10 September 2005

Animal, vegetable or criminal?

By Rupert Read

When there is so much human tragedy in the world, who has time to spare a thought for our kin, the billions of non-human animals who share this planet with us? Well, I do, for one.

It seems to me that when we are trying to help fellow human beings who are suffering, we start from the assumption that those who are most powerless are the ones who most need our support. For example, people who are imprisoned and tortured for their political convictions; those whose homes or livelihoods have been devastated by natural (or manmade) disasters; refugees; women or children who have been sold into slavery; those on the receiving end of bombings or threatened with death in whatever way: all such groups of people, we aim to help the most, just because they are temporarily powerless to stop themselves from being abused or oppressed or simply destroyed.

The thing about our non-human cousins is that they are always in such a condition. Non-human animals cannot rise up in revolution against their oppressors; they cannot speak out in the media about what is being done to them; they cannot even begin to tell us (at least, not in words) what it is like for them. We have far more power over our non-human cousins than ever a tyrant has over his people, or a pimp over his prostitutes.

And this, I think, places upon us an absolute responsibility to treat our non-human kin with love, care and respect.

As a Quaker, I feel this especially strongly. We Quakers have a strong history of principled (non-violent) struggle against injustice and violence. In particular, against slavery, and for peace.

Obviously, it would be meaningless if human beings declared world peace but continued to wage an endless war against our non-human kin. And it would be a terrible omission, to free human beings, but to enslave animals the world over. And yet that - the mass enslavement and destruction of animals, for our commercial use - is exactly what is happening.

We have a clear kinship with non-human animals. They feel pain, they suffer, they scream; some of them can reason and care and empathise, too. And yet we subject them to the most extraordinary attacks. For example: Each year inside British laboratories, approximately 4 million animals are experimented on. Every 7 seconds, one animal dies in a British lab. Meanwhile, about 750,000,000 animals are slaughtered every year in Britain for food. That's right, you didn't read that wrong: 750 MILLION. That's almost 20 animals every second. By the time you finish reading this column, approximately 6000 British animals will have been killed inside farms and slaughterhouses, for casual human benefit. Most of these animals moreover are raised and killed in conditions that are - throughout - miserable and natureless.

Many readers will have seen the recent TV programmes on 'Supermarket Secrets', which depicted in graphic detail the way that animals suffer, in the course of becoming food for those of us who eat flesh. In particular, the programme showed the appalling conditions on a Norfolk factory farm raising broiler chickens for slaughter. Such farms are nothing less than the equivalents, for the animal world, of concentration camps and extermination camps.

It can sometimes be easy to evince concern for the plight of humans suffering in New Orleans, or Indonesia, or Palestine, or Abu Ghraib. And it is of course both vital and wonderful that we do so. But care for our fellow creatures, like charity, needs to begin at home. Next time you reach for your wallet to give to the victims of wars and disasters abroad, spare a thought too for the mass torture and extermination of animals that is going on all around us, every day. In Norfolk, in shoots and traps and hunts across the country, in our seas; in factory farms, in scientific laboratories, in slaughter houses.

As a Quaker, I believe that there is 'that of God in everyone' - including in my friends, the non-human creatures with whom I share this world. But you don't have to believe that, in order to take action (a good place to start is by going vegetarian). And action is sorely needed to stop this holocaust of suffering that I have merely begun to gesture at, in this article. Non-human animals are suffering, as you read these words, in their billions. For instance: in disguised 'concentration camps' scattered across the green and pleasant countryside of Norfolk alone, millions of chickens and other birds are suffering, right now. And all over the world, the pattern is repeated.

Non-human animals are in this pain, because of us humans. It is a moral crime, to ignore their wordless screams.