Ralph Helfer is an American Behaviourist, Trainer and author of Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, about the bond between a man, Bram and his elephant Modoc. Born on the same day, in the same hour, Bram and Modoc were believed to have a supernatural bond since birth. Modoc and Bram grew up playing together and feeding each other with their bottles and just generally rollicking around like any elephant and child would. The son of a third generation German elephant trainer in a circus, Bram trained Modoc with love and respect and when she was old enough she began to perform. This is not a straight-forward story, prepare your tissues. Disaster strikes that threatens their bond when the circus owner falls sick and the circus is sold to a new American owner.
Desperate to not be parted, Bram stows-away on the ship with Modoc as it makes its way across the Indian Ocean. Disaster strikes again, this time in the middle of the ocean when the ship wrecks. Bram and Modoc are fighting for their lives in the water and, just like Jack and Rose in the Titanic except they are in much warmer water, Modoc supports Bram on her back until they are rescued. The two are allowed to rest in India until they recover their strength. While he’s there, Bram sees his chance and fearing that they will be separated again, he and Modoc flee into the teak forests and join the mahouts. Everything is blissful, Bram even gets married, not to Modoc but to a woman who I’m sure loved the elephant as much as Bram. This is not the end of the story. Rebels take over the town and kill many of the locals and shortly after, as if things couldn’t get any worse, Modoc and Bram are found by the American owner of the circus. Forced to go to New York, the two become stars of the circus, which results in many unsuccessful attempts on Mohoc’s life. I guess that’s the price of show-business. Regardless, this only serves to deepen their bond.
Crisis hits the pair again when Mohoc suffers a serious injury which leaves her too scarred to perform, and she is sold without Bram’s knowledge. Mohoc is sold to an abusive existence until she is purchased by the author of this book ten years later, who nurses her back to health. Helfer was deeply emotionally moved by the connection between Bram and Mohoc, which he got to witness when they were reunited. They stayed together into old age until Bram died, stating that he was going to show Mohoc the way.
Another such story of an impenetrable and life changing bond between a human being and an animal is that of Janis Carter and Lucy the chimp. Carter was a graduate student when she first met Lucy, a chimp that was raised in the home of Maurice and Jane Temerlin as part of an experiment.
In the documentary Lucy the Human Chimp, the difficulties Lucy experienced balancing her primal urges with her human inclinations are discussed. I won’t go into too much detail on that particular topic, but let’s just say, Lucy became aggressive making guests uncomfortable, so had been relegated to a cage. Carter was hired to care for Lucy during the day but ordered not to engage with her. Knowing sign language, Lucy would often ask Carter for cups of tea and more interaction. Describing Lucy as having a condescending attitude towards her poor signing ability, Carter begins to see Lucy as a person and their relationship changes into a friendship.
Admitting to the the Temerlins that she had been interacting with Lucy, Carter was finally allowed to see Lucy outside of the cage. From that moment the two became inseparable resulting in Lucy’s behaviour dramatically improving. Shortly after, Carter was summoned by the Temerlins who said that they had found a centre in Gambia that reintroduced tame chimps into the wild and they wanted her to join them. Feeling that Lucy needed moral support, Carter agreed to leave her boyfriend, dog and collage for a few weeks and join them in Gambia. However, upon arriving they realised that teaching Lucy to be wild was not going to be easy as she refused to eat and lost most of her hair through parasites and stress.
The Temerlins left Gambia after a few weeks, but, fearing that Lucy would die, Carter remained and moved on-site to be closer to her. In the centre Carter was given more young chimps to teach, which she believed would aid her to integrate Lucy, but it was still to no avail. After some time Carter and the Chimps were moved to an uninhabited island in the Gambia river where they lived, adjusting to the wilderness together. Carter remained with Lucy for seven more years on the island, having little to no contact with the outside world, until she was attacked by the male chimp and realised it was time for her to leave. Carter moved close to the island so that she could keep in touch with Lucy and remembers fondly the last hug they shared, remarking it was especially long and tight. Lucy’s remains were found scattered shortly after. Carter has since dedicated her life to chimpanzee rehabilitation at the Gambian National Park.
