Recently I attended a talk and book signing at Tattered Cover Bookstore given by Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and bestselling author. His new book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation ($15.95 New World Library). He spoke for an hour on a variety of topics, including animal intelligence, human/animal relationships, and how we humans often depreciate the skills and capabilities of non-human animals. An example of the latter is that when people misbehave, we sometimes say they are “acting like animals.” Or perhaps we might consider sounds made by another species as primitive, when actually what we are hearing is a complex language.
As an activist encouraging people to cut back or eliminate the consumption of meat and other animal products, I was particularly interested in what he had to say about animals used for food. In the Q & A period, I asked him how we can help people understand that the animals they eat are real animals, like the animals they care about. He advised that positive images are more persuasive than images of brutality or suffering; that is, show a photo of a cow and calf instead of the cow’s dead body being cut up. A second piece of advice: when someone asks “what’s for dinner?” rephrase it as “who’s for dinner?” as a way to connect the piece of meat on a plate with the once-living animal that provided it.
He also suggested that people who are still going to eat meat and other animal products could be encouraged to refuse the products of factory farms. (“There is no such thing as factory farms,” he said, because factory farms are not farms. Using the term is an insult to family farms.) In a grocery store or restaurant, people could ask where did this meat–or eggs, or milk–come from? If the clerk or waiter cannot provide an answer, or if the item came from the industrial farming system, the conscientious consumer could refuse to buy it. If in a restaurant, the diner could then order a plant-based meal instead. I see Bekoff’s point here: people who are consistent in refusing to buy products obtained by the worst suffering are preventing some of that suffering, calling attention to the abuses by asking about the source, and probably learning to enjoy more meatless meals.
Still, though, I have to encourage people to go beyond buying the supposedly more sustainably-raised meat, and continue all the way to veganism. “Why stop at merely ‘better,'” I like to say, “when you can go all the way to optimal?”