I have a confession. I don’t like animals. I don’t exactly dislike animals, but I also just don't particularly like most animals very much. I enjoy pictures of them (especially baby animals, of course) and I have a strong affinity for forest-animal themed home décor and clothing, but other than that I am just not that into animals. I’ve had pets before, or, more accurately, I have lived in homes with other people’s pets and been okay with it, but generally, I am not interested in sharing my home with non-human animals of any sort. The other day, I walked past a group of eight super cute, clean looking dogs literally wearing scarves that read: "please pet me". There was no lineup and I wasn’t even in a rush, but I didn't for a moment consider stopping to indulge the scarves’ request.
When people learn this about me, they are typically surprised. At first glance, my relative apathy towards animals doesn’t seem to reconcile well with my veganism. At times even I have had trouble reconciling this with my veganism.
My sister and I used to volunteer at the wonderful farmed animal sanctuary, R.A.S.T.A. (Rescue and Sanctuary for Threatened Animals – more another time on the tremendous value of sanctuaries such as this one). We would clean stables, feed pigs, move hay from one spot to a presumably more useful spot – the usual things even the inexperienced would associate with the care of farmed animals (emphasis here on care). Each visit, we would spend some of our time just hanging out with the animals. My sister, Lee, would approach the cows, goats, pigs and chickens openly, getting as close as they would allow and cuddling up with no worry of dirt, slobber or aggression. In the field she would walk calmly and bravely toward the steer, Theo, while I stood by the fence, nervous that he would charge me at any moment. I would try to mimic Lee’s behaviour and get close to the animals I didn’t feel too threatened by, but in doing this I usually just felt awkward and uncomfortable.
In this way I’m the opposite of many, perhaps most, vegans. Veganism is commonly connected to, and sometimes derived directly from, a professed love of animals. Almost all of the vegans that I know share this trait. When I am interacting with animals alongside such vegans, I sometimes feel a little inadequate, as though I am less of a vegan because I am never going to squeal with glee then approach and pet the cute dog walking by on the street. I just don’t want to. Every time I find myself having pet a dog, I regret it and immediately search for somewhere to wash the dog smell off my hands.
I’m just not that into animals.
But this does not make me any less passionate of a vegan. I do not need to feel love for another to seek to avoid contributing to their suffering. These are two very distinct notions that I think have become conflated, possibly to the detriment of the vegan ethic. Unfairly, I think, vegans are often considered to be “bleeding hearts” that don’t want to eat animals because animals are cute, or because our judgment is clouded by our affection for them. And while for some vegans a strong affinity for animals definitely plays into their choice, there is much more to the vegan ethic than this.
The philosophical basis of my veganism is the principle that moral consideration should be afforded to all beings that have the ability to feel pain. Basically, if something is sentient (has a central nervous system, pain receptors and the like) we cannot ethically treat that thing as though it is an inanimate object. Creating the philosophical basis for a system of morals is tricky business (absent a religious or other text outlining the framework for you). I’m not certain that I have found the perfect starting point, but I also haven’t found another that seems more defensible than this one. I plan to examine more thoroughly the theoretical underpinnings of my vegan ethic here on Plant Hearted another time; but basically, sentience seems to me to be the most relevant quality that can be had when it comes to determining how we should interact with something.
If this principle is accepted, veganism (or something close to it) follows quite naturally. If all sentient creatures are deserving of moral consideration, then in making decisions about how to live my life, I must consider how my actions will affect them. This does not mean that the killing of an animal is at all times immoral; there are many interesting discussions that can be, and often are, had as to when killing an animal (human or non-human) may be acceptable. But it does mean that the interests of the sentient beings must be considered along with our own. It seems to me pretty clear that, in our modern society, a sentient creature is not given due moral consideration if it is bred, held captive and killed so that its body, secretions and/or offspring can be fed to, or worn by, me. I can survive and thrive while avoiding the products of animal agriculture. In this time and place, therefore, veganism seems to me to be a moral imperative, particularly when combined with environmental and human rights considerations, which are also fruitful topics for another day.
Some of my vegan friends are bleeding hearts. But they are rational minds as well, and they too have examined the philosophical and practical repercussions of our modern systems of animal agriculture and made a conscious and considered decision not to support these systems. A love for animals is tangential to veganism, not a necessary condition for it. So, after years of feeling a little guilty and wondering if my lack of affection for animals makes me a bad vegan, I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am vegan, but I probably don’t want to pet your dog.