I am waaaay late to this New Year’s party but Happy 2017 everyone! Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading my old posts while I’ve been procrastinating for the past two months.
Over the holidays, I encountered a few scenarios where someone, after finding out I was vegan, referred to me as an “animal lover.” Though attributing this label to me was not meant to be an insult, I find the term presumptuous, inaccurate, and as I’ve written before, dismissive. Not only that, but it’s become more of a statement than an expression, the kind I might have printed up on a business card like a Private Detective or Chartered Accountant: “Nicola Sark – Animal Lover.” The term paints me with a very broad stroke, enforces a stereotype, and doesn’t get to the heart of why I choose not to eat or wear animals.
Some vegans do identify with the term “animal lover” and that’s totally cool. In fact, I think we need vegans who classify themselves as such to challenge the meat-and-dairy eating people who insist that they are too. But the term “animal lover” has lost meaning. While it should encompass all animals, from the sea to the land to the air, it generally only refers to our pets, animals in the wild, and the animals we don’t eat. Additionally, the term is often exclusive to animals we would consider “cute” or “cuddly” – the ones we want to pet and hold – which leaves out thousands of other species, like reptiles, rodents, or in my case, spiders (I haven’t killed a household spider since going vegan but they still give me the heebie-jeebies). Though nothing wrong with the phrase “animal lover” in and of itself, the meaning behind it has become watered-down and vague. And my reasons for being vegan are anything but.
Though love itself can be many things – a feeling, an action, a choice – it’s more associated with being an emotion and our culture tends to belittle any decision based on emotion, especially if you also happen to be a woman. The term “animal lover” is generally assigned to girls and women, lumped together with those other “female things” like crying or menstruating. It minimizes our point of view, relegating us once again to the “lesser than” category of human experience. (If a man or boy professes to love animals, they too risk being dismissed as “one of the girls” unless they also farm, hunt or kill the animals they “love”. Only then is their perceived masculinity safely preserved within the context of what our culture considers “being a man”.)
I also dislike the term “animal lover” because it’s infantilizing. It lumps animals together as one indistinguishable group, denying them any individual attributes, personalities, and instincts. It assumes they’re loveable because humans find them adorable and funny, rather than because they have their own reasons for looking and behaving the way they do. Much like the term “political correctness”, the term “animal lover” has become a way to dismiss an issue as ultimately unimportant, allowing the person using the term to avoid any form of self-reflection or moral culpability. When a meat-eater refers to me as an “animal lover” because I’m vegan, it reinforces the message that I’m the one who’s different, I’m the one who’s not the status quo, and whatever problems I may have living as a vegan in a meat-eating world is a problem of my own choosing, rather than a problem the meat-eater systematically perpetuates each time their choice to consume animal products requires the suffering and bloodshed of sentient beings.
I am, of course, capable of loving animals and certainly do feel great affection and tenderness towards them. But I’m not a vegan because of a feeling. I became vegan because of concrete knowledge. The more I educated myself on animal behaviour, the more I stood outside of slaughterhouses, and the more I learned about how “food” animals are treated today, I realized my dietary choices were about ethics: what I eat affects the lives of animals. Though feelings are valid and warranted and vital to our lives, they can vary, and they can change. And sometimes they are not enough to carry us through hard times. Ever set a goal for yourself and then crapped out because you lost the feeling? Unless we arm ourselves with facts and a solid understanding of why we do the things we do, real and lasting change will continue to elude us.
If you consider yourself to be an animal lover but still eat animals and their by-products, I encourage you to identify which animals are included in that love. For instance, when you say you love animals, do you really just mean you love dogs? And if you are a meat-eating animal lover who also considers me to be an animal lover because I’m vegan, how can both be true?