Ignoring Sentience, Ignoring Self
Throughout my life I’ve been aware that meat and fish are habitual favourites on the Jewish menu. This is not only a matter of nourishment or health but relates to tradition and the way in which collective cultural identities are tied up in the meals we share with our families over the dinner table. The rituals that make up those shared moments connect us to our ancestors and thereby to our own history and values. In short, they tell us something about ourselves and, for me, they describe who I am – as a Jew.
This is not something which is often second-guessed in the Jewish community. However, some of the brave and forward thinking members among us have challenged the role of meat in Jewish culture and the value of the animals who sacrifice their lives to provide it. The late Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902 – 1991) was one such pioneer. In his words:
I think that eating meat or fish is a denial of all ideals, even of all religions. How can we pray to God for mercy if we ourselves have no mercy? How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood? Every kind of killing seems to me savage and I find no justification for it.
This might be construed as a radical position but, in truth, it is not. It follows the simple Jewish principal of tza’ar ba’alei chayim: that if animals feel pain and fear, they should be protected from suffering.
In today’s world where animals are treated legally and socially as disposable objects, it is easy to think of them as an ‘other’; as something which sits far away from our own being. In actual fact, this thinking denies the existence of a significant connection between us and non-human animals: our sentience.
Sentience is the ability to perceive and feel things. An animal is sentient if ‘it is capable of being aware of its surroundings, its relationships with other animals and humans, and of sensations in its own body, including pain, hunger, heat or cold.’ Sentience matters because it means that animals have interests, preferences, desires and wants and thus, like us, they seek to avoid suffering.
To quote Singer again:
We know… instinctively, that animals can suffer as much as human beings. Their emotions and their sensitivity are often stronger than those of a human being. Various philosophers and religious leaders tried to convince their disciples and followers that animals are nothing more than machines without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal – be it a dog, bird or even a mouse – knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty.
Ignoring animal sentience is convenient, politic and all too common. This is probably because if we were to recognise the reality of animal sentience, we would be forced to acknowledge our ethical obligation to protect their interests.
Protecting animals from suffering begins in the first place with the knowledge of how our society treats the animals in our care and, in the case of food, how animals raised for their meat live within production systems.
Today, very few animals roam freely on traditional farms. Most animals produced for food in Australia suffer behind the closed doors of large industrial facilities known as factory farms. They are treated like commodities in a production line and their pain and distress is disregarded in the pursuit of profit.
Factory farming causes the most suffering to the largest number of animals in Australia – more than 500 million every year. These emotionally complex, intelligent beings may never see the sun, feel the earth under their feet, nurture their young, build a nest, forage for food nor socialise as nature intended.
Instead, they are confined to cages (in the case of laying hens and pregnant pigs) or packed together in such large numbers that they struggle to find space to move. Baby animals are mutilated without pain relief – the tails, teeth and genitalia of piglets and the beaks of chicks are brutally clipped, as well as the horns, tails, and testicles of calves – because it’s practical, cheap and lawful to do so.
Most people believe that animal welfare issues such as animal cruelty are being addressed through law and regulation. On the contrary. The problem with animal welfare laws is that they accept a certain level of suffering as reasonable, justifiable or necessary. I contend that if more among us were aware of the extent of suffering that occurs within factory farms, very few would continue feeding our families intensively produced meat, eggs or milk.
Animal protection is the way forward
The law condones the institutionalised abuse of factory farming by classifying animals as ‘property’. As with any other type of property, there are restrictions on the use of animals – anti-cruelty legislation and Codes of Practice – but these restrictions are always balanced against the interests of people, profit-seeking corporations and consumers who feel entitled to cheap and abundant meat.
When we pause to consider the level of animal cruelty that is expressly sanctioned by law, we realise that animal protection has to be the next great social justice movement.
When I first discovered what was really going on behind the veil of animal industries almost a decade ago, I started an organisation called Voiceless along with my daughter Ondine. Voiceless is not a radical group and we don’t presume to tell people what they should or should not do, eat or think. While I respect and am inspired by the wise words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I don’t expect that everyone should follow his ideals. Rather, what is being sought in its most basic form by Voiceless is the right to a decent life, enshrined in laws that protect animals from suffering.
Voiceless takes a measured and factual approach to animal protection. We drive reform and help build the animal protection movement by offering grants and prizes to smaller charities, sanctuaries and universities. We create influential networks in an effort to promote informed debate and thought-leadership in the community. We conduct research which exposes legalised cruelty and provides the necessary scientific basis of our argument for change. Voiceless also works to grow animal law and drive law reform by engaging with legal students, academics and legislators.
Our goal in this work has been eloquently elucidated by Voiceless Patron and Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee:
One day, not in our lifetime perhaps, but in a future that is not unforeseeable, animals of non-human species will be born into a world in which they stand a fair chance of living a life that is happy by their own standards and fulfilling.
In my mind, this goal should be reflected in the laws of the land just as it is in tza’ar ba’alei chayim. The reason why is refreshingly simple. When I sit down on Friday evening for Shabbat dinner with my family I want to observe the traditions of my forefathers, but I don’t want those traditions to be realised with food which I know to have come from a place of suffering and inhumanity.
 Isaac Bashevis Singer, ‘Jewish Vegetarian’, in RH Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism, Lantern Books, 2001, pp. 125-126.
 Judy Pearsall, Sentient (Oxford Dictionaries) http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/sentient.
 Jacky Turner, Stop – Look – Listen: Recognising the Sentience of Farm Animals (Compassion in World Farming Trust, updated version, 2006) 6.
 Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, 2002, Lantern Books, New York, pp 198-199.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Farming in Brief (2009) (Cat No. 7106.0).
 Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Pigs (revised) (2007) (‘the Pig Code’), section 4.1 and Appendix 3
 Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals- Domestic Poultry, (4th Edition) (2002) (‘the Poultry Code’), section 5.
 Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals- Cattle, (2th Edition) (2002) (‘the Cattle Code’), section 5.8
 Ibid, section 5.6
 Ibid, section 5.4
 Gary Francione, Animals, Property and the Law, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2005, pp 4.
 J.M. Coetzee, 2004, Voiceless Press Statement.