As Joe the politician prepares to be inaugurated as the next President of the United States, another Joe has also been making international headlines. Joe the pigeon was found in a backyard in the Australian city of Melbourne last December. He was carrying a leg band that seemed to suggest that he had been in the US state of Oregon two months earlier, raising questions about how he made it across the Pacific – no small feat!
The story made it onto local news and Australian authorities took notice. They declared Joe a “biosecurity risk” and decided that he must be killed in order to protect local birds from possible infection. A spokesperson for the Australian government did not actually use the word “killed,” but instead said that Joe must be “destroyed,” as if Joe was a car, a stone, or some other inanimate object.
Joe is anything but a mere thing, of course. Pigeons can experience a wide range of emotions – such as pain, fear, and joy – and have highly evolved cognitive abilities. Hence, if Joe is anywhere close to being an average representative of his kind, Joe isn’t what is sometimes called a “birdbrain,” not by a long shot! In recent decades, researchers have uncovered that pigeons can count and recognize words, have a remarkable memory, can detect cancer in radiology images, and are able to accurately differentiate between paintings by Monet and Picasso (to mention just a few findings).
The language used by the government spokesperson, however, reveals something important about how the law views nonhuman animals. They are considered things and have no legal standing. That is why the law so nonchalantly calls for Joe to be killed, even though that’s unnecessary. Why not quarantine and test Joe instead, or return him to the US? Surely, if Joe was a human being, an alternative solution would be found.
Joe got lucky though. It turned out that the US leg band was fake. Joe very likely is an Australian after all, and the government has dropped its plan to kill him. The episode nevertheless demonstrates our blatant disregard for animal life, which in turn shows how primitive we still are as a species.
According to the dictionary, “primitive” means “relating to human society at a very early stage of development,” and I want to suggest that, with regard to nonhuman animals, we are at a very early stage of moral development indeed. We have long known that animals feel pain, just like us, and we keep learning more and more about their complex emotional and mental lives. And yet, the horror and misery we inflict upon animals, for the most trivial of reasons, is unspeakable. Most of that suffering takes place in the food animal industry, which claims the lives of more than 70 billion land animals every year. That is more than 2,000 animals killed for food per second, not including fish and other sea animals. And why? More or less, just because they taste good.
Nobody reading this article needs to eat meat or other animal products in order to stay alive. In fact, a plant-based diet has certain health benefits, and hugely benefits the environment. These facts are well-known. If you don’t know, an online search will quickly change that. For an authoritative statement on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, for example, you need to look no further than the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Why then would anybody think that the horrible way we treat animals in the food industry is morally justifiable? Maybe surprisingly, very few people actually think that, at least in my experience. If I ask people directly and push for an honest answer, almost everyone agrees that there is no justification for the horror. A survey commissioned by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals seems to confirm my observation. It revealed that 94% of Americans agree that animals deserve to live free from abuse and cruelty. And yet, almost all animals farmed for food live in unacceptably abusive and cruel conditions.
So why do people eat meat? Most people – and again, that is just my personal experience – will rather acknowledge that they are hypocrites than change their diet. They will decry the plan to kill Joe, be outraged at the conditions on factory farms, and then proceed to eat meat from said farms. Fair enough. I suppose that is human nature. All of us live with contradictions. But some contradictions cause more suffering than others, and the one at issue surely ranks very highly, if not at the top, of the list of harmful contradictions. If we want to live lives that are more closely aligned with our values, that is a good reason to start with our diet.
Standing up for what is right isn’t easy. A study by psychologists Cara MacInnis and Gordon Hodson compared attitudes towards groups that are often the target of prejudice, such as immigrants, atheists, and gay people, and it found that only drug addicts are viewed more negatively than vegetarians and vegans. There are many reasons for that, but one is that vegetarians and vegans fundamentally challenge the status quo, and people fear change. It hence takes courage to swear off meat and other animal products. But it is worth it. After all, each one of us only has this one life to live. It is our only chance to get things right, and isn’t that what ultimately matters?
Dr. Rainer Ebert is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre de recherche en éthique in Montréal, Canada, and a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He can be reached at www.rainerebert.com, and you can find him on Twitter @rainer_ebert.