Jati Kutta: The Street Dog, the Servant, and Me

India street dogs

by Lisa Warden

Published in Between the Species, issue 25 (1), 2022 (Link to full article)


Caste, class, race, and species collide in this narrative nonfiction piece about an injured street dog, his foreign rescuer, and her Dalit housekeeper in Ahmedabad, India.

Chapter 1: 

I saw him first in the spring, lying by the road as we drove through the outskirts of the arid village of Jagatpur in western India. Jagatpur stood like a speed bump between nearby Ahmedabad’s urban sprawl and the outer state highway that circumnavigated the city. A few single-storey dwellings, once various shades of ochre and pistachio but now dulled to dun, spilled across the road onto the dry plateau south of the village. The Gujarati plains blanched in the furnace of the pre-monsoon heat as it approached its peak, parching life out of the earth and turning the landscape a depleted shade of beige. The emaciated mass lay motionless in the dirt a few yards from the road, a coat of filthy brown fur stretched taut over ridges of spine and angles of pelvis. As we drove by, I wondered how long the dead dog had been there lying in a heap on the roadside.

The road lay along the route to a college where I’d enrolled in a course. On my way to class the next day I caught sight of the twisted carcass again, this time further down the road, dragged there, I assumed, by a predator. It wasn’t unusual to see dead and maimed dogs in India. Free-living dogs abounded in Indian cities. A census in Ahmedabad put their number at around 200,000 (Humane Society International, 2010). The urban spaces were also choked with hurtling cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, and auto rickshaws. When the latter collided with the former, it was generally the dogs who suffered the consequences. In Jagatpur, where there were fewer people, there were fewer dogs and less traffic.

“Hey Mukesh,” I said to the driver, “can you please pull over? Just here, by the chai stand.” We were on our way to class again. I’d spotted a scrawny puppy near the roadside tea stall in Jagatpur and wanted to stop and feed him.

Image: Claire Abrams

The makeshift kiosk, more a large cupboard than a shop, brimmed with brightly coloured packets of tea biscuits, paan— the Indian equivalent of chewing tobacco, made from betel nut—and other mysterious snacks hanging from the narrow beams that supported the rickety roof. The oily-haired chai wallah hovered over a battered aluminum pot simmering on a propane stove. Waves of cardamom, ginger, and sweat hit me as I gestured to the Parle G tea biscuits on the shelf behind him and asked for three packets. “Teen packet deejiye.”

Parle G biscuits, a common snack among everyone from students to labourers to business people and truck drivers, were cheap and available at every roadside tea stall in India. They were also the de facto Indian street dog snack and befriending tool. Biscuits in hand, I made my way toward the pup, squatted down a few paces away, and opened one of the packets. Alerted by the crinkling of the wrapper, he looked over and eyed me expectantly. I broke off a piece and lobbed it gently in his direction. He got up and gulped it down. I tossed him some more, each time a little closer by. Soon he was right beside me, happily eating cookies while I stroked his tawny head.

As I played with the pup, I heard the rustle of something dragging through the dirt off to my right. I turned to look and stared, astonished. The crumpled canine heap I’d taken for dead was straining to pull himself over to me—or, rather, to the biscuits I was feeding the puppy. I could see he’d been run over. His back appeared broken, his hind legs limp and dragging useless behind him. He was jarringly thin and caked with mud, dried blood, and excrement. The front edges of his back legs were bloody, rubbed raw from constant dragging over the rough ground. His spine, ribs, and hipbones jutted out from his skeletal frame. I couldn’t believe he was still alive, let alone able to make it over to me. He devoured the rest of the biscuits as I dropped them in pieces on the ground at my feet, along with a leftover granola bar and some crackers I retrieved from the car.

I only had a few classes left, but on each occasion over the next ten days I brought the broken dog a full meal and plenty of water. “Crumplestiltskin,” as I initially called him, did not seem friendly. He wasn’t aggressive towards me, but neither did he display any overt signs of warmth or appreciation, other than scarfing down the food I offered as quickly and desperately as possible.

Remarkable only for its dusty bleakness, the edge of Jagatpur always appeared deserted until we showed up. We’d pull over and get out of the car, then, seemingly out of nowhere, a handful of curious onlookers would trickle out and converge, forming a circle around us, staring intently while I fed the dog. I wished I could speak Gujarati.

“Mukesh, can you ask them what happened to this dog? How long has he been like this?”

