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Lies, damned lies, and beliefs about food. How knowledge frees you

Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series about the impact of human meat consumption on global climate crisis and strategies to deal with it. To read parts one and two, click here and here.

By John Keeble

Dogs and cats were put on the Earth to show us that animals have emotions, personalities and intellects … you see this kind of claim on Facebook and other places.

It may be trite but it is what most people discover when they live with any kind of pet: all animals have emotions, personalities and intellects.

They feel pain, fear, happiness, contentment. Each needs enough to eat, somewhere to shelter, and enough freedom to express itself. All pretty much like us.

What is really strange is the way that people can accept that and yet close their minds to the fact that so-called food animals and wild animals also have the same qualities.

Many people misconstrue powerlessness in dominated animals as lack of intellect and emotions. They go along with the exploiters’ definitions of animals as no more than a human resource – and happily so, since that makes it easier to join in and benefit from the exploitation and abuse.

BBC Earth and others have researched popular attitudes and compared them with the scientifically-evaluated realities. These are some of the findings:

Chickens: “Chickens are, in fact, anything but dumb,” says the BBC investigation. “They can count, show some level of self-awareness, and even manipulate one another by Machiavellian means. In fact, chickens are so smart that even a limited amount of exposure to the living birds can crush longstanding preconceptions.”

Sheep: “Sheep are one of the most unfairly stereotyped animals on the planet,” says the BBC. “Almost everything we believe about them is wrong[They] are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.”

Cattle: Peta, the animal activist organisation, takes up this assessment. “Cows are generally quite intelligent animals who can remember things for a long time. [They] interact in socially complex ways, developing friendships over time and sometimes holding grudges against other cows who treat them badly. These gentle giants mourn the deaths of and even separation from those they love, sometimes shedding tears over their loss. The mother/calf bond is particularly strong, and there are countless reports of mother cows who continue to call and search frantically for their babies after the calves have been taken away and sold to veal or beef farms.”

Pigs: NCB says that pigs are “perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known — more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts. But pigs don’t have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to stay cool. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen [to] distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.”

There are plenty of personal accounts as well as empirical and scientific evidence to show that many animals have most of the feelings, fears and needs of humans, including (in varying degrees) care for their young, friendships, likes and dislikes, family networks, and tribal organisation with hierarchies.

“Life is very vivid to animals,” said a National Geographic  review of award-winning environmental writer Carl Safina’s book Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel.

It added: “In many cases [animals] know who they are. They know who their friends are and who their rivals are. They have ambitions for higher status. They compete. Their lives follow the arc of a career, like ours do. We both try to stay alive, get food and shelter, and raise some young for the next generation. Animals are no different from us in that regard.”

The octopus is an example of a smart animal generally disregarded by most people. It is one of the big-brained invertebrates, including squid, known collectively as cephalopods. You know, the ones you like on your plate.

The Washington Post said in a review of a book called Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith: “Don’t read this book if you want to continue eating calamari with an untroubled conscience, for living cephalopods are smart, beautiful and possessed with extraordinary personalities.” Their biggest liability, it adds, is that they taste wonderful.

Callum Roberts, the British marine conservation professor who wrote the review, continued:Cephalopod brains are certainly impressive. Anyone who has come face to face with an octopus will have sensed that something special lurks behind its cat-like eyes… Captive octopuses give full rein to [their] mischievous temperament, learning to pop light bulbs with jetted water, block the outflow of their tanks so they overflow, and recognize individual people, squirting those they dislike with water (or perhaps water jets are an aquatic sign of friendship?).” An octopus brain “compares favourably with dogs”.

Despite so many reliable sources explaining animal intelligence and emotions, the ignorance and self-justifications of the past are perpetuated and extended in our governments, self-serving institutions, and profit-seeking companies.

Far from recognising animals as sentient creatures and acknowledging meat production’s damage to the planet, producers (with government blessings) are heroically trying to make their enterprises more efficient by increasing cruelties with more intensive fattening farms and faster rates of processing and killing cattle, chickens and pigs.

There is no form of exploitation that our parasitic imaginations has failed to dream up and morally justify in the exploitation of animals.

How do you regard animals? You love your pets, of course – they serve their purpose in giving you pleasure. But what about the rest? How to you feel about helpless monkeys and other animals screaming in agony in laboratories? What do you think of the horrors of meat production getting crueller by the day? How about abuse like race horses sent to slaughterhouses as soon as they have passed their moneymaking best? What about sharks being caught, their fins cut off and then thrown back in the sea to die slowly and painfully? How about imprisonment in zoos and humiliating slavery in circuses?

Maybe you will help celebrate it later this month. Thanksgiving. Forty-six million turkeys fattened and chopped for your symbolic satisfaction and bodily pleasure. And that is leaving aside that they are a blood sacrifice of another species to honour an increasingly contentious event of our own species. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Almost as strange as the millions upon millions of turkeys tortured with intensive rearing and killed a month after Thanksgiving to celebrate the birth of the Christian god of love and compassion. Don’t view this report of turkey “production” if you want to enjoy your dinner.

Our species has taken many wrong turns over the past few thousand years. We do not seem to have the moral compass, or even survival sense, to admit our mistakes and try to get onto positive, sustainable and ethical paths.

We would rather enjoy our palm oil treats and get our emotional jollies from feeling helpless and crying over orang-utans having their homes stolen and their lives destroyed to the point of extinction.

On the other hand, the UK’s Queen recently went sort-of fur free after years of defying activists criticising her for supporting such a cruel trade. No new clothes, including ceremonial outfits, will be made with real fur – but she is not sending the old stuff to the museum just yet.

However, there is hope. If the hidebound Old Guard at Buckingham Palace can change, anything is possible.

Can you change enough to ditch the cruelties of the past and help save the future for the new generations?
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John Keeble is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He “retired” after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 14 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues.