The Coronavirus has come with disturbing images from Chinese live animal markets. The international media has shown footage of koalas, wolf puppies, bats, pangolins, and wounded deer shivering in sheer horror in their captivity, trying desperately to escape their ropes or cages. Behind them are piles of dead animals and in front of them people, who are curiously estimating which animal to buy and eat. In many of the news reports, the animals have been called “live food”.
Whilst the spotlight has been on human misery caused by the virus, the fate of these animals has gained much less attention. Yet, the meaning of phrases such as “live food” deserves focus. What does it mean for a living, minded creature to be reduced to “food”? Can one really approach wolves or deer as one does bean sprouts, void of moral concern for their experiences and perspectives? Moreover, what does all of this reveal about human beings and their relation to other species?
To point blame only on China would be a drastic mistake. When witnessing images of the tormented animals on Chinese markets, it is worthwhile remembering that similar torments take place amidst most societies. The only difference is that in many countries such suffering is conveniently sanitized – it doesn’t take place in front of curious crowds but is concealed behind the walls of farms and slaughterhouses to a point of being a carefully protected secret. Whilst the agonies from the live animal markets make many pause in pulsing sorrow and anger, similar pauses are apt at the face of Western animal industries, which routinely reduce living, minded creatures into meat-machines, whose experiences bear no relevance. Even if most Western countries have no live animal markets, they do have live animal farms and slaughterhouses, which treat animals as mere meaty or milky resources void of independent moral significance.
Therefore, violent disregard of other animals is not restricted to China, but stretches its greedy limbs everywhere. Our precious Earth is littered by animal factories, supermarkets and industries profiting from nonhuman pain and death. Respect for life and nonhuman needs has been diminished into a tiny trickle in the awareness of the modern human, consuming ever increasing amounts of steaks and dairy without taking a moment to think whether (s)he even needs them.
Because of this, classifying animals as “food” – whether “live” or “dead” – is a like an act of magic, which suddenly makes the individual animal with her experiences, needs and memories disappear from sight.
Suffering and death are here, regardless of geography, for almost everywhere animals are defined as “food”, and “food” has no perspective, which to care about. Indeed, studies show that naming animals “food” facilitates disregard for the animal viewpoint. As soon as deer or pigs are approached as meat, empathy diminishes – how could one feel empathy for a piece of flesh? Food cannot have subjectivity, it is just chunks in your soup or liquid in your milk carton, so why would you care? Because of this, classifying animals as “food” – whether “live” or “dead” – is a like an act of magic, which suddenly makes the individual animal with her experiences, needs and memories disappear from sight.
The Scale of Destruction
The sheer amount of animal death and suffering is hard to comprehend. Globally at least 70 billion mammals and birds are slaughtered annually within the animal industries – ten times the amount of the human population. 70 billion. Yet, even this is only a small segment of the total amount of animals killed, leaving outside wild animals and enormous groups such as fishes, which are killed each year in their trillions. Trillions. As the human population is rapidly increasing, also these numbers will keep on growing, amounting to, not only unbearable animal lives and deaths, but also mass extinction pushing multitudes of species out of existence.
10 zeros, 12 zeros – who can take in these numbers? How to comprehend that this amount of individuals, all of whom had their own unique window into existence, their own memories, experiences and wants, lived and were killed due to human demand? When I try to grasp all of this, my thoughts get entangled and my emotions seek to escape to a place where one does not have to remember that raw horror and death, which Homo sapiens are routinely causing to their nonhuman kin.
At this very second billions of animals exist in claustrophobically minuscular cages, crates and barns, where their offspring are torn from them soon after birth, where the sunlight may never reach, and where the chaotic mix of ammonia, faeces, distressed animal sounds and petrified squabbling is the norm. To offer just a few examples, in many countries sows are forced to exist in farrowing crates, where they cannot actively nurture their young or even turn around. Hens are routinely kept in small cages that are as far from their natural habitats as Earth is from Jupiter. Calves are separated from their mothers, whom are left behind wailing for their young.
Both the Chinese “live animal markets” and Western animal factories originate from the same source: the reduction of animals into body parts and tissue, void of mindedness and inherent value.
Even sadistic acts of violence appear worryingly common, as undercover footage from various countries shows animals being kicked, punched, whipped with electric prods and even beaten to death. Even the law fails to protect animals. Often, the role of animal welfare legislations is to offer legal protection for keeping animals in conditions that in no way match their biological needs and capacities – they tend to serve the interests of farmers and corporations whilst downgrading and ignoring the possibility of “the good life” of other species.
