1. Why the blind spot?

I think it’s instructive to ask why a large majority of us give financial support to industries that cause such tremendous suffering to such huge numbers of animals when there is no need for us to do so. If we had to eat animals to survive, then supporting the meat or dairy industries would be another matter entirely, but this is not the case as the Australian government-funded health information and advice service, Healthdirect vi makes abundantly clear. We don’t need to consume any animal products to be healthy, which means we don’t need these industries either. So why are they still here? The main reasons, it seems to me, are their sheer size, their integration into the economy, and their high levels of public acceptance; but all these could change very quickly if the broader public comes to understand the harm they cause, not just to their animal victims, but to the environment, human health and the ethical basis of the whole society.

But still, the question remains: why are these industries supported? Why is it, for example, that smart, caring folk, many of whom would claim to ‘love’ animals, and may indeed have pets of their own, and certainly would not like to think of pigs being tortured, have no qualms about eating bacon for breakfast? One obvious explanation is that they have a blind spot when it comes to animal suffering, at least as it occurs within the animal-abuse industries. They’ll rush their cat or dog down to the vet at the drop of a hat, but do they ever consider what actually lies behind the pet food they buy?

I think of blind spots as psychological safety nets, somewhat akin to burying one’s head in the sand and hoping it will all go away or at least it won’t be mentioned. It’s not difficult to see why blind spots have arisen in relation to animal welfare because there are so many very bad things going on; and bad things are usually easier to avoid than to confront, especially if everybody else is doing it. But that alone doesn’t make it OK.

Here are three reasons which I believe may explain (in part) why blind spots are so common when it comes to the welfare of animals caught in the maws of the animal-abuse industries:

  • Firstly, for most of us, watching, even thinking about, extreme cruelty is a disturbing thing. Not only can it be very upsetting, it has the potential to cause us psychological injury, and so we instinctively protect ourselves against it by not looking at it. I, for example, have never watched people being beheaded by terrorist organisations online because I know it would give me horrible recurring thoughts for the rest of my life.

  • Secondly, there is the inconvenience of knowing that if we do confront the truth about something that relies on extreme levels of cruelty for its existence, and we are financially supporting that behaviour, we might, indeed we should, feel an obligation to do something about it—and nobody likes the thought of that! It’s much easier to ignore reality a lot of the time than to face it.

  • And thirdly, we’re cautious about leaving the safety of the herd—which, in the case of adopting a vegan lifestyle, means parting company with the non-vegan majority. This caution is quite understandable because as social animals the advantages of belonging to a group are wired into our psyches. Indeed, our very survival has relied upon membership of a group for eons and we cannot change our instinct to belong any more than we can change the colour of our skin.

These three reasons: a ‘self-protective’ avoidance of the facts, and reticence to do anything because it just seems all too hard, and fear of leaving the herd may between them explain the existence of some of our blind spots. Other reasons could be just not caring one way or the other—the ‘I don’t give a shit’ mentality, fear of being thought of as a weirdo or a sappy do-gooder, a love of meat and dairy products to the exclusion of all else, the misguided notion that humans need to eat animal products to remain healthy or the mental disposition of psychopathy—the inability to care about suffering in others.

Whatever our reasons, and we can determine them through some honest self-examination, they are all, by definition, subject to reason itself. Our ability to change our behaviour in response to a reasoned argument is one of the greatest strengths of being human and part of why we are this planet’s dominant species. Nobody should doubt their capacity to respond in this way or think they are too old or set in their ways to change. That’s called ‘giving up’.

Self-delusion is another method we use to guide ourselves into safer psychological waters. It can be a useful protective mechanism and one might argue we live in a delusory state most of our lives, but self-delusion can also be the mechanism by which we allow ourselves to believe that what goes on behind the walls of the abattoirs and factory-farms might just creep across the line of what we would find acceptable, even if we knew all the details. Deep down we know this can’t possibly be the case but there’s nothing like a little self-deception to create a psychological wormhole just large enough for us to wriggle into. Highly delusional people may even tell themselves that the government is regulating the animal-abuse industries competently on their behalf; although given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that would be a delusionary stretch few of us could make with any semblance of conviction.

Many of our blind spots first took hold in our young and developing childhood brains. Most of us, in the developed world at least, begin eating meat within the first year or two of our lives where it is simply treated as ‘food’ in the same way that dairy products, fruits, nuts and vegetables are thought of as food and the ethics about where meat comes from are never discussed. Consequently, very little connection was ever made between the object on the fork and the animal whose flesh it once was. Euphemisms such as pork, beef, lamb and chicken deflect the argument away from its brutal realities and into a safer psychological space where a lamb chop can be equated with a peanut butter sandwich. It is in this same gravelly soil of the mind where our ingrained conditioning has taken hold that the arguments for animal welfare and veganism must try to germinate and sprout. Shifting one’s psychological position from the status quo to one where meat and milk are seen, not for what they are in an organic sense, but for what they represent, can take a good deal of individual effort. But it can be done and often is, with surprising ease.

