Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

Vegans often talk about how non-vegans shut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.

I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.

This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.

Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Apart from her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.

Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution. She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.

There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.

Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.
Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.

Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.

Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).

Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.

In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.

But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.

So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:

  • rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
  • we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
  • as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
  • be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.



Slaughterhouse workers: the meat industry’s other victims

Kristina Mering is an MA student of sociology at Tallinn University (Estonia) and has conducted interviews with slaughterhouse workers about their attitudes towards animals and their job. She did this at the largest slaughterhouse in Estonia. Kristina presented her work at the CARE conference (Conference on Animal Rights in Europe) in Warsaw (July 16). I interviewed her after her talk.

VS: What prompted you to do this research?
Kristina Mering: This research project was a part of my BA studies in sociology. I chose the topic of slaughterhouse workers because it seemed like interesting material for research. I also wanted to understand how these people cope with the violent nature of their work. To me it seemed like a good way to understand the human-animal relationship on a broader level.


Can you describe this slaughterhouse? Is it representative for the industry?
It’s the biggest and the most modern slaughterhouse in Estonia. They kill both pigs and cows. There are 21 people involved in dismantling the body of a pig, 37 for a cow. The line starts with the stabbing and ends with marking the meat for nutritional content. The pigs are put in gas chambers before they are killed by a stab in the neck. The pigs used to receive electric shocks to make them unconscious before the stab, but this sometimes made the bigger pigs even more anxious rather than unconscious, so they changed it. The gas chambers are also torture but at least the pigs won’t be stabbed while conscious. It’s the lesser of two evils.

What are the qualifications people need to apply for a job at this slaughterhouse?
There are no real job requirements. Basically the hiring procedure was as simple as this: the applicants are shown a video of the slaughter process. Those that don’t vomit, get accepted. They learn everything while doing the job.

What are the working circumstances like?
There’s a really high work pace. About three pigs are killed per minute. The workers are subject to rapid repetitive movements, incurring blisters and stiffness, having to work in heat and cold with really sharp knives which can cause accidents. All agreed that they were underpaid for the work that they do.

What do the slaughterhouse workers think about their job?
None of the interviewees saw it as their calling in life and the way they ended up working in a slaughterhouse was mostly coincidental. Basically, they’re working there because other options are rather unavailable. The turnover is extremely high.

How do they deal with the “unpleasantness” of the work?
In order for them to be able to do their work, they need to block out all emotions. Since they understand that they are taking the life of an animal, they need a strong blocking mechanism to keep thoughts like this out. They build a routine that numbs the emotions and lets them do their work without thinking about the killing. When I asked one person about the stabbing, they put it like this: “If we would think about it, it would be the wrong place to work.” They wear earphones and listen to music or the radio. The belief that there have to be slaughterers in the world, that someone has to do the killing, also helps them cope. There seemed to be an urge to justify the slaughterhouse as an institution, and their role in it.

They couldn’t imagine a world without slaughterhouses?
They couldn’t envisage a vegetarian world. When I asked them about a world without slaughterhouses, it rather made them confused about who would kill the animals raised in farms then.

What is the most suprising thing you learned?
That none of these workers was able to kill baby calves. Sometimes a barn in the region burns down and the owners look for a way to get rid of the calves, which then go to the slaughterhouse. The usual blocking mechanisms don’t seem to work with these young animals. “Calves are something different,” one of the workers told me, “I’m unable to make my heart cold to them”. The tears of baby calves affect the workers a lot more than the tears of adult cows which they see on a daily basis. So the surprising thing was, that when fifteen or so calves were sent to the slaughterhouse during an emergency, the workers couldn’t kill them and they were actually sent back.

It seems to me that killing so many animals daily is a pretty inhumane thing to ask of people. On the other hand, it might be even problematic if no humans were involved and everything would be done by machines…
Yes, if no humans were involved, this would obviously create even more distance between the act of killing and meat production and consumption. There is indeed a very strong tendency to automatize the whole process, and I would expect that somewhere in the future there will be just a few people supervising the whole thing. It probably wouldn’t be easy, however, to automatize the whole process. In this particular slaughterhouse, for instance, ten people are involved in just the skinning of the cow.

How was it for you to do this research?
I completely switched off my emotions, I guess in a similar way to what the workers do. While observing the kill line and seeing animals being bled to death in front of me, I tried to be as rational as possible about it, and to get as much info about the situation as I could. I saw it as an opportunity. I asked questions while the pigs were being killed. It was only when I was on the bus back to my home town and I could breathe calmly, that I noticed how my legs had started shaking. It was the first moment that I could be myself again and I understood how it had affected me. I still have the boots covered with blood stains from the slaughterhouse.

Did you find it possible, or easy, to empathize with the slaughterhouse workers?
I wanted to gather info to understand what it’s like for them to do this kind of job. It kind of persuaded me that it is unimaginably difficult and that their hands are often tied. What is also important is that they didn’t make this choice voluntarily. I don’t empathize with what they are saying about killing animals, obviously. But I don’t need to agree with their stance on animals in order to understand that what they are going through is also very hard.

What would you reply if someone said that we shouldn’t pity those people because what the animals are going through is incomparably worse?
The fact that what animals go through is worse, does not mean we shouldn’t have compassion for the workers themselves This isn’t about some suffering-competition, but about seeing the problems of the system as a whole. I believe the horrible working conditions at slaughterhouses can in some cases be a helpful argument for people who don’t get the “animal message”.