The bonds between Carter and Lucy and Bram and Modoc are compelling. Rarely do we hear about people uprooting their lives for a relationship that isn’t romantic, but it illustrates that consciousness can create bonds that are deeper than our intellectual reason. This isn’t just a one sided thing. The story of Bobby the Collie is living proof that the human animal bond is deeply reciprocated. Bobby, originally from Oregon, was holidaying with his owners in Indiana when he got lost. Heartbroken, his owners launched a search for Bobby, which was fruitless, before returning home. Six months passed. When Bobby's owners had give up all hope of seeing him again, he returned. The Oregon Humane Society launched an investigation into the dog’s almost three thousand mile journey home over dangerous terrain in the dead of winter. The story of the dog has captivated the imagination of the world and numerous accolades followed. Bobby’s story is not isolated and whether we believe it or not, a bond between humans and animals of all kinds demonstrates the unique connection and bond that they share.
Considering our profound bond with animals and their intrinsic place in our daily lives, how can we stand to eat them?
Animal agriculture is coming under fire for its contribution to the climate crisis, with that being said I believe eating meat a personal choice. I am a vegan and if you are not: I know what your thinking. I’m probably some opinionated crusty. Well, I’m not. I’m just like you. But cooler. (Kidding)
For years I worked in an animal agricultural industry of sorts. I was a horse dealer for most of my life and thus, have been on the other side of the animal rights debate. Mine is a real stripper turned Saint story and, if you like, yours can be too. Veganism was not something I was drawn to. I did not enjoy eating most meats and I am allergic to dairy so it wa easier for me than most.
Society conditions us to believe that a vegan is someone who has a a set of unconventional beliefs, not just someone who avoids eating meat and animal products. A good consumer is not someone who consumes certain things, no, we have to consume everything. Understanding our relationship with animals, helps us to understand our relationship with the natural world.
On retrospection, I realise that my meditation practise, has primed me for making a shift to veganism. Likewise, I noticed that along with everything else, my relationship with animals had changed. Does this suggest that veganism, or at least vegetarianism is spiritual. I’m not sure.
Once when watching a documentary I was surprised to hear that occasionally the Dalai Lama ate the flesh of an animal. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha states “eating meat hinders the development of compassion; therefore, all who follow the way of the Buddha should not eat meat from now on.” To me the idea of a Buddhist eating meat seemed contradictory, Will Tuttle in Buddhism and Veganism explains that this is specific to the Buddhist order. Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism allows the use of animal derived products. However Mahayana Buddhism requires a vegan lifestyle because it is based on the Bodhisattva ideal, that works to cultivate compassion and liberation for all beings.
The Buddha taught the Eight Fold Path and the Four Noble Truths. These direct us to avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering on any living things and our treatment of animals is counter intuitive to this. Ahimsa, which is also known as non harmfulness is not only found in Buddhism, but also in the Yamas and Niyamas of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Most of us don’t even think too much about it, we are just deeply conditioned to eat meat. Like I said, even the Dalai Lama is an occasional meat eater, so I think potentially there is more to the debate.
A BBC Radio 4 program called the Moral Maze discussed a bill going through Parliament regarding animal sentience. This examined the new rights that animals would be entitled to, if any, considering they do not have obligations. In this debate rights and obligations were lumped together to make the argument that only financially contributing participants of society had rights. The major question at hand seemed to be whether or not animals shared in the same morals that we humans supposedly do. Melanie Phillips, social commentator at The Times, believed that acknowledging animal rights diminishes respect for humanity. Which everyone agreed that it was important that the suffering of animals is something that should also be acknowledged, they did feel uncomfortable that there was no definite end goal of their rights. Essentially, everyone agreed that animals had rights and shouldn’t suffer, along as that doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of animal products and doesn’t undermine our superiority as a species. This type of ‘specialness’ that Phillips was so desperately clinging to is a type of egotistic fallacy and is the real fallacy here.
