We love animals — so why do we treat them so badly?

Before the pandemic, it was the best time ever to be a human. We lived longer, fought less and had more opportunities than our ancestors. This is the world that we hope to return to soon.

But what about other animals? For them, these years are quite possibly the worst time to be alive. If you are a non-human mammal in the 21st century, you have a greater chance than your ancestors of living on a factory farm. If you are a bird, you are probably a chicken — generally an overbred, confined one whose bones struggle to support your weight. Indeed, if you were randomly incarnated, you would be at least 20 times more likely to be a chicken than a dog.

Meanwhile, pick a wild animal at random — a lion, a puffin, a cigarette beetle — and they probably have a greater chance than ever of being squeezed off the planet by humans’ relentless expansion. On our current trajectory, in a couple of centuries the largest land animals will be cows.

This divergence in fortunes would be understandable if we humans didn’t care about other animals — if we, like René Descartes, saw them as automatons that cannot feel pain or joy. But we are not Descartes, and we do care. We watch cat videos and Attenborough documentaries. We lavish money on pets and safaris. We find animals beautiful, seductive and amusing. We know that they have emotions and suffer pain.

© Dan Burn-Forti

Even stony-hearted humans refer to themselves as animal lovers. “I love animals, don’t get me wrong,” smiled football manager José Mourinho earlier this season, after comparing his star strikers to animals. “I love animals, and I don’t like the way factory farms treat animals,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson insisted, as he debated with a vegan.

Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden all brandished dogs when they took office; the pets would be re-elected more easily than they would. The singer Lorde declared that her dog Pearl had “led me towards the ideas” in her music. Lady Gaga recently offered $500,000 for the return of her own two stolen French bulldogs (they were recovered). In dating profiles, people advertise their pets, even if they don’t actually have any (a fakery alluded to in the viral short story “Cat Person”).

Put simply, love for animals is one of our society’s core values. Rational thinking is another. The way we treat animals doesn’t fit with either of these values; it is guided by tradition and inertia. No one would vote for the looming mass extinction of wild animals, certainly not the animals themselves. Goodness knows how we will explain it to the next generation. But it is happening on our watch.

For me, the change came when my daughters were born. When you have children, you find yourself surrounded by animals — soft toys, storybooks, Disney films. I promise that I’m not the kind of pedant who points out that Peppa Pig would be part of a litter, and that, if the tiger really did come to tea, he would eat the little girl first.

I was struck, however, by doubt. Surely my daughters were entitled to infer, from all these depictions of animals, that we adults had sussed out how to live alongside other species? Surely I wouldn’t give them Sophie the Giraffe toys if the numbers of actual wild giraffes were plummeting? Surely I wouldn’t read them countless stories about wolves and weasels if I had never seen any? My daughters asked questions for which I felt ill-equipped, such as: “Are foxes happy or sad?” and “Why are there so many animals in the zoo?”

guinea pig
© Dan Burn-Forti

So, for the past two years, I have tried to unpick the contradiction between how much we love animals and how little space we make for them on our planet. I worked in an abattoir and on farms. I went hunting, fishing and birdwatching. I interviewed scientists, pet owners and conservationists.

I have tried to come up with an ethic that my daughters and I can follow. Is there a way that we can coexist with other animals, without delusions and without guilt? Is this planet big enough for all of us?

My belief is that appreciating animals should not simply be lip service; it should change the way we live.

The first thing you learn about slaughterhouses is that it’s easy to find work in one. There are jobs for which you need a CV, a reference or even a permanent address. There are jobs for which each listing brings a deluge of applications. “Abattoir ancillary worker” does not seem to be one of them. I call up the number on an online job ad, and am told to come down whenever is convenient.

The ad said “training provided”. Training turns out to consist of white overalls, white rubber boots and a hairnet. A man called Steve gives me those, opens the door to a one-storey metal building. I find myself standing beside a line of headless sheep. This is all within four minutes of showing up. At a London office block, it would have taken longer to get past reception.

The sheep are hanging from a motorised track, and every metre or so, a man is removing a different part of their insides or outsides. In a windowless space, the animals go from things you would see in a field to things you would see on a supermarket shelf. Red is splattered everywhere. Almost as soon as I arrive, the man next to me loses control of his knife and cuts off the skin from his knuckle, as if opening a boiled egg. He stares at the scarlet-and-white circle, the size of a small coin, which has now appeared on his finger. “Oooh, that’s a nasty one,” chips in a man one down, laughing.

I am placed in front of a machine called the puller. By the time the sheep arrive here, their necks have been slit, their heads and trotters cut off, and the skin on their front legs cut from their flesh. The puller has two clamps that grab the loose skin on the front legs, and then drag it down, taking the wool coat halfway off the body. “Don’t get your fingers caught,” says a colleague, unaware that I have already made it my life’s mission.

Working in an abattoir is a shock. I won’t go into details here, but it’s perhaps the only job where it’s an advantage to have lost your sense of taste and smell. It’s also a reminder: the biggest way that we interact with animals today is by eating them.

