Animal welfare is assumed to be the pinnacle of vegetarianism or veganism, but is it? Choosing to abstain from meat wasn't always associated with this presumed compassion for animals, and I question this belief today too. In years gone by, vegetarianism had religious connotations – abstinence from meat implied staying pure in your connection to God or spirit. With vegetarianism increasing, there are many reasons for choosing this lifestyle and animal welfare may not be one of them. For some it may be due to their religious beliefs, cultural influences, upbringing, or health and environmental concerns. It is naive of us to think that all veggies have animal welfare in mind. I'm sure for many this was the deciding factor, but us veggies shouldn't consider it to be only our domain. We may like to think that others remain ignorant to the plight of animals, whereas they may just perceive welfare differently. There are many people in this world who demonstrate compassion for animals, but yet choose to eat meat or use items containing animal by-products. To veggies this stance appears hypocritical, but we are in no position to claim immunity from this either! There are limits to the moral codes we inflict upon ourselves.
My vegetarianism was initially rooted in animal welfare, most notably the BSE Crisis and the inadequate transportation of cattle. I remember being quite overwhelmed at the images at the time of cattle burning or sheep crammed into trucks with no space to move or breathe. Animal testing, blood sports, and culling are unspeakably appalling too – I don't care what any scientist or “pro” country citizen says. Man has to shout, stamp his feet, and force his superiority on those seemingly beneath him and by default that falls to the natural world. It hasn't always been this way though - many cultures, including our own, care for and respect the animals they raise and slaughter. This is my point – animal welfare has to be equated with respect. Growing up we are taught to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Why shouldn't this principle apply to those belonging to the animal kingdom too? Don't we all share the same basic anatomy? My ultimate conversion to vegetarianism came about due to the latter, rather than as a staunch supporter of improving animal welfare conditions. Animal welfare wasn't a lesser concern, but equal to my sudden realization that I was chewing on a living, breathing form of life. A fellow being composed of the same organs, muscles, tissues and blood vessels I was. Consuming meat or fish after that almost felt like cannibalism. Tucking into chicken legs, roast beef, lamb chops, and gnawing on bones made me feel like Judas. I couldn't justify my need for flesh and my indirect role in their “meat-fattening" fate to my dinner plate.
In Western societies, our relationship to animals has somehow gone awry. The basic assumption being that since animals cannot communicate with words they will feel less pain and suffering. Why should this be true? Or is it because they have no voice that we feel we can be ignorant to the facts? Any pet owner or animal lover will tell you that the expression in man and animals is the same. Even animal experiments have proven that. Our inhumane treatment of animals is no different (I believe) to mistreating and abusing our fellow human beings. Placed in similar circumstances, would we not display the same emotions and behavioural traits? You only have to look at jails and other institutions to get your answer. Animals are not lesser forms of life. Eaten or not, it is because they are so prized that they should be allowed to roam free and be treated with love and respect.