A round of chatter ensued. One woman, sinewy and sun- darkened, spoke the most, and the loudest.

“She say one week, madam,” said Mukesh.

She clearly said a lot more than that, but my lack of language skills precluded me from further details…..

[… Continue reading at Link to full article ]

Piccolo’s life and mine became intricately linked. This lovely, living, breathing creature—with his own personality and quirks and preferences—he was so fragile, so vulnerable, and yet so determined to hang on…. Had Piccolo and I not met, had he perished out there on the roadway, that he had ever existed at all might not have mattered to anyone. This was incomprehensible to me. He was an entire universe all his own. He mattered. Period.


Animal Oppression and Solidarity: Examining Representations of Animals and Their Allies in Twenty-First Century Media

Article by Tayler Zavitz and Corie Kielbiski

Published in Media, Networking Knowledge 14 (2)

Climate, Creatures and COVID-19 Special Issue (Vol. 14 No. 2, Oct. 2021).


Popular media, both literature and film, provide a location in which animal suffering, resistance and solidarity are finally visible. An examination of Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning film Okja (2017) and Karen Joy Fowler’s New York Timesbest-selling novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) reveals complex media representations of animals that highlight the significance of twenty-first century media in depicting the animal in the human world.

[View full article PDF at Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association.]

The UK’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill Excludes the Vast Majority of Animals: Why We Must Expand Our Moral Circle to Include Invertebrates

bumblebee and vervain, Pixabay.

by Daniel Jakopovich, PhD
[Download article with references as PDF]

The great 13th-century Persian poet Saʿdī wrote:

“How sweet are the words of the noble Firdausi, upon whose grave be the mercy of the Benignant One!— ‘Crush not yonder [ant] as it draggeth along its grain; for it too liveth, and its life is sweet to it.’
A shadow must there be, and a stone upon that heart, that could wish to sorrow the heart even of an [ant]!”

Eight hundred years later, UK animal welfare legislation still hasn’t caught up with the inclusive moral vision of these noble medieval poets.

Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty explicitly recognises animals as sentient beings, enshrining – more theoretically than practically – the recognition of animal sentience in EU law. Even prior to Brexit, however, the UK mostly did not apply this recognition to invertebrate animals, who constitute approximately 99.9998% of all animals on our planet. This amounts to a gargantuan number of individual lives: one major study estimated that there are around a sextillion (a trillion billion or 1021) invertebrate animals on Earth at any given moment. According to other estimates, the number of individual invertebrate animals may be closer to ten sextillion (i.e. 1022), or even several orders of magnitude higher than this. Our planet is teeming with neglected, mistreated and suffering life. There is no clearer example of the inconstancy of prevailing human “ethics” than the fact that it spares no thought for the well-being of the vast majority of non-human animals.

In addition to failing to challenge the continued infliction of immense violence and suffering against countless vertebrate animals, the government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, now in its report stage in the House of Lords, also excludes all invertebrate animals  from even the slightest ethical consideration. In other words, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill provides no protection and gives no moral consideration to at least around 99.9998% of non-human animals!

This is convenient from the tyrannical standpoint of the Earth’s dominator species, which tends to empathise more readily with those more like itself. Invertebrate animals are the ultimate “Others” whose feelings are not taken into account and who are therefore nullified/rendered non-existent in prevailing human systems of “morality”, according to which might is usually right. The idea that we have a moral obligation to treat crustaceans, insects and other invertebrate fellow Earthlings with compassion is still commonly met with dismissal and derision.

So was the idea that horses deserve moral consideration when Richard Martin, the MP for Galway, introduced the Ill Treatment of Horses Bill in 1821. The idea of outlawing cruelty to horses was met with laughter in the House of Commons, his fellow MPs remarking that such a bill would, absurdly, lead to legislation against cruelty to dogs and cats! It has always taken moral courage to advocate ethical consistency by expanding the circle of compassion to include the excluded and nullified beings. Society’s moral circle has been expanding for millennia, leading to increasing compassion for non-human animals and increasing legal protections for them. There is no valid reason to suppose that this process cannot continue now and in the future. Many people already seek humane ways of dealing with insects, for example.

Currently, however, even the very few invertebrate animals – such as octopuses – who have long been granted the status of “honorary vertebrates” in laws on animal experimentation on account of their particularly high cognitive abilities, are omitted from the proposed legislation, which is to say that these sensitive beings are still being relegated to the status of things as far as the government’s proposed legislation is concerned.