Line chart of Per capita meat consumption in all OECD countries (kg per person) showing In the rich nations, the biggest change in habits has been a huge rise in the consumption of chickens

In our lifetimes, we might have a handful of cherished pets. By my calculations, if meat consumption remains at its current level, a British baby born today will — over the course of their life — eat the equivalent of five whole cows, 20 whole sheep, 25 whole pigs and 1,785 chickens.

When countries get rich, they eat more meat. Even fish-eating Japan has doubled its meat consumption per person during the past 40 years. The UK kills 11m pigs a year, Japan 16m, Germany 53m, and the US a whopping 130m.

This meat-eating relies on cognitive dissonance. If you give someone a beef snack and ask them whether cows suffer pain, they are less likely to say yes than if you give them some nuts. If you overstate the intelligence of tapirs, wild animals that look somewhat similar to pigs, people say that tapirs deserve more moral concern; if you do the same with pigs, they don’t. We discount their suffering because we want to eat them.

© Dan Burn-Forti

We have rules of thumb, but these mislead us. We assume that white meat is less cruel than red meat. In fact chickens, bred to quadruple in size in their first week and be killed at six weeks old, live worse lives than most beef cows. Around the world, pigs — curious, sociable animals — are often kept indoors and in metal enclosures so small that they can’t turn round. Pigs perform similarly or better than dogs on some cognitive tests, and we would be outraged if a dog were treated like a farmed pig.

Another blind spot is dairy. Vegetarians generally see dairy as a guilt-free choice, because it doesn’t seem to involve death. But dairy involves cows being impregnated, immediately separated from their calves and then milked for our consumption. We break the bond between mother and calf, because we like the taste. In my research, I met those trying to make dairy more humane, but it is an uphill struggle.

Bar chart of Greenhouse gas emissions from food production (kg of CO2 equivalent) per 100g protein, by selected food type showing Meat and dairy contribute disproportionately to global warming

Then there are fish, which we kill by the trillion every year. Scientific studies now strongly suggest that they feel pain. But welfare laws largely do not limit how fish are caught at sea: often fish are dragged for hours in trawler nets, or left to asphyxiate out of the water. The next time you buy a whole fish, ask the fishmonger how the fish died.

Our animal ethic has been built on stopping cruelty. This dates back to the 19th century, when right-thinking men and women were appalled at the abuse heaped on horses in cities. These days it manifests itself in occasional moral panics, often over hunting and pet abuse. In 2010, a British woman received death threats after being caught on CCTV putting a cat in a wheelie bin. (The woman apologised; according to her mother, she actually “loved cats”.)

Yet opposing cruelty only takes us so far. Eating meat, fish and dairy doesn’t seem cruel, because it seems normal and necessary. It is not necessary. The American Dietetic Association says that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.

You sometimes hear that grazing cows or sheep is necessary for the environment in places such as the UK. First, this would not justify chicken, fish and pig farms, which represent most livestock. Second, new research shows that the carbon benefits of grazing have been overstated, and that much more carbon would be stored by turning the land over to forests or grasslands.

Don’t believe, either, that vegetarians are deforesting the Amazon: three-quarters of soyabean production goes into animal feed; less than 5 per cent goes into tofu and soy milk. It’s simply more efficient to eat the beans directly than to raise animals. The expansion of agriculture is the biggest single force pushing wild animals to extinction. But we don’t feel responsible for the orang-utans stranded by bulldozers. We could free much of the world’s surface and oceans for wild animals if we shifted to a plant-based diet.

So far our attempts to remedy this have fallen far short. We have put distance — both physical and mental — between ourselves and the animals whose lives we affect. Nearly half of Americans say they support a ban on factory farming, and 40 per cent support a ban on slaughterhouses, but only 5 per cent are vegetarian. “Americans consistently tell pollsters they’re eating less meat, but consistently eat more of it,” points out the activist Lewis Bollard. (One possible explanation is that, in poll questions, “meat” is assumed to refer only to red meat.)

Bar chart of Survey results*, all answering 'agree' ('slightly' to 'strongly', %) showing The meat-eater's dilemma: US attitudes to farming and diet

The easiest time to change our children’s diets away from meat would be when they are young, developing their sense of taste — but parents often have other things on their minds, and schools still offer animal produce as the default options. Let’s not try to explain away the way we treat animals. Let’s not acclimatise kids to meat and dairy and madcap consumerism. It’s their world we’re sabotaging. It’s their arrival that can push us to change.

Food is the most important way we can change our relationship with animals, but our thinking lets us down elsewhere too. It doesn’t feel cruel to animals to emit carbon, by heating our draughty homes and flying on holiday, even though climate change is what will probably lead to the virtual disappearance of coral reefs and their abundant life this century.

We love animals — so why do we treat them so badly?

