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ON TALKING TO THE ANIMALS

I love food choice. That’s cliché, but true.

I love that the food options available to me and my fellow Americans are virtually limitless. If you want to be vegan, you can be vegan. If you want to go gluten free, go gluten free! If you want to exist solely on foraged dandelions and the eggs found in abandoned robins’ nests in Central Park, I say good luck to you, sir! I think this conviction of mine, that providing food choice (and thereby security) should be the ultimate goal of the global agriculture industry, has only grown stronger as I’ve traveled to other countries, many of which do not benefit even from the simplest choices we take for granted.

I even stand for the inherent right of people to be misinformed, misguided or downright unreasonable in making their food choices. I don’t abide the idea that you have to have a reason that has been validated by a scientist, government or official organization. In fact, I very much make some of my own food choices on rather wishy-washy criteria. I’m human, and I appreciate that you are, too.

What I do not appreciate however, is how food choice is somehow misinterpreted — often by those who choose to exercise theirs most — to also equate with a freedom to blatantly misinform other people in an effort to get them to exercise their food choices the same way you exercise yours.

Recently a Facebook friend who happens to be vegan posted a short story about how when her cat had cancer the veterinarian told her that chemotherapy is administered to animals at a lower dose than humans because there is no way to explain to the animal why the negative effects of chemotherapy are worth enduring in the hopes it would save their life. She said that this had stuck with her as a justification for being vegan, that even though animals are smart we can’t explain things to them so, “they will never understand why we treat them the way we do.”

Aside from the ethically-questionable practice of not treating animals with a full dose of chemotherapy, because they don’t understand why it’s worth it, and the hypocrisy of a pet owner positing that because animals don’t understand why we treat them the way we do we shouldn’t treat them any way at all, there’s some extremely flawed, and blatantly false assertions here.

Besides the value and gift of food choice, I’ve learned another important lesson traveling around the world: that the most important communication is non-verbal. It’s in your posture, your facial expressions, your movements. It’s how someone who doesn’t speak your language knows if you’re being aggressive, or friendly. For the most part it’s not taught, it’s instinct. And, when it comes to livestock, a tremendous amount of time, and resources are dedicated to exactly this kind of communication — from the farm level all the way up to the upper echelons of agricultural research.

Dr. Temple Grandin’s entire body of work deals with communication between humans and animals and ways in which humans can better explain agricultural practices and processes to animals in a way that not only makes sense to them, but that makes them feel safe and comfortable. The amount of research and practical application for this kind of communication with livestock makes the same body of work carried out by the pet industry look like a baby’s board book.

It includes things as seemingly rudimentary as the fact that if I approach an animal quickly with a straight, tall posture the animal will see me as more aggressive than if I were to approach slowly, but methodically with my shoulders slumped and my eyes averted. To things as complex as the ideal, species-dependent width of an alley if I want an animal to understand that I need it to move forward down that alley and feel comfortable while doing so. We know the ideal temperature for each species’ comfort and pique biological functioning and have even devised ways to balance competing ideals when two types of stock must be housed together — such as with mama sows who like it cool and baby pigs who like it downright hot.

We have even researched individual triggers of stress in order to come up with methods to more effectively explain things in a way that does not elicit fear and panic. Here, the fact that animals don’t understand our language — neither written nor verbal — is even an asset. I can read the sign that says slaughterhouse and know what it means, but they can’t. So if the facilities inside are designed in such a way that they are comfortable moving about (and by and large they are), and the people inside are trained in how to non-verbally communicate with them in an effective manner (ditto), there’s absolutely nothing foreboding about it for the animal. To believe otherwise would be anthropomorphism — plain and simple.

The livestock don’t care why I want them to move down the alley, to enter the kill room, to stand still for a moment. They care only if the manner in which I ask is threatening and whether or not the options I give them for complying with my request are comfortable and make sense to the way they see the world. The simple act of holding a bolt gun to their head does not, to them, say death, and my butcher isn’t in the habit of jumping on their backs and ripping out their jugular — the way their traditional predators would, in no uncertain terms say to them: “Death!”

So while some people may want animals to understand, “why we treat them the way we do,” I want these people to understand that for all intents and purposes, we can and do explain to livestock everything they want and need to know. In fact, the ability to communicate things non-verbally across species is one of the most beautiful abilities of the human mind. That we can and have devised ways to communicate needs and motivations in a way that makes sense to not just one, but multiple other species, is one of the greatest accomplishments of modern man.

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