Octopus. Image source: PXhere.com. CC0.

Minds without Spines

As the philosopher of science and bioethics Irina Mikhalevich has also pointed out, human moral judgment and treatment of “minds without spines” are inconsistent with the extensive evidence about invertebrate sentience, and are distorted by false human beliefs and cognitive biases against the inclusion of invertebrates into the circle of moral consideration.

In Measure for Measure (first published in 1603) William Shakespeare wrote: “The poor beetle, that we tread upon, / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great /As when a giant dies”. In fact, the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has even posited that, since pain exists to warn the animal to avoid damaging situations, less intelligent animals may have evolved to feel more intense pain than humans because it would have adaptive value as a survival advantage that may help to compensate for their lack of higher intelligence.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Barron and Klein concluded that “the insect brain also supports a capacity for subjective experience”. Furthermore, researchers have found that insects can experience not only acute but chronic pain as well, prompting Newsweek to point out in the title of its article about the study that “Injuring a Fly May Condemn It to a Lifetime of Pain, Scientists Find”.[1]

It has also been discovered that insects are capable of performing fairly complex cognitive tasks. Ants, for example, can even recognise themselves in a mirror, and bumblebees can learn to use tools. Yet, in the immortal words of the moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham from his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation published in 1789, “the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”.

In his 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin wrote that insects “express anger, terror, jealousy and love”. More recently, the leading neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has stated that “feeling implies the presence of a mind and a mental experience, [or] consciousness (…). I have every reason to believe that invertebrates not only have emotions but also the possibility of feeling those emotions”. Indeed, eminent scientists have explicitly concluded that excluding small-brained invertebrates such as insects from bioethics is not justified by the available scientific evidence but is rather a product of bias.

There is evidence to suggest that sentience is such an ancient phenomenon in the evolution of life that it extends beyond cephalopod animals such as octopuses, beyond crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters, and beyond social insects such as ants and bees, who have been found to have emotions as well. Other invertebrates such as other insects, snails, nematodes, and even the tiny mites – who possess a central nervous system and a brain – may also be capable of experiencing pain and suffering.[2] Responses to noxious signals generated by neurons and neuronal circuits have been identified in nematodes and in fruit flies as well. Unsurprisingly considering its potential utility in the pursuit of self-preservation, anxiety appears to be one of the most primitive and ancient of emotions. Indeed, there is evidence that it is shared by invertebrates as diverse as crayfishes and fruit flies.

lobsters in tank
Lobsters in tank. Image: PXhere.com. CC0.

Developing a Consistent Ethics of Nonviolence

A consistent ethics of nonviolence would be informed by the amount of total suffering on Earth today, the vast majority of which – as the aforementioned extensive evidence points out – is happening to sentient, feeling invertebrate beings. The consequence of ignoring the sentience of beings that have experiences – including invertebrate animals – is the infliction of an unfathomably vast amount of suffering.

Even in cases of invertebrate animals where there may be a lack of evidence to support the conclusion that they are sentient, the precautionary principle still needs to be applied, especially considering the  unfathomable vastness of their numbers. In other words, we are obligated to give them the benefit of the doubt. That is the morally decent thing to do. Gambling with the possibility of inflicting avoidable suffering on sextillions of individual beings is a moral disaster.[3]

Several countries have made initial institutional steps to move beyond vertebrate chauvinism. New Zealand introduced some basic protections for cephalopods and some crustaceans 22 years ago. Switzerland, Norway, Austria, some Australian states and territories, as well as some regions of Italy and Germany have since followed suit with legislation offering some very basic protections – such as against being boiled or frozen alive – to some decapods (an order of crustaceans which includes crabs, lobsters and prawns) and cephalopods (including squids and octopuses). The UK has failed to provide even such minimal protections. Jason Schukraft has pointed out that if a ban on boiling crustaceans alive was introduced across the entire EU, “it would spare billions of animals from what appears to be an extremely painful death”.

Researchers have long ago found strong evidence that crustaceans feel pain. Already in 1982 it was discovered that the injection of morphine-HCL in the crustacean mantis shrimp Squilla mantis produces dose-dependent pain relief. The weight of evidence that decapod crustaceans are sentient has continued to increase since then, and it is compelling.

