One inescapable reality of being vegan are the constant examples and reminders of how some animals matter in our world, and others don’t. From sitting at a table with meat-eaters who speak of love for their pets while they chew on the flesh of a cow, to people walking their dogs while wearing a coat with fur trim from a coyote, to coworkers with calendars of cute animals hanging at their cubicle as they tell me about the barbecued pig ribs they ate over the weekend, this contradiction is not something most people even realize is happening but it happens ALL of the time.
As children, some of the first words, sounds, and pictures we learn to identify are farm animals: cow, pig, chicken, turkey, sheep. Yet those same animals are some of the first we’re given to eat, normalized by such phrasings as, “It’s good for you”, “It’s tradition”, or, if you were raised in a born-again Christian home as I was, “God gave us dominion over the animals”, as if being granted authority means never questioning how we’re actually using it. By the time we reach adulthood, farm animals have long since ceased to even be animals; they are simply thought of as food.
I had another run-in with this contradiction at a pet CPR class I took last weekend. I knew going into it that the content would only apply to animals we consider pets – mainly dogs and cats – and in fact, my dog is the reason I signed up for the class. (She’s a bit of a scavenger when it comes to food, and despite all the objects we manage to keep away from her on walks, we just can’t catch them all and I wanted to learn what to do should she ever choke on something.)
Two things at the course immediately struck me as different: the animals in the First Aid booklet were referred to as “the animal” or “your pet”, a nice change from the “it” animals usually get assigned to them, even when talking about dogs and cats (you see this all of the time in news articles about animals and even our local dog park has a sign instructing owners to keep “it” leashed at all times).
The second thing was the instructor’s empathy. Sure, this was his job, but you can tell when someone has an understanding of an animal that goes beyond the “just an animal” mentality; from encouraging people to devote proper time to their dog (“Don’t get on your phone as soon as you take the dog out for a walk after getting home from work. They’ve been alone all day; make the walk about them.”) to ensuring any potential spots in your home that cats like to hide in don’t lead to a hole in the wall or an electrical source. When it came time to practice performing CPR on the dog “dummy”, there were no jokes or implications that this was somehow less serious than trying to save a human.
Unfortunately, no other “pet” animals were included in the booklet: no rabbits, or guinea pigs, or budgies, or turtles. This was not a surprise but if you owned an animal that didn’t fall under the canine or feline category, well, you’re on your own. As the instructor also pointed out – for dogs, cats, or otherwise – in an emergency there is no ambulance to call to rush them to a vet, no coroner to call time of death. That’s all on you. Again, no surprise, but it’s another example of that contrary message when it comes to animals: some are important but only to a point, and some don’t matter enough to even mention.
Then lunch time rolled around. The instructor, clearly a caring and compassionate person who wouldn’t hesitate to give artificial respiration to a dog or cat in medical distress, suggested several places to eat in the area including one that had “really good chicken.”
And there it was. The ultimate contradiction in our treatment of animals. Some we save, some we eat. Some we pay money to learn CPR and First Aid for, others we pay a corporation to breed and slaughter. Some we care for in their hour of need, some we don’t even see as victims. As a vegan, this wasn’t a new experience for me nor was the sensation of my heart sinking inside me at the lunch suggestion. But like so many of these daily scenarios I encounter, along with ordinarily caring people who stop short of extending mercy to all animals, I was reminded again of just how much our awareness of animal suffering needs to grow, how far our humanity still needs to reach.