Anyone who has accidentally filled a bath with a spider in it can sense the panic in the tiny creature. In those seconds you can see that it fears for its own life. The same is true for all animals. Likewise, anyone who has watched a dog twitch while they are sleeping knows that they too have complex and real internal lives. Our interactions with animals are messy, multisided and complex, Jane Desmond in her book Displaying Death and Animating Life explores the difference between the rights of animals for the purposes of breeding, and how they are seen as almost necessary. One has to wonder that if a person was to undergo the same exploitation, would it be viewed as a gross breach of their human rights. I’m telling you now… we would never hear the end of it.
Human and animal relations give us the right to make representations on their behalf, in the name of profit for ourselves. Animals cannot articulate their position on how their bodies are used within our societies and cultures. Our interactions with animals are anonymously interwoven throughout our societies, featuring from our supermarkets to our art galleries.
Humanistic social sciences are now beginning to ask what are animals in relation to humans, with recent studies changing how we understand animal consciousness. It has been determined that great apes possess a Theory of Mind, which was once thought to be unique to humans. This new understanding means that apes possess the cognitive ability to understand the mental states of others and have knowledge of beliefs and desires that are separate from their own. Understanding that one has an opposing viewpoint and a different perception of the world is something that many of us take for granted. This astonishing finding means that the divide between our species is again lessened and, given their ability to consult past experiences, should make us look at the trauma we inflict on these animals when destroying their habitats. If you’re wondering what kind of trauma I’m talking about, google for videos of orang-utans trying to fight off bulldozers and watch it while thinking this animal is cognitively our closest relative on this planet.
The display of dead animals is something that is in our artwork, museums and home decor. Jane Desmond explains in Displaying Death and Animating Life that taxidermy is something that is done from love and a desire for connection to the animal. I can get that. I once met a woman that had stuffed every dog she owned and I’m nearly certain she did it because she loved them.
The most obvious place that we see animal remains is in the supermarket, either wrapped in cellophane or their whole body is strung from the ceiling on display. We do not relate to these animals, their lives and sacrifice are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. “Only in the case of pets, whose status lies between property and family member … But mostly, we regard it passively, unremarked upon and unremarkable”.
The exploration of taxidermy and the subsequent highly successful exhibitions such as Body World and Inside Out, demonstrate that without our outer coating there is nothing that separates us from our animal counterparts. Our separation occurs cognitively as sort of a pseudo social categorisation or “speciemanisation”. Through the positioning of such cadavers we create context, narrative and a kind of importance to these lives. Context is as important when it comes to the subjectivity of compassion for animals. Desmond noted that upon entry to such exhibits one had to be made aware, and wanted assurance, that the animals were not slaughtered for display. Yet the same assurance is not required in the context of the animal being eaten, due to the narrative we have when viewing the animals in an exhibit as opposed to the animals we eat.
Melanie Joy in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows explores the idea of carnism. This is the belief system that allows us to eat meat, not because we need to, but because we choose to. Joy states that it is an ideology that is resistant to scrutiny and portrays its systems as normal. Such normal ideologies are rarely spoken about. These tacit assumptions are generally imposed unfavourably to exert control over others. The fact that they are unspoken means that they are harder to openly speak about. They distort our reality, this is how ideologies are kept intact. In the case of animals, Joy suggests that we objectify them by viewing them as inanimate objects, mainly through the use of impersonal language. This is why we call an animal it, rather than he or she. De-individualisation is often used in the case of animals, by identifying them as purely a number or part of a collective group, avoiding all personal identity.
People often do this as an implicit coping mechanism. Spirituality is not immune from this. In the book The Seat of the Soul, which is a great read, Gary Zukav speaks of how animals are part of a different state of consciousness, a group consciousness that is relative to their species. While, I loved this book and certainly would never question any of Oprah’s book club choices, in my estimation Zukav’s view is purely philosophical. The means for correctly assessing the internal first person experience of another has not been developed by science, so I can imagine that understanding the internal first person experience, let alone the consciousness, of a species we don’t share a common language with is purely speculative.