Eleven years ago, the EU recognised the sentience of cephalopod invertebrates (including squids, octopuses, cuttlefishes and nautiluses) in its Directive 2010/63/EU concerning the treatment of animals:

“In addition to vertebrate animals including cyclostomes, cephalopods should also be included in the scope of this Directive, as there is scientific evidence of their ability to experience pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm.”

The EU Directive no longer applies to the UK, yet the science has not changed: these animals did not lose their sentience due to Brexit. The UK government claimed that Brexit would lead to better treatment of animals, but it is now falling behind EU standards of animal protection, which are themselves devastatingly weak in many respects. The legal situation is also deeply contradictory because there is some general wording in The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015 (as well as in regulations in Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland) and in The Welfare of Animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006 (as well as in regulations in Wales and Northern Ireland, but again not in Scotland) which – in theory –  provides some basic legal protections to invertebrates, though only to cold-blooded invertebrates in the case of The Welfare of Animals (Transport) Orders. The Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act – which was passed in 1986 – also continues to provide some protection to cephalopods, whose sentience the draft legislation does not recognise.

Yet, despite the aforementioned research and some very basic and poorly enforced protections, even the few “honorary vertebrates” in practice continue to be treated with unmitigated cruelty. Lobsters, for example, are routinely boiled alive or simply dismembered while still alive. These kinds of methods were identified as inhumane by the European Unionʼs Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare already in 2005.

The law also permits other kinds of extreme cruelty. In 2015, “a supermarket in Surrey was found to be selling live crabs wrapped in plastic“, immobilised and slowly suffocating. Amazon has been “selling live lobsters for delivery to customers through [the] post“. The wretched creatures can “spend up to a week in the post” before being delivered to their killers.

The laws are extraordinarily unjust and inhumane as well as legally inconsistent. Fundamental inconsistencies are actually routine in UK “animal welfare” legislation: vertebrate aquatic animals, for example, have long been recognised as sentient in UK law, yet billions of them are subjected to extreme violence and torment by UK fishing fleets, even without any regulations to reduce the suffering of wild-caught vertebrate aquatic animals during capture and “processing”. A report “brought together through [the] Wildlife and Countryside Link and the UK Centre for Animal Law” remarked that vertebrate aquatic animals are “pursued to exhaustion by nets; crushed under the weight of other fish in trawl nets; raised from deep water and suffer decompression effects e.g. burst swim bladders; snared in gill nets; confined in constricted seine nets; caught on hooks. In many types of fishing, the duration of capture can be very long, lasting hours or even days. Fish often die or are fatally injured during this process. Once landed, most fish are either left to asphyxiate, or die during further processing, which may include gutting, filleting and/or freezing while alive and conscious”.

Such practices were unaffected by Britain’s EU membership, although they radically contravened the Lisbon Treaty’s agreement that “the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”. When the first principle is actually human selfishness, loftier principles and declarations are marginalised or altogether discarded. In fact, wherever animals are treated as goods or commodities, their interests are violated.

For those who care about animals there are many reasons to be alarmed about the draft legislation. For example, Michael Radford, Reader in Animal Welfare Law and UK Constitutional Law at the University of Aberdeen, has pointed to a series of problems regarding the proposed Animal Sentience Committee and its proposed unambitious character and marginal role, which indicate that it is likely to loiter in passivity and powerlessness.

A High-Tech “Peaceable Kingdom”

Tragically, the proposed legislation fails to show vision and real commitment to the well-being of animals. If we are to be consistent in pursuing harm reduction, we must strive to avoid doing things that inflict – or even may inflict – pain and suffering on them. Apropos invertebrates this also entails a clear rejection of brutal practices such as insect farming and silk production, since silkworms are boiled alive inside their cocoons so that humans can extract silk from them. It is feared that insect farms may soon be killing more than 50 trillion insects a year.

A deeper commitment to compassionate treatment also requires of us to consider ways in which we may be able to aid defenceless invertebrate creatures. Seemingly more intractable problems present a longer-term challenge. However, rapid scientific and technological change is helping to enable increasingly radical developments to become feasible in the future, such as eliminating animal predation through genetic engineering based on the emerging gene drive technology, as the transhumanist philosopher David Pearce and the MIT biologist Kevin Esvelt have argued.

