What have we done?

This heart-wrenching photograph was published in the Daily Telegraph on January 14th. The photographer described how the male kangaroo had cradled the head of his mate while she died, her arms reaching out to her joey one last time.

Animals have feelings too. This is not a new belief. Immortalized in the moving story of Greyfriars Bobby, the 19th century Skye terrier who allegedly guarded the grave of his master for fourteen years up until his own death in 1872, we learned that animals are capable of grief.

Not all animals, though, are created equal. While we become outraged at stories of abused dogs and cats, spend thousands sponsoring donkeys and tigers, and create complex laws to protect kangaroos and birdlife, other species are entirely overlooked.

Someone once asked the questions why and how does the playful, frolicking spring lamb morph into a seemingly boring, characterless sheep.  My answer would be: try having your babies systematically taken away from you year after year.  Let’s add to that the barbarism of being left outside all winter; rain, floods, snow, mud, freezing temperatures. Enough to dampen the spirit?

My uncle had a hill sheep farm in the north of England. My auntie would get upset on the day the lorry came to take the lambs for slaughter. Her tears, however, were perfunctory compared to the cries of the mothers and babies. Frantic sheep calling, distressed lambs answering, as the distance between them grew.  For days, the ewes would search for their offspring, eventually resigning themselves to their grief.

This inconvenient truth, that farmed animals have family bonds, that they suffer, that they grieve, is so far removed from our human conscience that it does not even flicker as we tuck into our lamb chops, our roast beef and Yorkshire, or that Saturday morning bacon butty.

Homo Sapiens is just one species. Somewhere, along our evolutionary timeline, we came to believe that we are the most important species.  This is called Speciesism.  As human conscience has evolved, we have worked our way through several “isms”.  Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ageism, and so the list goes on.  One defining feature of the “isms” is that of inflicting physical or emotional harm upon the target group.  A further hallmark is the denial of rights. The right, for example, to raise your offspring in safety, unmolested.

When my grandad taught his girls to drive he would say, “never swerve for an animal”. I cannot not swerve for an animal.  Who am I to say that my life is more important that the bunny rabbit’s?  I can’t help wondering who is waiting for her to come home to the burrow.  And when she doesn’t come home, who will be searching for her in confusion and grief?

A few short weeks before my father’s death at age 91, I sat on his bed and talked to him about my animal rights endeavours. The son of a farm manager, he listened and nodded, but said that he probably wouldn’t join in as, at 91, it was a bit late in life to take on anything new.  Besides, he said, his life work had been about helping humans, rather than animals, as humans are more important.  “Dad”, I said, “that’s not a fact, that’s just your opinion”.  He paused, looking down at the bedspread in consideration.  Finally, he looked up, “You’re right”.

I leave you with the story of Autumn, a rescued factory-farm chicken. If it doesn’t make you cry then I am not sure what species you belong to.

We perpetually force sheep, cows, pigs and chickens to betray their offspring because we have betrayed them. It is time to ask ourselves, what have we done?