Zoos are filled with good intentions, of conservationists and visitors. Just as we assume livestock is happy on farms, we think wild animals are happy enough in zoos. But keeping large animals in enclosed spaces is a relic of the menagerie era. Elephants in particular do not seem to do well on concrete floors, in artificial herds and in temperate climates. From an animal’s point of view, zoos may be more problematic than hunting, where animals live free until they are killed quickly.

So we need a new approach. We need to look beyond the intentions of farmers, hunters, zookeepers and others, and focus on the consequences of their actions. Hunting can, if managed well, protect wild spaces and keep ecosystems in balance. Livestock farming generally can’t. To do right by other animals means to see the world through their eyes.

Western science has accepted over recent decades that non-human animals have emotions and feelings. Many indigenous societies have known that for centuries. They have seen continuity between humans and other sentient beings; they have written animals into their societies.

“Sometimes I wonder if echidnas ever suffer from the same delusion that many humans have, that their species is the intelligent centre of the universe,” Tyson Yunkaporta, an academic and member of Queensland’s Apalech clan, writes in his book Sand Talk.

As part of my research, I spent time among the Yurok tribe, amid the glorious redwoods of northern California. The Yurok, whose lands border a river, value salmon and sturgeon. But they are also working to restore populations of the California condor, the large soaring bird that, some tribal members believe, carries their prayers to the heavens.

“Bringing condor back, making him an active part of our lives again, it’s going to heal us as a people in a very big way. It’s going to strengthen our ceremony, our prayers,” Tiana Claussen, a Yurok biologist, told me.

To a hyper-rational western mind, such rituals are fanciful. But they embody a profound truth: our species has always coexisted with other animals, and our survival depends on a respect for them.

We love animals — so why do we treat them so badly?
We love animals — so why do we treat them so badly?

In contrast, Christianity has had a more ambiguous relationship with animals. Even Charles Darwin, who did more than anyone to shape our conception of the natural world, did not formulate a way for us to live alongside other species. (His own practices were a mix: he abhorred cruelty, enjoyed shooting, reluctantly defended vivisection, and didn’t engage with the 19th-century vegetarian movement.)

The result is that we still often see wild animals — wolves, sharks, even herbivorous beavers — as threats and disruptive presences. We push aside even those animals closest to us: all other great ape species — gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees, bonobos — are endangered or critically endangered.

The good news is that our society has a huge opportunity. We do not need to exploit animals. We have plentiful other sources of food; we could make eating meat opt-in, rather than opt-out, at schools and workplaces. We don’t need horses for transport or cargo; we don’t need cows or camels for clothing. We don’t need bears to fight or greyhounds to race for our entertainment. We can dramatically reduce the amount of land we require for agriculture, and reduce the amount of suffering that we cause other animals.

The pandemic is a lesson: caused by a virus that crossed over from wild animals, probably because of how we are breaking up their habitat. There is no reason to think that this will be the worst pandemic we face in our lifetimes. The hope is what endures now is humility towards the natural world.

For much of our history, humans have been in competition with wild animals. Now we can recognise our shared fate. Climate change is, broadly speaking, very bad for us and very bad for wild animals. The loss of forests, grasslands and coral reefs is bad for all of us. We worry about our world becoming uninhabitable. But for millions of animals, it has already become uninhabitable. Animals are not just reminders of our evolutionary past. They are reminders of our future.

A few years ago, I was on a boat in the Farne Islands, taking photographs of Atlantic puffins. Up close, the puffins are beautiful but ungainly, battling high winds to fly into their nests. On the boat back, a little boy whispered to his parents: “I love the puffins.”

I love the puffins too, I thought. But what had I actually done to make their lives better? Puffins are affected by climate change, overfishing and habitat loss. All of these things are, at least partly, under human control.

One of the stories I read my daughters was a version of Rudyard Kipling’s How the Leopard Got His Spots. It tells how a human helped the leopard hide in shadows by placing handprints on his skin. This is a benign fantasy. Our actual impact on animals is different: we breed livestock into warped shapes, and we wipe out wild animals with our expansion.

The story I will tell my daughters is this: that to love animals is not simply to admire their beauty; it is to shrink our footprint so we can live in harmony with them. We should not just ask what animals can do for us; we should ask what we can do for animals. We should give up most livestock farming. One proposal, which I discuss in my book, is to set aside half our planet as conservation areas. Some would be parks for tourists; others would have as little human presence as possible.

This comes with sacrifices. Yes, as a vegan, you can’t get all the exact tastes of a meat-eater, but you can still eat delicious food (and, with an Impossible or a Beyond burger, you can get very close to the taste of beef). Yes, without old-style zoos, you won’t be able to visit an elephant in your city centre, but you can take similar pleasure from observing foxes, parakeets or tadpoles. Yes, if we are to curb climate change, you may not be able to fly to the Amazon, but you might at least stop it from disappearing.

The prize is to find a form of human progress that works not just for us, but for the other sentient beings that fill our world with beauty. After all, there is no point saying that we love animals if we don’t act on it.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World’ by Henry Mance is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on April 29 and in the US by Vintage on July 13

Photographs by Dan Burn-Forti. Data visualisation by Keith Fray

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