What do you hope to achieve with this research?
My aim was to peek inside the slaughterhouse and to show that the workers there shouldn’t be called “evil” or “bad people” (as I sometimes hear from some animal advocates). The core problem is the animal-industrial complex, the system of exploiting animals which also has negative effects on the workers in the system who are supposed to be the people keeping the system alive and going.

If you want to read more on this topic:

Eating and caring: a conflict of interest

October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury – mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries – while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.

Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.

You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.

conflict of interest

We are empathic beings – at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch – perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability – and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and – for many of us – probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Jonathan Saffran Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one’s meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.

What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.

Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.

More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: all of these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.

After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi. Yet.

The trouble with caring

There is unfortunately too much suffering on this planet, and not enough people who really care. This is not a judgment about people (I’m usually not cynical about people at all). It’s more meant as a neutral statement. An annoying one, though.

Let me tell you something about my girlfriend.


She’s called Melanie, and we’ve been together for over seven years (we met a long time ago, when she sat across from me on the train and asked me about the book on vegetarianism that I was reading). Because animals and animal rights are my passion, I meet a lot of people who are really devoted to animals, and are really committed to helping them and making things better for them. Melanie is one of the most committed of them all.

Melanie works for EVA, the Belgian vegetarian/vegan organisation I founded and recently left, as a campaign manager. In her spare time, she also works for a cat rescue organisation. Apart from two dogs and six cats that are permanent residents of our home, there’s also a constant coming and going of stray cats, who are here temporarily till my girlfriend finds a new forever home for them. The current tally is 17 cats present in our home.

The thing is, cats (and other animals) in need of help keep finding Melanie all the time. She can spot a hurt animal from miles away and seems to be able to sniff them out (ok, I’m exaggerating a bit). And many people have her phone number or email/facebook address, and she’s their go-to person when they found or heard of an animal in need. When she’s not cleaning out litterboxes, Melanie is calling with or receiving potential new adoptants, or she’s out on the road to find an animal someone said was somewhere, or is taking cats to the vet and back for spaying/neutering, surgery, inoculations etc.

The result is, she’s practically constantly at work. You see, she’s one of the people who can’t ever close her eyes to an animal in need. Most people can. At worst, when people see an abandoned and/or hurt animal, they ignore them. At best, they call people like my girlfriend (okay, there are some who will try to take care of the animal themselves, but they are exceptions).

So the people who care, the people who can’t say no, have hardly any spare time. When my girlfriend is overworked and stressed (it happens sometimes), there is no easy way to take a break, because the animals keep coming, and coming: the reservoir of animals in dire situations is constant and infinite. You can imagine that it is very hard for her, and to people like her, to just not mind, to say that there is no more room or time or energy or money for that particular animal, knowing that they will suffer and die from lack of food, alone, maybe in the cold.

It’s obvious that this kind of care is draining, both mentally and physically. I don’t see any easy short term solution. Of course the long time solution is that we structurally change things. But long term plans, even if we have good hopes that they will work out, don’t help the animals that are in need right now, and they don’t help the people who can’t say no to their suffering.

So in the meantime, maybe we should distribute the work a little bit more. Maybe each of us who cares has to take some responsibility. Everyone can do something. You can adopt an animal, you can pay for vet costs, if you’re a vet you can do some volunteer work to make the cost for spaying/neutering or healing these strays (which society rather any individual should pay for) lower. And if you find a wounded animal, you can probably take it to the vet yourself (if you can catch it), rather than calling an overworked person who can’t say no and expect him or her to do it for you. So I guess my message is: if you care, then care.

And maybe then, if we all do our little bit of real, actual care, we can spread the work more evenly, and everybody gets to relax just a little bit, so that all of our care is more sustainable and we can keep on caring.

“to suffer or die needlessly…”

Much has been written about pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si‘, which is about our relationship to the earth and the animals. While I think the catholic church, like any religion, has a tremendous amount of work to do, Francis is in my view a pope as good as popes come, and the document he wrote, while definitely not a vegan or animal rights manifesto, is a good start for a more responsible and sustainable stewardship of the earth.


I wanted to focus briefly on one sentence from the encyclical, which says: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” As a vegan, one would obviously say: well duh! When we kill animals for food, we do cause them to suffer and die needlessly, isn’t it?

Of course. In the simplest terms, one may explain the unfairness of consuming animal products like this: an animal has to lead a miserable life and is then killed, all for a short, human gustatory pleasure. I think no one ever put this better than Plutarch:

“But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”

But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh” sums it up quite well indeed….
I think most human beings are capable of understanding this. However, I’m a big fan of taking the other person’s viewpoint, and when we do so, we understand that people who still enjoy eating meat or fish or dairy are not yet seeing things the way Plutarch does. They, like the pope, are apparently not seeing how animals are “suffering and dying needlessly”. They are stuck in traditional views of humans and animals, where the former are so incredibly superior to the latter, that this short gustatory pleasure apparently justifies taking other sentient beings’ lives.

To make people see things differently, we can scream and shout and cry, we can use logical discourse and arguments, we can show them what happens to animals, we can try to lobby for laws and many other things… But the most important thing, in my view, is making it easier for people to think straight about animals and to compassion for them by making our society, and the individuals that form part of it, less dependent on animal products. We can do this by supporting the spread and growth of vegan products in stores and restaurants. We can found or support new businesses that develop alternatives.

When it’s about food, people think with their stomach. We can’t make people think the way we think, we can’t make them feel the way we feel. We can’t make them see animals like vegans see them, right away, right now. All we can hope to do is to open their hearts and minds. And I do believe we can do that. And that we will end up with compassionate people in the end. We just have to make it a little bit easier for them first, by taking away the barriers.