So what is animal rights?
It isn’t the scary monster that most people think of.
So how did I come to embrace animal rights? Let me tell you little story.
In my long journey from growing up on a predominately beef farm (we also raised rabbits, pigs, and dairy goats along with my great uncles sheep farm across the road) I grew up with an indoctrination to how animals ranked in the hierarchy of the cycle of life. I also hunted so I would include this into the mix.
Indoctrination is defined as “to inculcate (to teach or impress thoroughly), to instruct.” In other words it involves being given information that one does not examine critically. My relationship to farm animals and free living animals began with, of course, my family, then my community, church, 4-H, a land-grant college and then reinforced every time I turned on the TV. Every commercial break has at least one commercial that is selling flesh, dairy, or egg products and if they are inventive they can cram all of them into one sandwich. When I saw this I thought that what I was doing was a good thing, providing food for the family and others.
It wasn’t till I had a health crisis that I looked seriously at the cause and effect of my lifestyle choices. I had a heart attack when I was 18 years old, at the time I didn’t know what had happened. I was home alone while the family was on vacation, I was sitting in front of the boob tube watching movie and eating a half-gallon of ice cream. All of a sudden the left side of my neck started to hurt, then my left jaw, shoulder, and a radiating pain down my left arm. The next thing I knew I was on the floor and couldn’t breath. It seemed to last forever but I know realize that it probably last a few minutes. The experience scared me, I didn’t know what had happened, I didn’t know the symptoms of a heart attack…it scared me enough to not tell my family about it.
A few years later my dad had a heart attack and by-pass; I then learned what a heart attack really was. This caused me some concern but being young and invincible I figured it could really happen again. But when the cardiologist met with my dad, brother and myself in ICU step-down we were told that we had a genetic predisposition to heart disease. Again being a person who followed the cause and effect line of thinking I watched and followed the advice given my dad, no smoking (never did that), take the salt shaker off the table, and keep my saturated fat intake to 30% of total calories. My dad followed the guidelines and a few years later had another heart attack and his second by-pass. Later he had a stroke that took his ability to speak and after that an abdominal aneurysm that nearly killed him. It took several years for all of this to play out.
There is an old saying, “Either your life is an outstanding example or a terrible warning.” The warnings were all around me. Lifestyle choices had caused serious health problems and death in my family, but I didn’t know better.
In the late 1980’s I was working in the dairy industry. I injured myself on the job and since we were unionized I went to the union doctor. He fixed me up then asked me how long it had been since I had had a physical. It had been about 10 years so he gave me a complete physical and also a full panel blood test. A few days later he called me and said we needed to meet…it wasn’t something he wanted to discuss over the phone. When a doctor say something like this you know it can’t be good. I went to his office and he asked if there was a history of heart disease in the family, I said yes and explained what had happened to my grandfather and my dad. He asked who my dad’s attending physician was, called him, and had my dad’s preoperative blood work faxed over. He sat there studying and comparing. Needless to say his furrowed brow and occasional expression of, “hmmmm” and “I see.” was making me nervous. These little signals never bode well.
After several minutes he flatly state that if I didn’t make some changes in my lifestyle I would probably have my own by-pass by the time I was 35. I asked him what to do and he handed me a pamphlet. It was about heart health and as we discussed it he said that the number one food I had to get out of my diet was ice cream. Yikes! I was addicted to ice cream! My blood work showed that both my dad and I had the same problem, good cholesterol (about 180) but very high triglycerides (mine were a shade over 700) which were much higher than my dads. The pamphlet said to start by giving up ice cream and red meat. It didn’t suggest being a vegetarian at all, besides I wouldn’t have known what the word meant…never heard of it before.
I took the pamphlet home and my wife and I stood in the kitchen and read and discussed it. She said that we could make the transition together, bless her heart. So we did.
About a year later my brother bought the farm from our grandmother and we moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was there that I learned what a vegetarian was and that I could reverse my heart disease with diet. Of course exercise is a big part of the lifestyle but I have always been active either working, running, playing sports, or martial arts.
We joined a local vegetarian club and developed close friendships with some very amazing people. Through their mentoring and my reading everything I could get my hands on about the relationship of diet and disease I became a vegetarian and a year later a vegan. After reading and meeting doctors like Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn http://www.heartattackproof.com/ and Dr. Michael Greger http://www.drgreger.org/ who specialize in reversing heart disease and other diseases I realized that if I was going to create homeostasis in this thing I call a body then the responsibility is totally upon me. Not a pill or surgical procedure but upon the choices I make every time I eat. I find it interesting that all physicians have to take the Hippocratic oath when they graduate but know so little about the teachings of Hippocrates. One of Hippocrates prime teachings “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Good advice!
Animal consciousness didn’t come to me still a few years later and you can get the details about that from the Tribe of Heart documentary Peaceable Kingdom, The Journey Home.
Through a Guernsey steer named Snickers I realized how I had developed coping mechanisms that allowed me to view animals as objects of utility. I had an immediate image in my head of a light switch over my heart that I could turn on or off depending on who or what I was dealing with. I also realized that the cue for that coping mechanism was the phrase ‘I don’t care.’ I now understood that when I made a choice that was not in alignment with my authentic self, out of tune with my heart, I would say I don’t care and uttering it would put me in a place where I was disconnected emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually from the “other”. At that moment I knew that I could no longer be part of anything that took a life and that I could never use that phrase again. What I learned then was that if I choose not to say I don’t care then I was in a place where I had no alternative but say “I care.” I will call it unconditional caring but might be better understood as unconditional compassion, has profoundly changed my life. It has required a tremendous amount of hard work to practice emotional honesty; something our culture does not teach folks and particularly males.
Make no mistake; I didn’t take this journey alone. If it wasn’t for my loving wife and an amazing community of friends in Cleveland, I may have not found the peace that I have today. The vegetarian club I joined in Cleveland consisted of people dedicated to personal growth and self-actualization. If they hadn’t provided me with a safe space to explore the deep emotional traumas of my life I probably wouldn’t have come to understand some very important truths.
One of these truths is the practice of ahimsa, doing no harm. Most people can understand this as karma or in the west we say, what goes around comes around. How we live our lives and the things that we do or don’t do have everything with the reality we create. Since I was a kid I had observed that farm animals sought comfort, pleasure, good food, shelter, and community. But I never allowed those observations to trump the dominate- culture that I lived in. When I allowed myself the moral imagination to include these animals into my moral universe it became clear that the most simple observations we make about animals we call pets is no different for farm animals. When I made the choice to live a conscious life it demanded of me to question long held assumptions. It also demanded that I think critically about what I had observed earlier in my life and how was I to integrate the two opposing ideas.
Beyond these, more or less, intellectual pursuits was the harder task of coming to terms with how I truly felt.
Here is where the hard work would be. And so it has. Not only is emotional honesty counter-intuitive to males in our culture but usually a sign of weakness. But in my heart of hearts I knew that this was where I needed to be, how I needed to show up in the world. And if I was to make any sort of difference for a better world I had to live this truth.
Animal rights, to me, is quite simply respecting animals as the sentient beings that they are. This means that they are on this Earth for their own reasons, not ours. That they have their own self interests just as humans do and in so much as they do they should be respected for that and left alone.
But this is also the proverbial up hill battle animals face. They are the legal property of humans and this dynamic puts them at a grave disadvantage, in particularly in a free-market capitalist system where animals are owned and traded openly as commodities, as economic units.
Until we question this entangled relationship, which has existed for some 10,000 years we will have some difficultly seeing animals with new eyes.