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Moo-ving people toward compassionate living
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A Sermon Presentation by Marisa Miller
Submitted by Constance Young
From a very young age, children learn the sounds that animals make. "Baa baa" says the sheep. "Ruff Ruff," says the dog. "Bzz bzz," says the bee. As we get older and as we learn to distinguish the different sounds that animals make, we can decipher different meanings. My mother is convinced that her cat speaks Fenglish, a combination of feline and English. Her cat says, "nung" which sounds like "num-num," my mom's word for treat, which is very different than "gao" which sounds like "out" when she wants to go outside. But obviously animals don't just use words or sounds to convey meaning; they tell us many things through body language: wagging tails, laid-back ears, tummies up for a belly rub. And of course we communicate back to our animals the same way they do: a mix of vocalizations and body language.
I have a theory that you never really know a person until you've heard their animal voice - the voice they use to talk to animals. I think that the very unique voices we use to speak to them indicates just how special these animals are in our hearts and also how freeing it is to interact with a member of another species who isn't going to judge us the way human animals do - or if they do judge us, at least they mostly keep it to themselves. Maybe the next time I come here we can have an animal blessing, and you can hear everyone's animal voices. Wouldn't that be interesting?
When you really think about it, interspecies communication and friendship are really amazing. The fact that we can communicate with other species is so telling of our shared heritage and our interdependence. Humans share 74% of our DNA with dogs and 98% of our DNA with gorillas, which doesn't surprise me one bit when I read about Koko the gorilla. But sometimes our basic means of communication doesn't cut it. I'm sure you all have wondered as I have just what the animals in our lives would say if they could speak our language. I'm pretty sure I know what my girl cat would say. She'd tell me to get up at 5 a.m. every day to feed her.
But my suspicion is that animals are communicating with us in more subtle and complex ways all the time and we're just not sophisticated enough to pick up on them. It wasn't until Penny Patterson, Koko's teacher, bothered to teach Koko sign language that humans even knew how intelligent gorillas were. And it wasn't until Diane Fossey integrated herself into a gorilla community that we discovered the complicated and subtle ways of gorilla language and culture.
I think we have selective hearing when it comes to animals. We allow ourselves to hear some animals and not others. We listen to the ones within our circle of compassion but not to those outside our circle of compassion. And that line seems arbitrary - that is, it is determined by cultural factors not on the animals' ability to think, feel or suffer.
In India cows are revered, in Korea some people eat dogs, yet in the U.S. we welcome dogs into our homes but serve cows to our children.
Here in America, there are anti-cruelty laws to protect our companion animals, but did you know that abusing animals on farms is perfectly legal? Let me share with you some examples. Let's say one day you're outside cutting the grass. It's a beautiful, bright blue day. Just as you turn the lawnmower around you notice your neighbor entering his garden shed and you catch a glimpse of cages stacked on top of each other in the dark with 6 cats per cage, clawing at each other and meowing to get out. You can hear their cries, yet your neighbor does nothing. He hoses off the backs of the cages and then leaves, shutting the door behind him. How would you feel about that?
Let's say you see that same neighbor's dog in his back yard struggling to stand up on a broken leg. What does your neighbor do? Take him to the vet? No, he decides to pick up the dog and throw him in the garbage. Would you speak up then?
Let's say his hamster had cute fuzzy little babies. He picks each little one up to see what sex it is and then decides to throw the baby male hamsters alive into a trash compactor because they're male and he can't use them. That's what happens to 260 million baby male chicks every year just because they won't grow up to lay eggs. Does that seem cruel to you? All those things I just mentioned happen to millions of animals every day on factory farms.
The act of listening is an act of affirmation. When we listen to someone, we are saying, "you are worth being listened to." Not to listen to someone is saying the opposite. To allow someone to "give voice" to something is to give power in the sense of "speaking up" or "speaking out." But we take away any power and any worth that animals have when we remove them from earshot, when we lock them up cages in isolated rooms or isolated warehouses on farms that we aren't even allowed to enter because of trespass laws. I have heard the moans, groans, and blood-curdling screams of farmed animals being forced with electric prods to the kill floor, and they sound frighteningly human.
When I was writing this presentation, I at first hesitated to bring up the issue of so-called "food animals" in church because I was afraid of bringing up a topic that was too unpleasant, too touchy. But I believe that my reason behind sharing this, my desire to expand our circle of compassion to include farmed animals, is profoundly UU. If you add up all the animals that humans come into contact with in our daily lives - the companions in our homes, the animals in zoos, in circuses, in shelters, in labs, on farms, a startling 98% of them are farmed animals. Ten billion animals are confined in tiny, filthy, cramped spaces, and killed each year in this country. And to exclude ten billion sentient beings from the web of life for no justifiable reason makes no sense to me.
It was actually in a Unitarian-Universalist church that I awoke to animal suffering. I had no idea when I walked into a screening of the documentary called We Are All Noah sponsored by my church's chapter of UU's for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that I would have a revelation that would change the course of my life forever. I have always considered myself a compassionate person and an animal lover.
