See No Evil:  The Bigger Picture of Live Export

Yet again the live export issue has raised its head in Australia with more exposes of the cruelty and abuse animals suffer in overseas abattoirs; this time in Vietnam.

While it may be true that Australia has tighter animal welfare legislation than some of the countries targeted in these exposes, the implication that all is well in our slaughterhouses, compared to those overseas, is very wrong indeed.  Moreover, this sleight of hand serves to distract us from some of the bigger issues at stake – why, for instance are we concerned about how animals are treated overseas but not in Australia? Why are we focussing on their treatment leading up to slaughter and not the fact of slaughter – the ending of their life – itself? Why do we generally think it is OK to kill animals at all, never mind at the current alarming rates (conservative estimates of around 60 billion a year)?

We know that animals are sentient beings who have meaningful lives with ties to their own species as well as others; we know they feel pain and fear; we know they exhibit empathy for each other and maybe even for us; we know they can be emotionally damaged just as we can.  How, then, in the face of all this can we still be arguing about whether live exports are acceptable instead of having meaningful – difficult, real – discussions about whether slaughter per se is acceptable?

To my mind, there are many reasons for our focus on one aspect (live export) over a consideration of the whole (the acceptability of eating other animals).  Perhaps the first is that talking about animal death is largely taboo, especially in the case of slaughter.  We hide our slaughterhouses and marginalise the workers all so we don’t have to think about what happens behind their doors[i]. But this is more a symptom than a cause.  The cause is a sense of human exceptionalism – we believe and our social and cultural systems fiercely support this ideology – that it is only the human that matters, or at least the human that matters most.  We see this idea – anthropocentrism – reflected time and again, in discussions about animal rights and about the environment.  For example, at a societal level there is generic agreement that some animals should have protection while others do not matter because they are commodities for our use.  The animals we extend protection to are the ones that matter to us – the ones we have relationships with, and care about.  The rest can go hang, literally.  This is speciesism in action.

Richard Ryder wrote:

“In as much as both “race” and “species” are vague terms used in the classification of living creatures according, largely, to physical appearance, an analogy can be made between them. Discrimination on grounds of race, although most universally condoned two centuries ago, is now widely condemned. Similarly, it may come to pass that enlightened minds may one day abhor “speciesism” as much as they now detest “racism.” The illogicality in both forms of prejudice is of an identical sort. If it is accepted as morally wrong to deliberately inflict suffering upon innocent human creatures, then it is only logical to also regard it as wrong to inflict suffering on innocent individuals of other species. … The time has come to act upon this logic.”

But this extends to differences between nonhuman animal species too – hence, when we demonstrate concern for dogs but not cows that too is speciesism.  The way we talk about animals that do not fall into our moral sphere – as “it”; as generic categories, e.g., “cattle” – serves to underscore this.  Discussed as commodities, and in economic terms, they become “things” not individuals with needs, wants, histories, and lives.  And this allows us to kill, maim, execute, and eat them at will[ii].

Recognising speciesism when it rears its head is important in combating it.  But we also need to be careful to avoid simplistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ categorisations lest we inadvertently underscore the very workings of speciesism.  Talking about ‘Australian’ versus ‘overseas’ slaughter practices is a case in point.  The issue here is not who is doing the unspeakably vile things to other sentient creatures, but that we all are complicit in it – by ignoring it, by focussing on ‘exceptional’ tales of overseas cruelty, by eating meat and other animal products.  Focussing on one side of this allows the other to be valorised at worst, and ignored, at best.

[i] One of the best books I have read on this is Vialles’ Animal to Edible.  See also, Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds.

[ii] This extends beyond the issue of slaughter and also explains how it is we condone – albeit often implicitly – other forms of cruelty to animals.

And just in case you think there are significant differences between species, here is some information on the not-so-secret lives and intelligence of cows.


Author: Nik Taylor

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