Farm animal welfare: Why I didn’t want to know, and you probably still don’t

My relentless angry animal rights social media posts probably give the impression that I’ve been vegan for years, but I actually only went the whole hog (if you will) in March. Four months before that, when I was vegetarian, I posted this image on Facebook:

I would love to be able to remember my thought process then. Did I assume calves were only taken away for veal? I suspect I knew there was something more going on, but I certainly didn’t do the quick Google search to learn more about dairy farming.  My initial reason for going vegan was a vague sense that exploiting animals for food was wrong and as I didn’t particularly like milk or eggs anyway, I might as well give them up. But once I stopped supporting these industries, there was no reason to avoid finding out more about why they were bad, and the floodgates opened. Now I skip past really terrible images and videos of animal cruelty (I still can’t watch Earthlings) because I don’t feel I need to see them: I’m already doing as much as I possibly can to fight this shit, and crying over another heartbreaking story isn’t going to help that. But, before March, my reasons for avoiding those sorts of media were very different.

Photo credit: Sammantha Fisher

The way people choose to disconnect from animal suffering is something that fascinates me, not least because I was one of those people so recently and I find it hard to reconcile that person with who I am now.  There are so many reasons why we don’t want to make the connection between the meat or cheese on our plates and the processes that brought these foods there.

Although we all say that we want to ‘be sure’ that food animals are treated humanely, most people don’t actually want to know the details of animal processing. This is most obviously because to know of animal suffering and not change our behaviour in response would make us complicit.  By pushing knowledge onto people, activists are not just asking them to sign a petition, or stop wearing their angora jumpers – they are asking people to accept personal responsibility and deal with the troublesome cognitive consequences this involves. I listened to a podcast recently in which Lewis Bollard, head of the Open Philanthropy Project strategy for Farm Animal Welfare, spoke about the irony of consumer disgust with GM meat. While people find it hard to accept the idea of ‘unnatural’ lab grown meat, they’re fine with eating cheap chicken meat. These chickens have been modified to grow so freakishly large that their legs break underneath their enormous bodies, causing them to starve and rot on the farm floor, unable to reach food or water. This is how almost all chicken is produced in the US and the UK. Bollard hopes that as awareness of these conditions grows, people will be more receptive to alternatives like lab-grown meat, because ‘willful ignorance’ is the barrier here.

Cartoon by vegansidekick (follow on Instagram @vegansidekick)

Is it though? What I’ve quickly realised is that even when they know about the suffering animals endure, some people simply don’t care enough to pay, say, an extra 20p for free range eggs at Tesco. They don’t see farm animals as beings they can empathise with. The underlying justification for animal abuse of all kinds, including the horrors that go on in factory farms*, is this ‘speciesism’, a fancy way of saying that humans think we’re different – and superior – to other animals.  It’s a useful term because it makes the connection with other isms like racism, sexism or ageism. These days most people acknowledge that it’s morally wrong to treat somebody as inferior because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their age. Yet it is widely acceptable to treat a being as inferior because it walks on four legs.

Photo credit: Sammantha Fisher

We like to tell ourselves that human beings are somehow ‘special’ compared to nonhuman animals.  In doing so, we can distance ourselves from them and treat them as creatures for our own use and benefit rather than as autonomous beings with rights like ours. I just read an essay by Daisy Hildyard called The Second Body, in which she discusses the physical similarity of the human body to that of an animal body. She says “as soon as you allow yourself to be made of the same stuff, you have to relinquish your own priority. You become vulnerable to another animal’s hunger and desire”.  She talks about how humans assume a ‘natural’ distance from animals that we’re afraid to reduce. Hildyard finds this distance in ecology textbooks, where the human is the ‘editor’ of nature, impacting upon it rather than being a subject of it. It’s also there in animal behaviour books where humans are observers of other animals rather than linking their own actions and habits to that of the creatures they observe.

Yet we’re all animals with emotions, feelings and the capacity to experience joy and pain. Sure, we might have more developed cognitive faculties – we might be more ‘intelligent’ and complex than many non-human animals – but lack of intelligence isn’t a moral reason to oppress and abuse another being. If it were, there would be nothing wrong with experimenting on adults with learning disabilities, or on a less extreme scale, denying less educated people basic human rights.  Even if that’s your argument, there’s a wealth of evidence that many animals are incredibly clever: most of the pigs we eat are probably much more intelligent than our pet dogs.

Dogs add another level of complexity to the way we conceptualise food animals. Even if you think yourself superior to your dog, you wouldn’t let it suffer the life that pigs and chickens are sentenced to. Why not? These ‘food’ animals are affectionate, clever animals too. But nobody wants to think about bacon as a living, thinking being: as Stanley Coren says in The Intelligence of Dogs: “Who wants smart food?” Attributing intelligence and consciousness to so-called noble animals like elephants, pets and horses but not to livestock, rodents or chickens helps people deal with exploiting certain groups of living beings.

Another reason people prefer to keep a distance from knowledge of issues like intensive farming is the sheer scale of the problem; that level of suffering is simply overwhelming. English Professor Timothy Clark talks of ‘a derangement of scale’ in relation to the wider ecosystems we inhabit, meaning the disconnect caused by the gap between the immensity of animal (human and non-human) existence and the smallness of one’s individual everyday life. He says, for instance, that something like climate change disrupts the scale at which we have to think. Thinking about animal abuse is a similar disruption, because there are such inconceivably high numbers involved. Globally, for instance, at any point in time there are about 23 billion chickens alive in farms, mostly in intensive systems. Just as with human starvation in Africa, or oppression in North Korea, or domestic abuse, or human rights atrocities, it feels like these are such huge complex issues that there’s nothing an individual can really do about them. So why bother engaging and feeling sad about it?

The difference with animal suffering, certainly that of farm animals, is that this simply isn’t true in the same way as it is for human abuses. At least three times a day, each person can choose to advocate nonviolence, mercy and empathy – or they can opt to fund the continued suffering of animals and destruction of the planet. Three meals, each one a moral choice. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true. We all have enormous power, simply through the food we buy. When you purchase plant-based food or organic meat over cheap, factory-farmed products, you have a direct effect on how farm animals live. You also have a huge impact on the environment. Most people I know will turn off the tap when they brush their teeth, saving  six litres of water a minute, but will eat a burger the next day. That burger requires 2400 litres water to produce. You might as well leave the tap running for six hours! What we consume has a ‘footprint’ that is ultimately bigger than our individual everyday concerns: our consumption of animals and other resources is what will have lasting consequences, for the planet and the animals we share it with.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that we need to educate ourselves about what is happening to animals, and we need to shift our perspectives so that a pig is entitled to at least the same basic rights as a dog, if not human rights. Because this is an issue where we can actually make a difference to the lives of millions of sentient beings, and so easily.  Ten years ago it was hard to find a meat-free lunch, let alone a vegan one, but now there’s a staggering amount of choice. We just have to make the right one.

*Note: I haven’t included any really bad images of intensive farming conditions here (for obvious reasons as discussed above!) but if you’re wondering why this is an issue, Compassion in World Farming have videos in the links below:


Meat chickens

Laying hens

Dairy cows


Go on – prove me wrong and watch them!