Growing up I was that kid in the swimming pool who would save drowning insects or would bury every dead bird or squirrel who had been run over in the neighborhood. Yet when I asked my mom about killing animals for food, she told me that it was a sad thing but that the animals mostly led happy little lives until they died. I always accepted my participation in the system as a necessary evil, as a part of my particular heritage and culture. I'm a German-American from the Midwest, and to not eat animals would've been a huge break from my identity, my culture, and even my family, not to mention that I loved the taste of meat. My roommates in college and in New York were both vegetarian but they never really spoke to me about the ethical reasons for doing it. I just thought they were a different breed, a different species almost, until I saw the documentary after church that Sunday.
Tom Regan's 1986 award-winning film We Are All Noah features clergy from different faith traditions talking about our moral responsibilities to animals. I had never even thought of animal rights as a religious or spiritual issue before. The film showed footage of animals suffering and being killed on farms, in labs and in shelters. I was appalled by the efficiency of the system and the sheer disposability of animals' lives.
Then I realized that there I was, a person who tried to alleviate animal suffering when confronted with it individually in my daily life, yet for twenty-five years I had directly contributed to the suffering of thousands of animals because I preferred to eat their flesh. Suddenly it dawned on me that I didn't have to live with the contradiction if I didn't want to. I could choose to hear the cries of those who were suffering and then do something about it. It was a total Eureka moment for me. I wanted to stand up right there in the room and declare, "Oh my God, I'm a vegetarian!"
That was January 6th, 2002. In the next two months I read that egg-laying hens are crowded in wire cages with this much space (hold up paper) and no way to spread their wings. Even so-called "organic, free-range" hens often have their beaks cut off with a hot blade and are starved for up to two weeks to shock their bodies into another egg-laying cycle. I learned that veal calves are by-products of yes, even the organic dairy industry and that dairy cows are sent to slaughter after about four years anyway. By that spring, I could no longer in good conscience consume animal products. I went from a veal schnitzel-eater to a vegan animal activist in three months. Now, strangely, I'm the person at church who is trying to open minds and hearts and ears to animals.
Unitarian-Universalists have been on the frontlines to promote women's rights, civil rights, gay rights and children's rights. Why not extend our circle of compassion to include animals as well? Compassion is not a limited resource; it's a self-renewing one, and we can continue to do our important human rights work while protecting animals too. After all, we have a Seventh Principle that puts human animals in the web of life, not above it.
We are taught to think critically, to think for ourselves. We value justice, reason, love and compassion, so isn't it precisely our place to ask the hard questions? Do we really feel comfortable participating in systems that bring about so much needless suffering just because it's what humans have always done? Because it's convenient? Or because it gives us a moment of pleasure?
There are many injustices in the world that we have limited power to correct. We can write letters to legislators and other power holders, urging them to act with reason and compassion, and we should do that. But why don't we look at ourselves and see what power we have to act with reason and compassion in our daily lives? When it comes to animals, we have a lot of power. We have total power over the animals in our care, and of course we have our consumer power.
Some of you may be thinking, "Oh boy, I have so much on my plate already; I can't possibly add animal suffering too." Okay, don't become an animal activist then. Don't spend one minute of your time promoting animal causes or even give one dollar to animal charities. The best thing you can do is to withdraw your financial support of animal cruelty. If you just try to take the animal suffering off of your plate and substitute it with immune-boosting, cancer-fighting, artery-clearing whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, then the whole world will benefit, especially you. You'll greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and you'll have so much more energy. Your heart will open up to all of nature, and you'll be able to look any animal in the eye and say, "I would never hurt you."
The average American consumes 83 animals a year. When you go vegetarian, you spare 83 lives a year. Over twelve years that's almost a thousand animals. And guess what: you'll probably save more of the earth's precious resources by going veg in a year than recycling, car-pooling and not showering for that entire time. You'll definitely be in good company. You'll join the ranks of Unitarian Universalists Albert Einstein and Clara Barton, plus Alice Walker, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leonardo Da Vinci and Mahatma Gandhi, who all affirmed life every day three times a day. Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence appears in Unitarian-Univeralist services all over the world. My question is: do we just want to quote him or actually try to live like him?
Now, whether you leave this room today with a real interest in pursuing vegetarianism or not, I encourage you to do this: listen to the animals who you can't hear.
When you're shopping for shampoo, listen to the rabbits who are getting chemicals rubbed in their eyes and then consider buying a brand that says "not tested on animals."
When you're choosing a companion animal to bring into your home, listen to the animals on death row in the shelters and consider saving one.
When you're shopping for a winter coat, listen to the fox who would rather gnaw off his paw caught in a steel leghold trap than be turned into fur trim.
And finally, listen to the animals who speak to you every day. Listen to your dog when she would rather play than watch you read the paper. Listen to your cat when he would rather snuggle than watch you type. Listen to the birds celebrating spring when you walk out of this space today, and then feel the supreme joy that comes with communicating with all of creation.
With your ears listen to all the creatures of the earth.
With your eyes look into another's eyes and see the spark of divinity.
With your mind envision a world of peaceful coexistence.
With your mouth speak for those who cannot speak.
With your heart love those who have known no love.
With your arms embrace all living beings.
With your hands build a kinder tomorrow.
With your feet step softly and boldly along your sacred path.
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The calf photo on these pages is from Farm Sanctuary with our thanks.
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