Extending the circle of compassion may be the easiest thing in the world, and bring untold benefits to all animals, humans included.
Ihave spent most of my 68 years relating to and understanding non-human animals, more so than my fellow humans. Over 40 years of my working life was devoted to learning how to make the lives of the captive animals I cared for as stress free and normal as possible—quite the challenge. It takes patience and melding with the individual animal, to “think like a lion.”
Having worked with many species in zoos, sanctuaries and universities, I feel I can now speak for them. My life’s work has brought me to my final mission, to change the species-centric lives of humans, to create a more inclusive world.
I know our world is overflowing with problems needing to be solved—climate change, poverty, health problems, abuse of children, women, animals and the earth. I believe Albert Schweitzer said it best: “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Simple idea, yet it could bring a profound positive change in the world.
If we had that compassion for all non-human beings, could we use and abuse them to entertain us in rodeos and circuses? Could we put them through cruel testing just to make sure our soap and cosmetics are safe for us? Even in medical research, there are many projects where non-living beings can be used or where humans can volunteer, but in most cases, we still use dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, monkeys, and apes without their permission, forcing them to live with pain or die in cruel ways.
I also wonder how many people would eat animals if they knew the lives they have experienced just to be put on our plates. It is interesting how we humans started out living together with our animal kin, each of us living our natural lives. Long ago, as hunter gatherers, we actually gathered more than we hunted. Then about 10,000 years ago some tribes began domesticating sheep and soon after, goats and cattle. This made it easier to kill them when needed; no need to go hunting. This also gave us greater control over their numbers as we could neuter or kill off males to make herds mostly reproductive females.
This was the beginning of family farms where we could control animals for our benefit. We learned how to do selective breeding to produce more meat for your buck. We breed them, take away their babies, and for the poor dairy cow, make her give more milk than she could do naturally. What happened to the self-determined life these animals once led? They are now beholden to us and our bidding.
We have gone from gathering as the most important source for our survival to where meat is now the main dish, supplemented by other foods. This is the culture we have created, and with the help of the meat and dairy industry, we believe we need animal products to survive.
The industry certainly does, but we do not.
The fast food industry has created an even greater need for meat, which in turn, has necessitated factory farming. I don’t need to go into the abuse and cruelty this involves here—just Google “factory farms.” They are for animals what Auschwitz was for humans.
In my final mission in my life, I am trying to gently change a culture. I say gently because I have learned that each individual has their own views and ways of dealing with the world so what may open one person’s eyes may close another’s. I know harsh, graphic photos and descriptions usually turn the kind hearted away and make the hardhearted feel guilty and mad.
I have learned that the best way to create change is to listen and hear where the other person is coming from, to find ways that may help them see another way, and to motivate them to change. Most importantly, I try not to judge, for once I was one who ate animals. Changing a life style like this is much like the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
In my youth, I had always dearly loved animals, but could not stop eating them. Then, in my mid-20’s, something touched my soul in the right place—I stopped eating them the next day. It happened when my friend—who had a sanctuary for big cats—told me a story about a slaughterhouse where she had gone to get some meat. It was hard to hear her story about how these sentient beings were crowded in small pens with feces-filled floors to live out their final days. Some were ill, but no care was provided. So they fell and others stomped over them. Then there was the killing, and so many others felt the fear. That was it; I never ate another animal again. As Paul McCartney one said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”
I have a friend who, when she heard how I wish people wouldn’t eat animals, said to me, “You just want everyone to be vegan.” That didn’t seem quite true, but at the time I didn’t know why. It’s not that I want everyone to be vegan. After all, many vegans I know aren’t particularly respectful of other humans. What I’d really like to see is for everyone to extend their circle of compassion to all living beings. If that means we are all vegan, great! But it would also mean that we have reverence for all life, insects, trees, birds, etc. The entire earth would be treated better. If we were compassionate as a species, we would be much more empathetic and wouldn’t treat other humans in abusive, intolerant, and judgmental ways. We would respect and care for all life as if it were our own.
There is an easy way to cure many of the ills of the world, and it is like the elephant in the room: don’t eat animals. First, everyone can do this, not just men, not just women. Fifty-six billion farm animals are killed every year for food. If we didn’t raise animals for food, the water, land, and fertilizer used to raise them could be used to grow plants for us to eat. This is an easy solution to a big environmental crisis. Water will be our next great shortage: it takes about 2,400 gallons to produce one pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat. Moreover, animals in factory farms account for 37% of methane (CH4) emissions. Methane has more than 20 times the global warming potential as of CO2.
I have been very disappointed to see that more people in the environmental movement are not vegetarians. This younger generation seems aware that the earth is in crisis, and to their credit, will tie themselves to a tree to save it. Yet they will easily eat a hamburger without caring how that cow was treated or how its “production” devastates the environment.
I could say the same for spiritual leaders. Why are they not setting a more compassionate and caring example by promoting awareness of how we treat animals. Thich Nhat Hanh, and now the Dali Lama, promote not eating animals, but I can think of no other spiritual leaders doing the same.
We know for a fact that most of us can live very healthy lives with good nutrition without killing animals. So my mission now is to change a culture. This is a culture that thinks nothing of laughing at a calf being terrorized in a rodeo. This is a culture that doesn’t care if rabbits scream when products are tested in their eyes. This is a culture that has no clue that their bacon comes from an animal as sweet and sensitive as the family dog.
I believe the starting place for growing this new awareness and compassion is a plant-based diet. Could this be the seed that grows compassion for all beings? Could a human society that cares for all life create a more empathetic and compassionate world?
I believe so.
Ann Southcombe is president of The Kerulos Center’s board of directors. For over 35 years, she has worked as an Animal Relation Specialist and licensed wildlife rehabilitator.