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The ethical case for the Vegan Challenge: Being able to look Big Tom right in the eye

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The ethical case for the vegan challenge

There was a time when some white people did not think about what it was like to be a person of colour who, by law, was not allowed to patronize "white" restaurants, nor to use "white" bathrooms. There was also a time when it was assumed that women were incapable of contributing to social, political, or academic life, solely in virtue of their femaleness. However, we do not need a time machine to witness people failing to consider what it is like to be a nonhuman animal. Indeed, we see the same kinds of ignorance and presumption at work in so many daily interactions -- or lack thereof -- with respect to nonhuman animals, just as in the past. It was even once thought that nonhumans cannot have feelings. René Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician, was highly influential in his dogma that nonhuman animals are merely mindless biological machines. He literally viewed these creatures like clocks. But these days we are more sophisticated, and we can reasonably ask the question: What is it like to be a pig?

Looking Big Tom in the eye

There is something that it is like to be a pig. Yet getting a sense of that… well, it depends on the pig, just like it depends on the human. Let's take a for-instance. Until recently, at the Cedar Row Sanctuary, there lived a pig named Big Tom (deceased as of December, 2010). He really was about the size of a double bed. Perhaps he weighed as much as 1,200 pounds. Although it sounds cliché, he truly was a gentle giant. Tom would wake up, like us, with the wild crowing of the domestic roosters, eager to have his breakfast. Like a restless but quite corporeal spirit, he would haunt the stalls where he and his fellow hogs were fed. Although, normally, Tom would appreciate a specific kind of scratch around the ears, even with a twig, he would have none of this at meal time. You see, pigs are gourmets about food and they will enter into something of a frenzy beforehand, and carry on a physically intensive meditation on their foods during their meals.

Big Tom could hold his own with his food bowl, unlike the other hogs, who needed to be confined to a stall in order to eat. However, Finnegan the donkey was, at times, intent on interfering with certain pigs' peace of eating. Our donkey friend would deftly lift the gate rod with his buck teeth, thus inviting a pall mall of other hogs in to intrude on the poor pig's feeding. After all of the chaos, Tom and the other pigs might like to wallow in a mud hole out in the pasture, or to nap in the straw-filled corridors of the barn. Now if you look one of the hogs in the eye, you see someone very intelligent looking right back at you. Not something like one of Descartes "clocks."

Looking at the world with compassion

There are different ways of looking others in the eye. You can view their eyes as sparkly, fascinating objects, or you could actually consider what it is like to experience the world from their particular perspectives. That is, we can try to step outside the confines of our field of sensations and imagine ourselves into the lives of other beings. This process requires flexibility, and the realization that our view of the world is but one. In fact, each view is just one. For instance, it also so happens that Big Tom's standpoint on dinner was quite different from that of Stella (another large hog), who had trouble holding her own with the food bowl, especially with Finnegan prowling around the property.

Yet there are also various things that we have in common. Commonalities include our profound dependence on the interconnected communities of life. Also shared, among so many beings, even with all of their diverse senses, is participating in the joys and travails of existence. These experiences range from the sheer ecstasy of being fortunate enough to be a hog at feeding time, to the challenges of imagining ourselves into the lives of our fellow creatures. This can lead to very poignant realizations in which we acquire a sense of the realities lived by hogs who are caught up in intensive "farming," transport, and slaughter industries. If we can smile at the image of Big Tom eating his supper, how much more can we take satisfaction in the knowledge that Big Tom was granted his full lifespan, complete with not only the enjoyment of foods but also pleasures which -- though they reach beyond human ken -- no doubt exist. No sense of reality is complete without an awareness of our trials as well as our treats.

Can Earth Week consciousness-raising lead to veganism?

Understanding environmental significance truly requires that we reflect on beings with consciousness, to whom alone anything is of significance. We have been considering this theme all along in our present contemplations. Vegans try to account for what we know, but also what we perhaps cannot even guess about hogs. Can we not strive to practice a form of respect that allows other beings to live "the good life" for themselves? Indeed. So where has our little journey taken us? We have tried to consider neglected viewpoints. We inevitably find that there is much that we do not know, even cannot know. At the same time, did you know that studies have demonstrated that pigs are equally as intelligent as three-year-old human children? In any case, no consideration should prevent us from affirming our basic kinship with other sensitive beings. Although we are all different, we are also all the same. Coming to realize this paradox is not, as we have seen, anything novel. Yet this awareness must be renewed, in order that we might forge a new and just society for all animals, be they human or other.


Jana Crawford is a PhD student at the University of Toronto working in animal ethics who has just recently oriented her interest in social justice issues toward animal activism and David Sztybel, Ph.D. is an animal ethics scholar who has published numerous essays and lectured at University of Toronto, Queen's University, and Brock University. Please see: davidsztybel.info. He has been a vegan animal rights activist for some 23 years.

Photo of rescued pigs by Kevin Weil. Weil took these photos at the Farm Sanctuary where there are a lot of apple trees, so the pigs get special treats during those seasons! Kevin's email is weilkevin@me.com.

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