The things you can’t un-know

I vividly remember sitting on my bed weeping, holding the book in my hand, frantically wracking my brain for an out, or a way to forget what I had just read.

What I had just read was a heart wrenching description of the experience of a mother cow, who had her baby taken away from her, in The Pig Who Sang to the Moon – The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals by Jeffrey Masson. Despite not being particularly motherly myself, something in the way it was phrased – the desperation and devastation of these cows, completely at the mercy of humans – touched my heart and mind profoundly – and permanently.

I think the worst part was the realization that all of this pain and suffering was caused for something completely needless – human consumption of cow’s milk. It struck me as tragic and unnecessary that human taste for another animals’ milk would trump the basic dignity of allowing these sensitive, sentient animals to mother their young.

It has been ten years since that passage changed my life, and it effectively made “dairy” a non-food in my mind (I was already a vegetarian at the time.) There are reminders of the horrors that humankind inflicts on animals every day, everywhere I turn. And make no mistake, the way we commodify animals is far-reaching, and the result (their lives) is nothing short of horrific.

I struggle with what I know. I think most vegans do (and anyone concerned with specific social justice issues). It devastates me.  I’m haunted.  I try to push it out of the front of my mind, but I am conscious that every moment of every day, many animals are meeting a terrible demise…all so that humans can eat and wear their bodies. Sometimes when my mind wanders I imagine it happening; I envision the fear that they must feel, the pain, the confusion… and I have to force myself to stop because it takes me to a dark place.  

For the most part, I avoid the videos and the photos that depict the reality of their putrid lives. On one hand I feel badly about it, like I’m denying them their due by not bearing witness. But on the other hand, I’ve been unequivocally vegan for a decade now, so am I really accomplishing anything aside from self-torment if I watch?  I avoid it to protect myself, so that I can be a better advocate.  Sometimes I have to throw myself into anything BUT thinking, to keep the sense of devastation at bay.

What I do do is engage in constant vegan outreach and advocacy.  It’s a survival tactic. A lot of people don’t know, and just as many don’t want to know. Some do know, and don’t know what to do with the information. Others are simply unconcerned. I tend not to put my focus on the latter.  There’s not much point. 

We live in a world that’s built on using animals for every purpose imaginable, and even armed with information and conviction, people can find it challenging to live in alignment with their beliefs. Even though sometimes I am frustrated beyond belief by the actions of humans I dig deep to find my compassion, to help them find theirs. 

An apt magnet that I bought from a recent Sit With Me fundraiser.
An apt magnet that I bought from a recent Sit With Me fundraiser.

Most people would agree that no animal should be harmed unnecessarily, but consumer choices contradict this belief. In a study conducted at Kent University in the UK, Loughnan and colleagues found that in order to escape the “meat paradox” (i.e., simultaneously enjoying eating animals and disliking hurting animals), people deny that the animals they eat suffer (Loughnan, Haslam, Bastian, 2010).   (Many thanks to Jenn L for providing this research.)

I want people to know that it’s okay to reject the meat paradox.  They can choose to align their actions with their beliefs, if they want to. 

In reading some 2004 reviews of The Pig Who Sang to the Moon to prepare this post, I noticed that Masson’s vegan message was often referred to as “radical.”  Some reviewers can barely contain their contempt. I hope that in 2014 we’ve moved away from that characterization, particularly in the face of growing scientific evidence that animals do indeed experience pain, and experience some degree of emotion.  

Even if it makes us uncomfortable.

If we want to talk about things that are radical, I can’t imagine much that’s more radical than 150-billion sentient creatures being bred and killed every year worldwide so that humans can eat them. 

You can’t unknow these things, but knowledge is power.


(I focus mostly on food animals in this post, but for a taste of the many ways that humans use and abuse animals, I recommend checking out Jo-Ann McArthur’s heartbreaking but poignant online gallery, We Animals.)


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