There is a need for meticulous research into the many complexities of how to reduce the amount of  invertebrate suffering. Yet the contours of the way forward are becoming clearer thanks to the aforementioned technological advancements, as well as other helpful insights. As Brian Tomasik has  pointed out, it is quite clear that the humane, carefully planned and controlled reduction in the numbers of invertebrates would be a particularly effective way of reducing their suffering. Effective methods of freeing them from their sore travails could therefore include the spreading of ecosystems that produce less animal suffering, developing and promoting painless, humane forms of cross-species fertility regulation, sterilisation and euthanasia specifically for the purpose of reducing suffering, while banning cruel methods such as the use of neurotoxins which cause prolonged dying. A number of possible large-scale interventions that could vastly reduce suffering are already well-established and have been proven to be very effective at controlling population numbers. Artificial Intelligence can assist in the conceptualisation and implementation of existing and new interventions to reduce suffering, but it also carries its own grave risk of creating immense suffering and even existential peril for humanity itself.

The development and implementation of advanced suffering-reducing approaches to dealing with invertebrate beings may not even be particularly expensive. However, we must pursue harm reduction because behaving ethically towards countless other sentient creatures is the right thing to do – even when it is very difficult.

One of the major tasks ahead for effective altruists is to attain far greater and more detailed understanding of the best strategies for humane interventions into highly complex ecosystems and  animal population dynamics with the aim of minimising both individual and total suffering. Benevolent actions can lead to extremely negative unintended consequences, which is why there is a need for meticulous thinking and research about possible interventions and their effects.

Another major investment in the development of a truly compassionate civilisation would be the introduction of humane education in schools, teaching children the value of justice, kindness and care towards all sentient, feeling beings. There is some evidence that cultivating children’s kindness to animals also has a significant generalising positive effect, increasing the likelihood of more compassionate interpersonal attitudes and more amiable relationships with their peers. Teaching children kindness to animals can help them to become kinder, more peaceable humans.

There is broad public support for expanding animal protection beyond the scope of the proposed legislation. According to a UK national survey conducted by the non-profit research organisation Rethink Priorities, the majority of “participants agreed that lobsters (83.03%), octopuses (80.65%), and crabs (78.09%) can feel pain”, and 91.06% “of participants agreed that if scientific experts believe there is some evidence that an animal could be capable of feeling pain, we should be careful about potentially harming them”. Despite receiving relatively little publicity, Crustacean Compassion’s petition to include decapod crustaceans in animal protection laws has received over 57,000 signatures. Many eminent experts and public figures, as well as 42 animal rights and welfare organisations, the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association, have joined this call.

Despite its fundamentally limited and impoverished approach focused on regulating rather than overcoming speciesist violence, exploitation and neglect, the current legislative process presents a historic opportunity to secure significant improvements to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. Crucially, this needs to include extending the recognition of sentience and of our attendant ethical obligations beyond only vertebrate animals. Expanding our moral circle to encompass all of our sentient, suffering fellow creatures – regardless of their size, their species and of whether they have spines – would help to prevent and mitigate vast amounts of suffering and harm, while simultaneously helping to culturally elevate humanity. It would help us to move towards a more ethically evolved society, a new culture of peace and nonviolence in which unbounded compassion and kindness would be our guiding lights.

[Download article with references as PDF]

[1] Furthermore, there is evidence that smaller animals and animals with a faster metabolic rate generally have the perception of time passing more slowly , which is another factor that may increase – or at least prolong – their experience of suffering. A contributing factor to the discrimination of insects and other very small invertebrates is precisely their size. To give a prominent example, humans find it easier to ignore animals writhing in agony if it is harder to see them.

[2] Some scientists have argued that even the simplest unicellular prokaryotes possess at least some rudimentary type of sentience.

[3] The Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which argues that the wave-function decoheres into vast numbers of separate branches of the Multiverse – i.e. that “random quantum processes cause the universe to branch into multiple copies, one for each possible outcome” – implies that the amount of suffering of sentient beings is unfathomably greater than these already vast numbers would suggest. Consequently, it appears that the key ethical implication of this formulation of quantum mechanics – which is very contentious yet is among the most widely supported interpretations of quantum mechanics among contemporary physicists – is to further augment and underscore the profound ethical importance of focusing on thoughtful, compassionate, beneficent action that aims to achieve the greatest possible reduction of suffering, even though there is a divergence of views about the type of focus this beneficent orientation should pursue in light of this particular theory of the physical world.

