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.

Dear omnivore

Vegans are people too, and people like to understand and want to be understood. Here’s a few lines about how some vegans think and feel. May it contribute to illumination and clarification 🙂

Dear omnivore,

We vegans (I should actually just speak for myself) undoubtedly get on your nerves at times. We bother you with our preaching, we are not always willing to eat the things that you serve us, we are quite difficult when visiting restaurants together, we slow down everything when we want to read labels, we may react socially inappropriate at times, and occasionally we even might make you feel guilty.
So, I’m sorry about all that. But please know, dear omnivore, that being a vegan in a carnivorous world is not always easy, and allow me to give you a small glimpse inside the mind of at least one vegan.

When I say a vegan life is not always simple, I’m not talking about the thousands of times we have to answer the same questions (what do you actually eat? Where do you get your protein?). Nor am I talking about having to read labels, or about restaurant staff that do not know what we eat or not eat. No, these kind of things I consider to be the pleasures of being a vegan, so to speak.heart

I am talking about something completely different. It’s something I cannot easily express. It’s about a combination of helplessness and incomprehension. Helplessness in the face of so much animal suffering, and incomprehension and astonishment at the fact that it is not getting addressed and eradicated, or even perceived as such.

These frustrations, you may say, are not the privilege of vegans, and you may be right. But still, it is different in this area than others. For the problem of the endless suffering of animals by human hands, there is a solution which is actually quite feasible: it would just mean that all of us start eating only delicious vegan food instead of dead animals. When you consider this on a global scale, at the level of all humanity, this solution seems to be (at least in short term) not quite realistic. But at individual level, it surely is possible, in theory, for everyone to join.

And then you (I mean me now, the vegan), start thinking and chewing your thoughts, over and over again. You realize that even if the solution is simple, ultimately it is not happening, and people do not participate, they continue to eat meat. And you wonder why. You wonder whether you may be seeing things that are not there. You ask yourself if you are hyper-sensitive or overly sentimental. You consider that you are maybe an alien, or just downright crazy. You tell yourself that it cannot be as bad as it looks, that there must be some justice behind it all. Karma perhaps. But that doesn’t convince you. And again you try to find out what it actually is that you dislike so much and whether it is actually so awful as you think. And you keep on coming back to the same conclusion: yes, what happens *is* horrible. Sixty billion animals every year that lead a miserably short life, because we humans find their meat tasty. That’s actually all that is going on.

And you wonder why it does not stop and since it is not stopping you ask what you can or should do to make it stop. You try some things here and there, but it is never enough and you can see change but it is very slow. And above all: there seems to be no way to explain it to the people who don’t see it. You can not even show them any pictures or videos because they do not want to watch them. They tell you all the things you tell them are just exceptions and that in the end it is not all bad. And you’re considered to be adhering to a new religion, or you have simply made another choice than they did. And you try to explain that it is *not* just a matter of taste or preference. That eating meat or not eating meat is not a matter of painting the living room in yellow or in green. Because by now you are convinced that not eating animals is not only a compassionate but also a very rational thing to do. How can it be so difficult, you think, to see that we should avoid inflicting pain and suffering and killing where we can easily avoid it? But the others don’t understand, and so you try every possible way to explain. You appeal to moral philosophy, to arguments about the environment and health, you cook, you let people taste, and you hope that you have some effect, drop by drop.

And you can see that in almost everyone’s case, all that is needed to understand and feel, is already there. You can see that most people love their cat or their dog, you see that they really cannot cope with animal cruelty. Similarly they are not convinced anymore that eating animals is required to be healthy. And yet all the time they tell you that what you are saying is not exactly right, or it is inconsistent, or not feasible, or naive, or not important compared to all the human suffering in the world.