Renowned spiritual teacher David Hawkins explores consciousness on a somewhat sliding scale. Hawkins explains that, since animals do not have responsibility and choice, they vibrate at a lower evolutionary level. I’m a big fan of Hawkins, but not this idea and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. In my estimation, such a logic would suggest that during our own evolutionary journey we too, since we were animals with no responsibilities, had a different soul. Unless you are a creationist.
This animal soul debate is complex and something that I can only offer viewpoints on, as we will never truly know. This view was indicative of a commonly shared beliefs that the sole purpose of animals is to provide food for us. This is a perspective that can occur no matter what your perceived level of spirituality.
However, traditions such as Shamanism view animals a little differently. One would call on power animals for divine guidance and insight. Likewise, in India the cow is sacred and in some parts it’s illegal to kill them. I feel that viewpoints on animals are something that is culturally significant. This is also displayed in the worship of certain animals in different religions and traditions, like the Egyptians and single woman who have a reverence for cats. Returning to souls, in my understanding, regardless of the caliber of soul, they are all ultimately the same entity, expressed differently.
What seems to be more of an area of interest, or concern depending on how you look at it, is whether or not animals have sentience? Sentience, in this capacity, concerns whether or not we believe that animals are capable of feeling emotions, posses self-awareness and have an awareness of their experience. Dr Steve Cook who is a lecturer in political theory in the University of Leicester explained that animals are far more aware than we think, explaining that they experience moral emotions and have an interest in how their lives are going.
Dichotomisation is another coping mechanism we use to justify our choices. Joy describes how our feelings towards different animals are due to the labels we place on them. For example, when asked, Joy stated that many people described pigs as sweaty and unintelligent, proving that many of us don’t really understand animals, their characteristics and the complex social and emotional lives they have. Pigs are, in fact, highly sensitive and intelligent animals. Who don’t have sweat glands, by the way. They suffer such emotional stress that they have been seen to self harm within factory settings. This complex coping mechanism is not isolated to pigs and has been witnessed across all kinds of animals.
Our reactions to different types of meat are down to perception which radically alters our reality and determines our reactions. Our strong emotional ties with certain types of animals comes down to how we allow them to know us and vice versa. The brain is a high powered pattern creating machine. Our categorisation of animals allow us to process large amounts of information quickly, which is helpful for our survival. In the case of categorisation, if we were presented with rabbit to eat we would potentially create the image in our mind of a pet rabbit who is possibly being cuddled by a child. When we eat meat that is of an acceptable animal, by our own standards, we just picture the meat or possibly a nameless animal, with no emotional arousal.
Rottnest Island is a small island off the coast of Australia, which is known for being home to the world’s happiest animal, the Quokka. These small rodents have reached worldwide fame, as they are particularly friendly and are a social media favourite, as they appear to be smiling. In March 2017 a 21 year old man was fined $4000 for kicking a Quokka while he was in a drunken state. Not only did the perpetrator receive an onslaught of abuse online, he also received death threats. This is just an example of the importance we place on certain animals over others and the indignation that we feel when they are poorly treated as opposed to others. We are so capable of seeing the kicker of the Quokka as evil, mentally ill and desperately deserving retribution. However, when it comes to workers who earn an honest living we do not extend the same indignation. This selective outrage can be seen in protests at dog meat festivals in Korea and the mass clubbing and slaughter of whales, in the name of tradition. In reality, every second, animals of all kinds go through the same misery and live a life of abject slavery. Similarly, I have known many people who would gladly protest a bull fight, yet would justify a report of ill-treatment within an abattoir as an aberration as they tuck into their steak dinner.