Daniel Jakopovich is a writer, poet, campaigner, and a researcher in the fields of Peace and Justice and Critical Animal Studies. He obtained a PhD in Sociology from the University of Cambridge, where he also taught, and is the author of the book “Revolutionary Peacemaking: Writings for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence”.

Should Vegans Eat Meat to Kill Fewer Animals?

By Angus Taylor | May 19, 2019

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Harvesters,” 1565.

It is an unfortunate fact that no way of life, and no form of diet, can be entirely free of inflicting harm on others. Even veganism involves harm to animals – something that is implicitly recognized in the Vegan Society’s injunction to exclude exploitation and cruelty “as far as is possible and practicable.” Some sceptics claim that veganism is bad for the environment and bad for animal populations.1 A few have gone further and claimed that a vegan diet actually results in more animal deaths than some omnivorous diets.2

In a 2003 article,3 Steven L. Davis quotes Tom Regan as saying: “Whenever we find ourselves in a situation where all the options at hand will produce some harm to those who are innocent, we must choose that option that will result in the least total sum of harm” – which Regan calls the “minimize harm principle.” Based on a couple of empirical studies, Davis argues that, because of the large numbers of field animals killed in the production of crops, a commitment to this principle may require us to reject abstention from meat in favour of an omnivorous diet that includes grass-fed herbivores raised in “pasture-forage” systems. (Andy Lamey labels Davis’s position “burger veganism”.4)

In fact, Davis badly misreads Regan. Regan only mentions the “minimize harm principle” in order immediately to reject it.5 A utilitarian calculation of aggregate harm is incompatible with Regan’s own view, which centres on respecting the rights of individual subjects-of-a-life. Even so, Davis’s error is not fatal to his basic claim about harm, since it may still be the case, as he suggests, that an all-plant diet typically results in more animal deaths and more harm to them in general than some particular kind of omnivorous diet does.

Gaverick Matheny finds a large hole in Davis’s arithmetic.6 Davis has failed to take into account that much less land is required to feed a given number of people on an all-plant diet. When this miscalculation is rectified, says Matheny, a vegan diet is seen to result in significantly fewer animal deaths. Also, animals like mice killed by harvesters arguably suffer less harm before their untimely deaths than even grass-fed cattle, who are subject to various negative experiences over the course of their lives at the hands of humans.

In his 2007 article, Lamey takes a close look at the two studies upon which Davis relies.7 He finds, among other things, that Davis has greatly over-estimated the number of mice killed directly by harvesters; it turns out that most mice mortality results from predation by other animals after crop harvesting. The other study, involving Hawaiian sugarcane, where very different production methods are employed, does not seem to have much relevance outside the sugarcane industry. And all this does not factor in the human cost of animal agriculture, including the spread of disease, farm accidents, the toll on slaughterhouse workers, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Much of this is nicely summarized at one website, Animal Visuals, that also provides an interactive chart on estimated numbers of animals killed to produce the same amount of calories in different food categories.8

But can we really be confident about any of these estimates? Recently, Lamey and Bob Fischer have undertaken a broader look at the empirical and philosophical issues attending animal deaths in plant agriculture.9 They explain how difficult it is to arrive at accurate estimates of the numbers of animals killed; they also show that there are complex philosophical issues involved in deciding the extent to which we are morally implicated in these deaths.

A couple of studies they look at indicate that changes in animal populations in cultivated areas are the result of migration in and out of these areas and not the result of higher mortality in cultivated areas. But the fact that different species have different patterns of behaviour means it is not possible to simply extrapolate on the basis of data about one or two species.

The moral import of empirical evidence about animal deaths, difficult as such evidence is to come by, depends on answers to questions that are largely philosophical. Are we morally responsible for the death of a mouse killed by an owl after a harvester has removed the crop from a field? What if the mouse would not have existed in the first place if not for the shelter for mice provided by the crop? Is the short life of the average wild mouse on balance positive or negative in terms of experiences, and how does that affect our assessment of how harmful its death is? Should we factor in the benefit to the owl of feasting on the mouse? What about the mouse’s level of self-awareness and ability to plan for the future? Do some animals count more than others because of their greater cognitive capacities? Do insects count at all? Do we have an obligation to police the natural world in order to minimize suffering?

