We all hold our own unique perceptions of animals. Some of us have pets or companion animals; these can include dogs, cats, fish, turtles, snakes, lizards, birds and even spiders. As many of us grow up with pets or have them later in life, we find that each of us likes certain things about them. It could be how your dog is excited to see you when you get home, how your cat snuggles with you for warmth, or maybe even how your snake curls around your arm and rests peacefully. Whatever the characteristic or quirk your animal friend exhibits, we all like something about them that excites or amuses us and would never want anything bad or cruel to happen to them.
Yet every day, millions of animals are subjected to cruel treatment through countless practices. All of these operations have their reasons or excuses. Farm animals in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, endure their entire lives dwelling in filth, breathing in bio aerosols and particulates, suffering fractured bones from cramped spaces (the worst of which occurs in battery-caged chickens), and eating unnatural diets filled with antibiotics and hormones. Animals in the circus are brutalized in training in order to entertain audiences. Lab animals are used to test everything from bath products to smoke inhalation effects. And of course, many of our well-known companion animals suffer in shelters because of irresponsible breeders and pet owners.
So we supposedly love animals, but we still subject them to cruelty to which we’d never condemn even our worst enemies. Why is this so? Many philosophers, authors and leading lecturers have boiled it down to one idea that has existed for a very long time: speciesism.
Speciesism is probably a term unknown to most of you. It’s similar to racism and sexism, but it goes even further in denoting a superiority complex. A dictionary definition of speciesism is “the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals,” but this idea is vague and needs to be explained. To put it in laymen’s terms, as human animals we consider nonhuman animals to be below us in status. Like the Nazis saw Jews as subordinate in the 1930s and ‘40s, we as humans see other species as subordinate to our complex makeup. But why? To sum it up way too briefly, philosophers credit Rene Descartes with generating the idea that animals are senseless automata with similar attributes to humans that are merely quasi-machines. Some humans still think this way today. We see some animals as food and some animals as apparatuses to test our poisonous products.
And who or what is to say that Descartes is wrong? Well, actually, many people and their research. Just look at research by Jonathan Balcombe or Marc Bekoff and you’ll see countless examples of animals not only capable of feeling physical and emotional pain but also experiencing pleasure. If it follows that animals can feel pain and suffer, then why don’t we give equal consideration to animals? Animals certainly can’t vote or participate as citizens, so we can’t physically treat them as equals in that respect, but why shouldn’t we consider their capacity to feel and sense the same things as human beings? We don’t have bigger brains than all nonhuman animals; the Beluga whale trumps us in that category. We are not the fastest animals; the cheetah could smoke us. We are not impervious to our surroundings; cockroaches will still be crawling over our nuked Earth. So what makes us better or superior?
We certainly don’t need animals for food, as thousands of vegans across the United States have shown, and there are many products out there that do the same job, if not better, than products that were tested on animals. I rarely meet anyone who enjoys the circus, so why do we still have these issues? I think it honestly just has to do with not wanting to change old habits. If nothing seems like it needs changing, then why change it? The only dilemmas are that factory farming is the largest contributor to anthropogenic emissions, animal testing rarely makes breakthroughs for human health, and wildlife is continually decimated by forest razing and the unnecessary development of suburbs and draining of nonrenewable resources.
Essentially, we are or were all speciesists at some point in our lives. It takes a long time to recognize that fact for many individuals. The hard truth is that humans are the most destructive species on Earth. So even if you really, and I mean really, love your dog, if you still eat pigs, then you are a speciesist. But no one has to stay this way!
There are options out there that can help you become less speciesist, even if it is through baby steps over time. Drexel’s Handschumacher Dining Center boasts its Meatless Mondays program, which includes many vegetarian and vegan options in the cafeteria every day but especially on Mondays. You can make your own soaps, shampoos and detergents with ingredients that are cheaper and animal-friendly. You and your friends should talk about and consider the benefits of adopting from shelters rather than buying from breeders. You can sign petitions to help protect wildlife from unnecessary hunting and hydraulic fracturing. You can buy eco-friendly and synthetic clothes instead of animal furs.
There are countless ways to help rather than harm animals. You can take these steps, like eating a more plant-based diet, which will benefit your health, the environment, and animals across the globe.
Benjamin Sylvester is the president of the Drexel Animal Welfare Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.