And through all this thinking and talking and discussing, you constantly need to be careful not to seem arrogant. The deadly sin here is to appear as one who thinks he is better than the rest, a moralist who tells other people what to do. You must pay attention that you do not condemn others for what they eat – something which is very difficult because the other very often already feels condemned by your mere presence as a vegan. And you must be careful that you do not look like someone who hates, because actually you do not hate (although at times you may become a bit more aggressive, intolerant or judgemental, like every human being). You just can not understand, even though you try so hard.
And of course you must look healthy all the time and can never be sick, because that would be the fault of your diet.

Fortunately, dear omnivore, it is not all doom and gloom in our heads, and there are a few things that make it a little easier. Unlike what you may think, we do enjoy life and the food we eat – many of us discovered the joys of cooking and eating only after having said goodbye to meat and fish. And we definitely can see changes around us, faster and faster. And in our neighborhood and all over the world there are people who feel the same and fight the same fight. If we are crazy, surely we are not alone. We strive together for Something Completely Different.

Personally, what helps me the most is the realization, over and over again, that I myself was eating animals for a long time past the point that I realized I shouldn’t do it. In a way, I am grateful for that. And I am grateful for the fact that I can feel, no matter how inconvenient that may be at times, and that I am vulnerable.

This, dear omnivore, is – very simplified – what is happening daily in my mind. Perhaps in being clear to each other about our feelings, we can find things that unite us and stop talking in terms of me versus you, and may learn to understand each other better.

And to understand is to love, they say.

Thank you for reading


PS: animal suffering is not the only argument for avoiding animal products. Please realize there are many differences among us.

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.

The suffering of a lion

Cecil the lion, the pride of the Zimbabwean plains, is no more. He was shot by someone who planned to make a rug out of his skin, and hang his head over a fireplace.

The tragic hero of this story is both charismatic and photogenic. But the villain too, is worthy of a Hollywood movie: Walter Palmer, a rich American dentist, was armed with a crossbow and attacked Cecil in the dark of night.

Cecil and Palmer are the stars of the ‘Oscar winning’ drama that is holding people in trance all over the world. The battle has already been fought, but now the dentist is on the run, and the hunter has become the hunted. The internet is ablaze with death threats against Palmer. But that’s nothing compared to what the future might hold in store for him. A petition for his extradition has been signed by more than 160,000 people. As Zimbabwean prisons don’t have a great reputation, I guess I don’t even blame Palmer for running…

Lions are big, charismatic, wonderful, creatures, but Cecil was not just a lion. In Zimbabwe, he was a celebrity among lions, a kind of a mascot. Cecil was part of a research project by Oxford University, and he carried a GPS, which the hunters unsuccessfully tried to destroy. And Cecil was killed illegally: he was baited away from an area where hunting was prohibited.

These are all factors that increase our anger and indignation about this evil act. But these factors, even though aggravating, are hardly morally relevant. What really counts, in Cecil’s case, is not that he was famous, big and strong and beautiful, or that he was a lion. What counts is that he was a sentient being, a being capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

After a shot from Palmer’s crossbow, which only wounded Cecil, the lion suffered for forty hours in hiding, before he was found and killed by the hunters. That’s where our attention should go to. If we think Cecil’s suffering and killing were not OK and believe that he didn’t deserve this, that no-one deserves this, then maybe, slowly but surely, we can start opening ourselves up to the suffering of so many other beings.

The only relevant trait, his sentience, is what Cecil has in common with billions of other beings, who don’t have names, but who can suffer like Cecil did. I am very happy that so many people are outraged about what happened to this lion. And I hope that their outrage and their compassion will spill over to other domains. Cecil was one animal. The other 600 lions that are killed every year can feel too, just like Cecil. The other poached animals are sentient like lions. And the 180 million chickens, pigs and cows that are killed for food every day, they too can feel.

It is this capacity for pleasure and pain, that connects people and animals. It is the quality that does not just connect people of different skin color, gender, sexual orientation or religion, but which also unites human and nonhuman animals. You can experience pleasure and pain whether you are white or black, man or woman, or have an opposable thumb, or manes, or a trunk, a tail or wings.

It will take some time, but one day, we will all realize that in this capacity for happiness and suffering, we are all very similar.