Most of us won’t witness the violence of animal agriculture. Those that do can have serious mental issues following. Slaughter house workers regularly report the effect that their job takes on them as they deal with the true horror of their jobs. Often they have no other choice. There is a biological basis for empathy. The mirror neurons in our brain fire off when we witness something happening to someone else and the same is true for animals. Paul McCartney, of The Beatles fame, even believed that if slaughter houses had glass walls that we would all be vegetarians. It is the complicit contract between consumer and producer to ignore the hidden violence in the industry that supports the systems that keep them in place.
Throughout history we have learned much about the suffering of others, but philosopher Jeremy Bentham explored whether or not animals can suffer. The evolution in our capacity for compassion and understanding is a testament to the evolution of our species spiritually. Previously scientists used to preform surgery on live dogs, claiming their cries were nothing more than a mechanical response, most notably philosopher Rene Descartes who nailed his wife’s dog to a door and cut it open to see how it ticked - anaesthetic free. If that didn't make you flinch, the same used to be preformed on babies and people of colour because it was believed that they didn't feel pain in the same way.
The overwhelming similarities between animals and humans have been documented across numerous species. Bovines involved in the dairy industry have been shown to exhibit distress when their newly born calves are removed so they can continue being milked. I’m sure any nursing mother could relate. Scientists have discovered the sentience of crustaceans, which is encouraging industry wide changes to the laws that ensure these animals’ welfare. The University of Chicago deduced that Octopuses could be actually more intelligent than people, in some respects, and if their life expectancy wasn’t so short they could achieve great things. Their cephalopod cousin, the cuttlefish, has also been seen to demonstrate intelligence and emotions such as pain. The cuttlefish is so remarkable and captivating research is currently being correlated on the possibility of cuttle-sentience by Agency National de la Recherche.
Returning to the Moral Maze, Claire Bass who is the executive director of the Human Society spoke about how we could utilise science to determine how we should treat animals. The lobster, for example, has been cooked alive for god knows how long. Recently we have discovered that the lobster has the capabilities of feeling all sorts of things such as pain. Bass believes that even though we may not be able to relate to them because we look differently and we don’t have shells, well maybe emotional ones as opposed to physical, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge their right to share in our experience.
It’s interesting how we can relate and take a stand against certain types of atrocities and not others. None of us would like to be seen as the oppressor, or complicit in the ill treatment of anything. We would much rather see ourselves closely related to the victim. If we take on the assumption that we and animals both undergo the same processes to survive, such as take in oxygen to breathe, we could transform our relationship with our animal counterparts. The ascription of a social value to a life can influence not only how that life unfolds but also how the end of that life is recognised or ignored. Desmond believes that devalued lives give way to devalued deaths, that often go without notice from the wider communities. The ignorance of the individuality and uniqueness of the lives of each of the animals that die on a daily basis could be lessened if we cultivated a commonality with our pets.
Our collective desire to believe so fully in our need to eat meat aids us in ignoring the fact that they are exploited at our hands. Joy draws parallels with some of the great injustices throughout history, such as the oppression of women, people of colour and, of course, the holocaust. Our societal conditioning and our desire to follow orders, even if we disagree with them, was explored by Stanley Milgrim’s famous study on authoritarianism. During the study participants were asked to take the role of a teacher and and learner and the teacher was directed to administer a series of shocks if the learner failed to give the correct response. Many of the teachers inflicted serious pain and misery on their learners, leading the experimenters to draw the conclusion that we act against our conscience as we don’t believe that we are responsible for our actions when acting under instruction.
Free choice, or so we believe, is not actually the case. People believe that animals were designed to be eaten. When it comes to changing a perspective it can be a little difficult as we utilise something called confirmation bias. This means we choose information to support a preferred idea, values or beliefs to prove we are correct. We are more likely to acknowledge new information if we already believe in the cause and it supports our current viewpoint.
Bias, likewise, must be viewed from the other standpoint also. People who choose to eat meat are perfectly right in their choices. In answer to the original question, "how can we stand to eat them?" I suppose it is because we 'Other' them. Philosopher and feminist Simone de Beaviour believed that women "She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other”. In our lives we must be mindful of what we Other, as it is natural. We are the subject of our own lives, but the same is true for every other living thing.