Many of the animal deaths in crop production are unintended. The doctrine of double effect applies to an action that has both a good and a bad effect. In standard form, it holds that the action is morally justified if the good outweighs the bad and if the bad effect – even when foreseen – is neither intended nor a means to the good effect. But some animal deaths in crop production are intended – e.g., through poisoning or trapping. Lukas Tank and Stephanie Thiel employ a version of the doctrine of double effect that distinguishes not only between intended and unintended harms but also between two types of intended harm: that intended to eliminate the difficulty presented by the unwanted presence of the victim and, by contrast, that inflicted in order to benefit from the opportunity presented by the presence of the victim. Unintended harms are normally easier to justify than intended harms, and within the category of intended harms, those aimed at eliminating difficulties are normally easier to justify than harms that are intrinsic to the agent’s goal. (If the crows feeding on a farmer’s crops disappear or are scared away, that’s fine with the farmer. But a pig or cow is a wanted victim; if the animal escapes, that’s a problem.) Tank and Thiel conclude that “producing meat seems to be morally impermissible in most contexts since the vast majority of the current meat production falls into the category of actions that are especially hard to justify.”10

The extent of harm done to animals in order to protect crops is not a given. Joe Wills discusses several ethical distinctions (including the eliminative/opportunistic one) that make killing farm animals for meat harder to defend than intentionally killing field animals to protect crops. Even so, he says, such distinctions cannot justify all current pest-control practices, some of which are excessive. He insists that lethal defensive measures ought to be used only as a last resort.11

Fischer and Lamey note some methods that already are reducing animal mortality, or that hold promise for the future. These include zero tillage or conservation tillage, controlling the height of vegetation between crop rows and in adjacent fields, contraception for pest control, greenhouses, and vertical or floating farms. A commitment to the core idea of veganism must not overlook the costs that attend growing the plants that feed us.

[Download article as PDF]

^ [1] Karin Lindquist, “The Least-Harm Fallacy of Veganism” https://ethicalomnivore.org/the-least-harm-fallacy-of-veganism/
^ [2] For example, Mike Archer, “Ordering the Vegetarian Meal? There’s More Animal Blood on Your Hands”, The Conversation, December 15, 2011. https://theconversation.com/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659
^ [3] Steven L. Davis, “The Least Harm Principle May Require that Humans Consume a Diet Containing Large Herbivores, Not a Vegan Diet”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16 (2003): 387–394.
^ [4] Andy Lamey, “Food Fight! Davis versus Regan on the Ethics of Eating Beef”, Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007): 331–348.
^ [5] Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 302.
^ [6] Gaverick Matheny, “Least Harm: A Defense of Vegetarianism from Steven Davis’s Omnivorous Proposal”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16 (2003): 505–511.
^ [7] Lamey, op. cit.
^ [8] Animal Visuals: Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc/?/data/1mc/
^ [9] Bob Fischer and Andy Lamey, “Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 31 (2018): 409–428. https://andylamey.com/download/47/
See also Andy Lamey, Duty and the Beast: Should We Eat Meat in the Name of Animal Rights? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). https://philpapers.org/archive/LAMDAT-2.pdf
^ [10] Lukas Tank and Stefanie Thiel, “The Doctrine of Double Effect and Killing Animals for Food”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2019). https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1007/s10806-019-09771-6
^ [11] Joe Wills, “The Intentional Killing of Field Animals and Ethical Veganism”, in Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey (eds.), Ethical Vegetarianism and Veganism (London: Routledge, 2019). https://www.academia.edu/37909942/THE_INTENTIONAL_KILLING_OF_FIELD_ANIMALS_AND_ETHICAL_VEGANISM


Of Humanzees and French Fries

Cast of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, an extinct human ancestor living 7 million years ago during the chimpanzee–human divergence. Photo by Didier Descouens – CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Angus Taylor  |  Nov. 14, 2018

Evolutionary biology teaches us that species are not rigidly separate categories of essentially different kinds of creatures. Richard Dawkins has pointed out that the absence of living hominin relatives of our species (such as Homo habilis or Australopithecus afarensis) has facilitated the idea that there is an unbridgeable gap between humans and other animals. He maintains that the successful breeding of a human/chimpanzee hybrid would profoundly challenge such thinking. “Politics would never be the same again, nor would theology, sociology, psychology or most branches of philosophy. The world that would be so shaken, by such an incidental event as a hybridisation, is a speciesist world indeed, dominated by the discontinuous mind.” [1] Now David P. Barash argues that it would be ethically desirable to create such individuals, which he dubs “humanzees”. Barash admits the possibility of various negative consequences (including for the humanzees themselves), but thinks the project would be worth it in order “to drive a stake into the heart of that destructive disinformation campaign of discontinuity, of human hegemony over all other living things.” [2]

Traditional thinking in the Western world has justified human exploitation of other creatures on the basis of our superior intellectual abilities, i.e., our reasoning powers and our status as moral agents, which allegedly confer on us an intrinsic worth not possessed by non-humans. But in recent times, as scientific inquiry and philosophical argument have increasingly demonstrated the lack of any sharp line between all humans and all non-humans, the traditional justification for human domination has become increasingly unpersuasive. Does this mark the beginning of the end for the ideology of domination?