There is an almost endless stream of reasons to explain why we turn a blind eye to the widespread and horrific animal suffering in our midst, but at the end of the day, can any of us plausibly let ourselves off the hook as easily as we do?

2. Down at the slaughterhouse

The animals we eat, milk, experiment upon, turn into apparel, and use for entertainment or as beasts of burden, are very like us in many ways. Most of them are mammals, and closely related to us in evolutionary terms. They have nervous systems and behaviours similar to our own, and they experience fear, pain and suffering as we do. There is no need for us to twist ourselves in knots trying to determine how much they suffer or whether they suffer more or less than we do. That they do suffer in a comparable way is all we need to know.

But what do I mean by suffering? It is a concept open to various interpretations, so to ensure that we are all on the same page, here are three examples of what I would define as actions that would cause severe suffering in humans:

  • having your head methodically caved in with a hammer.

  • being held by your ankles by someone who is about to drop you off the top of a tall building.

  • being kept in solitary confinement, and slowly driven insane through social deprivation.

Each of these scenarios conjures up levels of pain, shock, terror and mental agony, which, thankfully, most people never experience, but which the animal-abuse industries inflict on their victims every day. Isn’t that worth thinking about? In fact, if we all understood that, and acted accordingly, there wouldn’t be any need for further comment and I could stop writing right here. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.

(At this point I feel compelled to diverge a little and acknowledge the many thousands of men, women and children around the world who are suffering in similar ways at the hands of other people. From the concentration camps, torture chambers, and inhumane prisons of the more barbaric regimes, to the use of solitary confinement in supposedly ‘advanced’ countries, revolting forms of torture are being used everywhere we look. And while it is relatively easy for us to reduce the scale of animal abuse by choosing not to give the perpetrators our financial support, it’s a different matter when it comes to the lives of people falsely imprisoned, tortured and murdered in other countries. Often there is very little we can do to help them beyond supporting human rights organisations like Amnesty International and pressuring our government to take action. Just because it is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but results will often be harder to come by. It is important to bear in mind that there is really no difference between the suffering of these people and that of our animal cousins and all are equally deserving of our efforts to end to their torment.)

Where, one may rightly ask, is the evidence that the animals down at the slaughter house suffer as greatly as I have suggested? Fortunately (although I hesitate to use that word), there is a great deal of evidence to support this claim and I would encourage anyone who has any doubts to start an online investigation by keying animal abuse by the meat industry into a search engine and following the links. You will be horrified by where it takes you.

Or if you want to take a shortcut to a few selected sites, and have the stomach for it:

  • look at these young pigs going to the gas chamber in this Australian abattoir:

http://animalsaustralia.org/features/not-so-humane-slaughter/ vii

  • see what happens to these calves on this one:

http://www.animalsaustralia.org/features/they-stabbed-babies/?r=583a767006b901480226416&ua_s=e-mail viii

  • listen to the vegan activist, Gary Yourofsky: a brilliant public speaker.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=es6U00LMmC4

  • look at the documentary Cowspiracy (also available on Netflix)

http://www.cowspiracy.com/

  • follow the link below to gain a different insight into the dairy industry

http://freefromharm.org/dairyfacts x

Or you might wish to read these books (or at least a few chapters from them):

  • Animal Liberation – the seminal work of Peter Singer.xi

  • Farmageddon: The True Cost of Meat by Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott. xii

  • Eating Animals by John Safran Foer. xiii

This is just a light sprinkling of what is available but I know most people won’t open any of these links, or the books, because getting up close and personal with what is being done to the animal victims in this story is not easy. So for those who cannot bear to witness the stark reality of what they are throwing their financial support behind, you will just have to take my word for it—it is all very dark and it makes you question the very ethical bases upon which our societies rest.

If you are one of those who think your country has good animal welfare protection laws and that they are being competently enforced on your behalf, think again. Governments all over the world are universally doing an appallingly bad job of protecting the animals and that won’t change as long as vested interest groups, such as the meat industry, are able to stifle the voice of reason.

In Australia, for example, it is disgraceful beyond words that, in 2018, the live export trade, which ships farm animals to countries where they are treated with barbaric cruelty, is being expanded, instead of terminated. As a result of government policy, cattle, sheep and goats are shipped out, under inhumane conditions that will kill and injure many of them before they even reach their destination, to places where they are stabbed in the face with knives; bashed on the head with hammers; slowly hacked to death with multiple blows to their throats; locked in the boots of cars in forty degree heat, and more.