Most of us know that animals pace anxiously in their cages and scream and fight when being killed, yet many say “they are just food”. Both the Chinese “live animal markets” and Western animal factories originate from the same source: the reduction of animals into body parts and tissue, void of mindedness and inherent value. The world is witnessing historically unprecedented use and obliteration of animal subjects. This is systemic, wasteful violence against life.
Homo sapiens has been named ”a global superpredator”, for humans kill other species around the globe without any significant risk to themselves. They (we) are everywhere, annihilating other animals and species ever-more rapidly. In a sense, humans have also become extreme parasites – a species that selfishly benefits from the surrounding world and its beings whilst doing them palpable harm. Yet, many fail to realise the true nature of what is happening. The parasitic species will not recognize its own harmfulness. In the West, humans also want to think that the fault is found from China or other far away places, not one’s own living room.
All around us thinking, feeling creatures are reared in hellish conditions just to be killed and eaten; the shelves of supermarkets and the plates on dinner tables are filled with the flesh of once-conscious beings.
Denial stands at the core of the problem. As the writer J.M. Coetzee has claimed, we are surrounded by unprecedented animal misery. All around us thinking, feeling creatures are reared in hellish conditions just to be killed and eaten; the shelves of supermarkets and the plates on dinner tables are filled with the flesh of once-conscious beings. Yet, many fail to notice that something is elementally wrong. Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello is pained by the horrifying absurdity of this all; how billions of conscious beings spend their short lives in desolation and are then killed whilst decent, civilized, seemingly good human beings lift pieces of their flesh onto their lips as if nothing strange was happening.
It seems that Homo sapiens is plagued by a virus much more severe than Korona. It is as if limitless greed, egoism and intellectual dishonesty has infiltrated the minds of many like an illness working its way through the brain tissue and preventing humans from recognizing the pained nonhuman realities – the fact that billions of animals suffer horrendously amidst perfectly ordinary human societies. Costello’s disbelief over the fact that this is let to continue is like a howl in the middle of a feverish, unwell world.
Indeed, the contrast between our self-perception and reality is vast. Many want to think of Homo sapiens as the most developed species of all – a moral and rational image of God or the pinnacle of evolution. However, in actuality, humanity is muddled by a shortsighted and irrational insatiability for evermore resources and ensuing aggressive ruining of the world around us. From the perspective of nonhuman nature, Homo sapiens is the opposite of a moral and rational creator – a source of constant and needless violence, destruction and death.
The same contrast is evident in everyday life. We want to believe in the inherent goodness of our conspecifics and societies. Amidst the environmental crisis and annihilation of animal life, ordinary human existence in the West continues in its own, secure bubbles that often consist of work, visits to the grocery store, Netflix and time spent with loved ones. The world is breaking apart, but many try to escape knowledge of this by retreating further into the comfort of their bubbles, thereby allowing the damage faced by other species to escalate. Echoing Hannah Arendt, there are mundane and banal shades of evil in our existence, and in this case they slice other species and nonhuman individuals into nonexistence.
This is particularly a problem formed by modern humans and industrial societies, which constructed the animal factories, reduced nature into a resource with its technology, and began to measure conscious life with stock prices. Modern, industrial people also need to be the solution to the crisis of their (our) own making. It is time to wake up from the virus-like fever-dreams, which prevent many from facing the reality. The final call to awaken to the value of other species and to demolish the egoistic ideologies that are annihilating life is sounding its alarm.
If anything, I hope that images from both the Chinese animal markets and Western animal factories stir us awake and into recognition of the fact that things need to change extremely fast.
Animals do not belong into cages in China or in the West; billions of conscious minds do not deserve frustrated lives and fearful deaths in the infernal animal industries designed by humans. Homo sapiens herself could be something far better than a destructive superpredator or a dreamful parasite gnawing the veins of the very nature, which gave birth to us all. If anything, I hope that images from both the Chinese animal markets and Western animal factories stir us awake and into recognition of the fact that things need to change extremely fast.
Costello ponders, why she cannot adapt to the society of annihilation just like everyone else. “Why can’t you, why can’t you?”, she asks. The answer is evident: she was woken up, and can no longer fall into the captivity of anthropocentric dreams.
Bar-On, Yinon M; Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron (2018). ”The biomass distribution on Earth”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (25): 6506–6511.
Bratanova, B., Loughnan, S. & Bastian, B. (2011). ”The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals”. Appetite 57 (1): 193–196.