs to change is not for all meat eaters to become vegetarians but for meat eaters to take it as their responsibility to know where their meat comes from. We should support the ethical treatment of farm animals that is rooted in the understanding that animals are capable of complex emotions and of forming relationships to one another and to us.
I have a three-year-old son, and one of the first bits of “language” he learned was the pig sound. I took him to interact with the pigs for the first time when he was one, and he sat on an overturned feed container near the fence. It’s a fairly light shock if you touch it, but some of the pigs will make a noise and jump back when shocked. My son saw this happen to one of the pigs and turned to me with a look on his face that I’d never seen. He felt badly for the pig, and I was glad.
Sarah Moon is a PhD candidate in English Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Connecticut and holds an MFA in Playwriting from Brandeis University. She is currently a faculty fellow with the Liberal Arts Action Lab in Hartford, CT, serving as a consultant in collaboration with Connecticut Food System Alliance for a Hartford-based food stories project. As a community writing scholar, she is interested in the potential of food to tap diverse writers’ experiential knowledge and the potential of performance to focus and elevate the stakes of the composition process. She also directed the food-centered community writing and performance project ‘Write Your Roots’ in Willimantic, CT.
Colombo, Es, et al. “Empathy towards Animals and Belief in Animal-Human-Continuity in Italian Veterinary Students.” Animal Welfare, vol. 25, no. 2, Jan. 2016, pp. 275–286.
Hemsworth, P.H., et al. “The Human-Animal Relationship in Agriculture and Its Consequences for the Animal.” Animal Welfare, vol. 2, no. 1, 1993, pp. 33–51.