And what makes it all the more unforgivable is that it is done with the full knowledge of the Australian farmers who raise the animals, in cahoots as they are with the exporters, and the state and federal governments. These groups have been told, and shown, time and time again for decades, what is happening to these animals and yet they have done nothing apart from occasionally paying lip-service to the animal welfare lobby. All the while they clamber for live exports to continue because they make a few bucks out of it. One can understand why political party hacks and their poll-driven leaders don’t have the moral fibre to oppose live exports, but you would think that the farmers themselves would refuse to send their animals overseas in these circumstances. But no, they happily wash their hands of any responsibility once the truck, loaded with those whom they have betrayed, passes through their front gates.

The acts of cruelty associated with live exports are well-documented. They’ve been known about for years. We only need to look at some of the reports from Dr Lynn Simpson, an Australian vet, who took fifty-seven trips onboard live export ships.xiv And to compound matters, we have very little chance of preventing the acts of extreme cruelty towards animals, which are daily occurrences in countries to which Australia exports its livestock, despite the government’s pretence that we do. This fact alone is more than sufficient reason to stop exporting animals immediately and slaughter them in this country. Not that what happens within Australia’s domestic meat industry is much better, but the evidence suggests it is the lesser of two evils, particularly if the sea journey is removed.

Just before I published this essay (June 2018), the footage below was shown on Australian television. Everyone should take a look at it.

https://secure.animalsaustralia.org/take_action/live-export-shipboard-cruelty/

It was filmed inside a ship taking sheep from Australia to the Middle East in August 2017. And remember, this is standard practice, not an exception. It is what happens when greedy, cruel people treat animals as commodities and no amount of public hand-wringing or policy tinkering by government ministers will change this. There is only one solution when it comes to the live export trade. It must be stopped immediately, and forever. I should add, the Australian government continues to allow these ships to operate, albeit with mildly altered conditions, and the animals are still suffering terribly. To their great shame our political class hasn’t had the guts to stop this ghastly business despite being presented with any amount of conclusive evidence for decades. Why doesn’t the Prime Minister say enough is enough, because no amount of financial losses by either farmers or those others profiting from the live export trade, or fear of being sued by these people, or losing votes in rural seats, can in any way justify allowing its existence for a moment longer. Moving decisively to end it would be what real leadership looks like. And certainly, it would take a bit of spine. But what is the point of striving to lead if when you finally make it you’re only going to spread yourself like a blob of ectoplasm with equal amounts hanging down each side of the fence?

3. Let’s go shopping…

I wonder what the effect on meat sales would be if shoppers were given a graphic reminder of what happens inside an abattoir while they were deciding on what type of meat to have for dinner.

Let us imagine for a moment, television screens above the meat section in our local supermarket, or on the wall in our butcher’s shop, showing us just that. The sound is turned up, and we can see the electric prods, gassings, throat-slittings, electrocutions, and firing of bolts into animals’ heads while they scream in fear and struggle desperately for their lives. Of particular poignancy would be the last minutes of those animals, who, having survived the ‘killing’ process, are boiled, hung upside down on hooks, skinned and hacked to pieces while still alive. They still scream and bellow at this stage, just the way you or I would. This is not some sort of exaggerated television horror show designed to make a point; it’s what happens every day of the week as the United States’ abattoir workers interviewed for Gail Eisnitz’s book, Slaughterhouse, xv, make clear. And nobody should assume what happens in their own country is any different and in many of them we already know it is much worse.

Giving shoppers access to footage of this nature would make buying meat a much more honest experience than it is today, and it would remove the, ‘I didn’t know’ argument from the discussion entirely. With that gone, what would be the effect on sales? It’s hard to know, but at least the notion of informed decision-making would be well-served. However, we can be sure that screens such as these not going to be installed while the majority of the population continue thinking as they do. For one thing, shoppers themselves would be up in arms. The last thing a lot of them want is to be reminded of the truth, and of course the truth is also the last thing anyone profiting from meat wants to see in the light of day. But crimes of this enormity will always continue to surface just as they have been doing with monotonous regularity for decades. Some things are just too big to keep hidden.

Anyone who eats ‘free-range’ chicken meat or eggs because they (rightly) believe the lives of battery chickens are a monstrous crime, should have a look at this footage from Star Poultry, an abattoir in Victoria, Australia. It was shown on television by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the ‘7.30 Report’ on 16 November 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-16/chickens-boiled-alive-inside-melbourne-abattoir/9157186 xvi

The chickens who are killed in this abattoir are free range animals, but that means nothing once the meat industry gets hold of them. It is, in my view, footage such as this that shoppers are entitled to see because for many people it would make such a difference and put them on a track they would soon find themselves be very glad to be on.

We hear a lot about informed decision-making these days, so, in the spirit of the times, let us all start making decisions about what we eat based on the best available information. To do this we will of course need an unrestricted view of what happens to those animals who go in the front door of an abattoir, valuing their lives just as we value ours, and who come out the back, hacked to pieces. What better way to observe this process than through the lens of a camera and what better place to watch it than in the meat section of the supermarket?