Unfortunately, not. Instead of human domination being justified by our inherent difference from other animals, it is now being justified by our inherent connectedness to them! Domination now assumes a green guise. What I call the new argument from nature claims that, precisely because we are natural beings, our ecological position as top predators entitles us – indeed, requires us – to exploit and consume other creatures to maintain a healthy balance of nature.

And so “It’s natural!” has become the rallying cry of hunters, bloggers, foodies, farmers, and some philosophers intent on defending the old order. “Sustainable agriculture requires manure from domesticated animals,” we are told. “Managed grazing by herds of cattle is the key to regenerating degraded land.” “Supplementing your diet with vitamin B12 in pill form is not natural.” “We didn’t fight our way to the top of the food chain just to eat tofu.” “Eating meat is what gave our ancestors big brains!”

Most of this sort of thing can be subsumed under the general notion of the “circle of life” – an ecological rule that in order for anything to live, something else must die. It is folly, to this way of thinking, to imagine that we humans can remove ourselves from this circle. Rather, we should embrace our place in it, exploiting and consuming other creatures, albeit in a sustainable manner that respects the natural order of things.

An argument for this view can be found in Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto by French philosopher Dominique Lestel. The ethical vegetarian/vegan, says Lestel, wrongly imagines that we can transcend the natural conditions of existence, which involve the mutual dependence of creatures in a web of predation. “By being willing to eat animals, I acknowledge in particular and in an intimate manner that there are no ‘free lunches’ in the world – that is, that one cannot want to be an animal and at the same time not want to be implicated in the cycles of life and death that are essential to being an animal. I kill in order to live, just like all other animals.” [3] In this manner Lestel tries to turn the tables on vegetarians/vegans, claiming it is they who are driven by a false sense of human exceptionalism.

Outside Victoria, BC eatery The Cultured Cow, spraypainted graffiti acts as ethical commentary on ‘suicide food.’ Photo by author.

A form of appeal to nature can also be found in commercial advertisements for meat, where animals are frequently depicted as positively enthusiastic about their impending death and dismemberment – what has been called “suicide food” on a website that has catalogued such images. [4] What is going on here? Approaching the matter of killing and consuming animals as a joke is one way to avoid confronting the moral issue involved. At the same time, the message that these domestically bred animals are contentedly, even happily, fulfilling their telos by becoming food merges their status as partly products of human artifice with the idea that their lives and deaths are part of the natural order of things, and therefore unproblematic.

So would it really be a good idea to create humanzees in order to destroy the traditional barrier between humans and non-humans? Quite apart from the technical and ethical issues involved in such a project, the recent turn to the new argument from nature as a way to justify continued human domination of the natural world warns us that breaking the spell of domination is not so straightforward.

The “natural” order of things can be, and typically is, invoked for any number of purposes. Take a recent scientific study that argues that “The regular consumption of starchy plant foods offers a coherent explanation for the provision of energy to the developing brain during the Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene while the development of cooking, and a concomitant increase in salivary amylase expression, explains how the rapid increases in brain size from the Middle Pleistocene onward were energetically affordable.” [5] I like to recall this whenever I have a craving for French fries. Why should I resist? After all, it’s brain food. My desire for fries is only natural.

[1] Richard Dawkins, “Gaps in the Mind”, in Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, eds., The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond Humanity (London: Fourth Estate, 1993). <http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/dawkins01.htm>

[2] David P. Barash, “It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids”, Nautilus Issue 58 (March 8, 2018). <http://nautil.us/issue/58/Self/its-time-to-make-human_chimp-hybrids>

[3] Dominique Lestel, Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 40.

[4] <https://suicidefood.blogspot.com/>

[5] Karen Hardy et al., “The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution”, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 90, No. 3 (September 2015), pp. 261-2.