The Thinking Animal: Compassion Beyond “Pets”

Anyone who has adopted an animal and brought it into their home knows that animals are more than automatons. For those of us who pay close attention to our animal companions, we’ve witnessed a full range of emotions, mischievous thinking (and the disastrous results that follow!), the curiosity, and the behaviours taught and learnt over time.

Intelligence is not just limited to cats and dogs: people have reported the same sorts of things from other pets, from rodents to snakes to goldfish. Heck, I once saw an article about goldfish who were taught to play a form of miniature underwater soccer! My own adopted angelfish take a great deal of interest in the world outside their tank, and my rats love to play games and collect items to create all manner of bizarre decorations in their cage. With a little persistence, rats can be trained to come when their name is called.

So how does this relate to a gluten-free vegan blog? Well, besides my adopted animal companions eating a gluten-free diet, too (it just turned out that way), the idea of animal intelligence, feeling, wants and needs is what veganism is about. Animals can suffer, that much is clear. But evidence – in our own homes and in laboratories – shows that they can think and reason as well. Humans are not unique, despite the egotism that people spew about our “right” to dominate the earth. Monkeys and crows use tools, earthworms and otters build homes for themselves from carefully chosen materials. Pigs are known for being vastly more intelligent than dogs, and cows and chickens kept on small properties are often prized as “pets” rather than food or egg/dairy production machines.

Simply because animals do not cause destruction and create concrete jungles on a mass scale in the process (like humans do) does not mean their abilities should be dismissed. Rats – commonly used in psychology experiments – have even demonstrated meta-cognitive abilities, ie. thinking about thinking – reconsidering choices, thoughts, the world, etc. Rats are the second most destructive force on earth, next to humans, but we are not the only animals who reshape their environment and create from it, as mentioned earlier. There are a vast range of abilities and intelligences across the animal kingdom.

My compassion for another human is not limited to my estimate of their intelligence. Is someone with a lower intelligence less entitled to a life free from harm? Or, to put it another way: is someone with a different form of intelligence, with a different way of life, any less entitled to a life free from harm, abuse, enslavement, forced labour, and violent slaughter? For the most part, the wants of animals are ignored, or dismissed as non-existent (yet anyone with pets – or companion animals – knows that animal have needs, eg. cats in particular aren’t afraid to remind you know about what they want! Incessantly and repeatedly. And each individual cat makes their requests in a different way, and has preferences for different things).

For humans, the answer appears obvious in the age of the Declaration of Human Rights, yet less than one hundred years ago humans still enslaved others, discriminated based on race, gender, physical and intellectual disabilities. This still goes on in plenty of places in the world, in plenty of ways, but it’s not considered fair or just. As education becomes more and more widespread, people are empowered to make choices and rethink what is acceptable treatment of them and others. People work to eliminate violence and abuse based on bigotry. The anti-sweatshop movement is a great example (and remarkably similar to the anti-factory farming movement).

So, where does veganism fit in? Discriminating on the basis of species is equivalent to discriminating on the basis of any other arbitrary characteristic, such as race or gender. Simply because an intelligent being is of a different species doesn’t make it any less worthy of our compassion. The idea of “inherent worth” being applied to arbitrary characteristics is the same idea behind white supremacy and the patriarchal values oppressing women – it is a poor excuse for excusing all sorts of violent, ignorant, and abusive behaviour against another life. Simply because someone is born with white skin or is a man does not make them more worthy of privilege than dark skinned folks or women, respectively. Similarly, being born a human should not give you the privilege to abuse nonhumans or to place your needs above theirs. To not use, abuse, or support animal industry is to not engage in bigotry against nonhuman species.

Speciesism, like racism and sexism, causes harm, destruction, violence, and pain, and it’s completely unnecessary. There is nothing to be gained by supporting animal abuse, but plenty to lose by continuing down this path – for starters, animal industries create more pollution than all other industries combined, including automotive, and animal farming industries so often have to be subsidised by governments to stay afloat – ultimately they are not sustainable on any level. Just as sexism and racism impede societies economically and sociologically, so does speciesism.

Animals are entitled to their own needs just as much as we are. They express their needs to each other and to us – and here’s a National Geographic article that shows they do. Not only can animals relate to each other, they can stretch themselves to think in human terms. Most humans are incapable of relating to animals on their terms, yet animals are often open and willing to learn from us and teach us.

Minds of their Own:
Animals are smarter than you think.
By Virginia Morell

But is this what veganism is all about? Focusing on all the misery and violence in the world? … Absolutely not! Although fostering awareness of suffering is a key step, along with the issues of animal rights and the importance of acknowledging non-human intelligence. Veganism is about positive change, personal liberation for everyone – and not at the expense of anyone else. The aim is freedom and happiness for everyone, human and nonhuman. It’s about health for everyone, animals of all species and the environment included. By making an effort to stop consuming animal products, life improves. Eating also becomes cheaper and fun and positive. Shopping for clothes and other items besides food also falls into the same realm.

Vegans sometimes hit a negative wall when other people don’t understand the meaning of veganism and take it as a personal criticism or a challenge. But it’s not just about you, and it’s not just about me. It’s about the animals, the rights of non-human and human animals. It’s also about the health of the planet and the health of all non-human and human animals. Veganism is about living in balance with a large ecosystem, without engaging in unsustainable, needlessly destructive or violent behaviours. Ultimately, it’s about helping everyone, which is inclusive of you and me… So hug a vegan today! We’re not out to personally attack or criticise you. We’re only trying to be nice! And if we manage to raise awareness in the process and help more people become vegan along the way, then so much the better for everyone.

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My next non-recipe vegan articles coming up in the near future will feature: why food tastes better when you’re vegan; why veganism is not restrictive or about “giving up” things; how veganism is about discovering a whole new, vast world of flavours and life options beyond the western infatuation with grease, constipation, disease, and obesity; further discussion on human and “pet”/companion animal interactions; various approaches to becoming vegan; why PETA is a thorn in the side of veganism; Buddhists, other religions/philosophies, & veganism… and whatever other stuff comes up in the meantime! And more recipes. There’s always more recipes.

pixel The Thinking Animal: Compassion Beyond Pets
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  • Carrie

    I just found your blog and want to say, Woo Hoo! Thank you for this blog! I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005. After over a decade as a vegetarian, I started eating meat again because I let celiac experts convince me that it is impossible to be gluten-free without eating meat. However, I feel that I’m not being true to myself when I eat meat and am feeling a strong desire to go completely vegan. I’m so happy to see other people eating a vegan, gluten-free diet — confirming that it CAN be done, and without giving up taste!

  • Emilia

    That was a great post and a bit touching too, I especially liked this “..But it’s not just about you, and it’s not just about me. It’s about the animals..”.

  • Kim

    Very well put. Beautiful. That is exactly what I feel about animals and the slaughter industry. I have been a gluten free vegan for 3 months now and your blog has helped me. Thanks!

  • garshleyentertainment

    Brilliantly (is that a word?) written. Wow. I wish I wrote that. I like the quote you put in there “Minds of their Own:
    Animals are smarter than you think.
    By Virginia Morell”. I have pets and wouldn’t trade them for anything in this world. I have also witnessed animals other than dogs and cats demonstrating intelligence. I have had intense conversation with friends about how chickens are NOT that stupid. They recent fears like any other living creature. Yes their brain is small but look at the size of their heads. Would you want it to be bigger? sometimese people are dumber than animals.

    To add to Carrie’s comment: yes you can totally have a celiac diet without meat. Luckly I am not celiac but I have lived with IBS for about 17 years and not eating meat makes me feel 400% better.

    You go girls