Imagine that you have a cat or a dog sitting in your lap. You know the animal’s name and have fond memories of playing together, of laughing at its silliness, and of delighting in its tricks. You cuddle with it when you feel sad. Your pet means the world to you.
Now, imagine that same pet in a small, filthy cage all day, every day. It is given food and water but is not allowed to run free. It is frequently injected with hormones and antibiotics. And then, a few months later, after living in brutal conditions for its entire life, it is slaughtered.
We have probably never had a pig or a cow as a pet. Did you know, however, that these animals can be more intelligent than dogs and cats? And that children on farms play with livestock? Or that people, myself included, enjoy adorable cow videos?
Playing with chickens was my favorite pastime as a child. I knew their different temperaments and cared for them. When they died, I was left heartbroken. Recently, a scene in the documentary Cowspiracy reminded me of my old chicken friends. I began to reflect on my long forgotten relationship with chickens, and eventually I decided to become ‘almost-vegan’ after two years of being a weekday vegetarian, a diet choice I had made out for concern for the environment.
I say ‘almost-vegan’ because it is mighty difficult to avoid all animal products. I live in a Jesuit community where we have dinner in common and it can be tricky to have separate vegan dishes every night, not to mention my occasional temptation to eat ice cream. The struggle is real. Sometimes a tasty vegan cookie lightens the burden, and I am pleased that I can still enjoy delicious vegan smoothies.
I am ‘almost-vegan’ because most of our meat, eggs, and dairy comes from animals raised in brutal conditions: Chickens live in tiny cages their entire lives, never seeing the daylight, while cows and pigs spend short lives in a single, cramped feed stall.
Besides my relationship with chickens in my youth, my Catholic faith informs my desire to prevent animal cruelty on factory farms. When I care for all creatures, I believe that I am honoring God through my efforts to love the creation He delights in.
Pope Francis, drawing from the Catechism, wrote in his encyclical on creation, “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”
The repercussions of the cruel treatment of animals reverberates back to humans. We damage ourselves when we inflict suffering on others. For example, research has shown that those cruel to animals are more likely to mistreat people through domestic violence.
The most common objection to the prevention of animal cruelty is that animals do not suffer. However, current scientific research confirms our intuition that animals do feel pain, and can be scarred from traumatic experiences. Furthermore, I am confident that most of us will not willfully inflict pain on animals and that we agree with former President Trump’s decision to criminalize animal cruelty.
Another objection is that a vegan diet is nutritionally deficient. In reality, we can get all our nutritional needs from plant food. Countries like India have had a long tradition of vegetarian and vegan diets with healthy outcomes.
Americans themselves ate less meat a few decades ago. The reality is that we eat animal products either for pleasure or because we resist change, unnecessarily perpetuating animal cruelty on factory farms. Consequently, we disobey an important teaching of the church (CCC #2418): “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”
Finally, vegans and vegetarians are often portrayed as rich yuppies who are out of touch with the realities of the poor who cannot afford nutritious plant-based food. Contrary to popular belief, lentils, beans, and peanut butter are often cheaper and healthier than meat as protein sources. Furthermore, meat prices are artificially low in the US because of the billions of dollars of government subsidies. We can demand that our politicians use that money from meat subsidies to make nutritious vegetarian food more affordable for people on the margins.
As I have already acknowledged, becoming vegan is a lot of work. In these tumultuous times, the multitude of social issues clamoring for our attention exhausts us. We are paralyzed when faced with the immensity and complexity of society’s problems. For example, we know that burning fossil fuels harms the environment, but we cannot live without them. We know that systemic racism exists, but we do not know how to change the system. We care but feel helpless.
When it comes to the issue of animal cruelty, however, we can easily withdraw our support for the animal farming industry and its brutal practices. Through the lens of supply and demand, we see that if we stopped eating animal products today, we could prevent future farm animals from experiencing cruel treatment.
Turning a blind eye to the appalling conditions of these animals is a paragon of cognitive dissonance. We are staunchly opposed to cruel treatment of our pets but participate in inflicting suffering on animals in factory farms. We cannot wish the problem away by ignoring it. As Leo Toltstoy wrote about animal cruelty on farms, “We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and we cannot believe that if we do not look there will not be what we do not wish to see.”
The massive undertaking to change one’s diet can seem daunting. However, every journey begins with small steps. Every decision to decline animal products is a step in the right direction. And when the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, pray for strength and courage to practice what you have prayerfully discerned is right. Changing our eating habits is hard, but living a virtuous life in line with our Catholic faith is always worth it.