Thinking Critically About The Animals We Use

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Thinking Critically About The Animals We Use

[Ed. Note: Besides the emotional reactions so many humans to abusing animals, too many of us human animals continue to be in denial about the abuse we inflict on other-than-human animals. This article covers many issues of that denial and facts to empower people to live in harmony with other species.]

By Mary Martin, Ph.D.,
May 2011

The animals we use? What does that mean?

Although most people don’t think about it, they’re using animals every day, many times. For instance, they eat animals or parts of animals or things the animals produce, such as milk or eggs. When they take a shower each day, their soaps, shampoos and other personal care products contain animal products and may also have been tested on animals. When they leave the house each day, most people are wearing the skin of animals on their feet and perhaps on their back. Of course, a lot of material that clothing is made from contains the hair or fur or skin of animals.

What many people consider entertainment even includes animals. Perhaps they enjoy watching horses or dogs race, or they take their children to amusement parks or zoos that display captive animals.

Meanwhile, most people would say:

I love animals! I don’t want to hurt them!

Despite using animals each day, most people would say that they either love animals, or they certainly wouldn’t want any harm to come to them. But those two concepts are at odds. If you love someone or don’t wish to harm them, you shouldn’t harm them. However, by using animals you are indeed harming them, and in most cases killing them. Now, if you needed to use them for survival, that would be one thing. But in 2011 in the developed world, you don’t. Why kill someone when you don’t need to?

Okay, it’s true that animals are killed for my way of life. But it’s not like they’re people. Killing an animal isn’t the same thing as killing a person.

Animals are like us in some ways, and unlike us in other, more obvious ways. One crucial way they are like us is that they are sentient. This means that dogs, cows, chickens, pigs, cats, goats, turkeys and even fishes have the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Nonhuman animals are not only sentient, but science has shown that many also play, grieve, cuddle and deceive. They have friendships, preferences, expectations and beliefs. They get bored and frustrated. They even demonstrate some degree of moral code. The fact is that animals lead lives rich in thought, emotion, culture and relationships. As such, they care about their wellbeing, and they have an interest in living their lives free from subjugation by others, just like you do. Taking away someone’s freedom and using them for your gain (which includes your palate or your clothing) is at odds with the claim of not wanting to hurt them. For more on the science of sentience and other qualities, see the work of Jonathan Balcombe  and Marc Bekoff .

What about using animals as long as we don’t inflict unnecessary suffering?

Unnecessary suffering is cruel, you don’t want any part of cruelty, and that’s admirable. But are you saying there’s such a thing as necessary suffering when it’s not necessary to use animals?

What I mean is that the meat and eggs I buy have a label that says the animals were humanely raised. I would never buy food from the companies in those horrifying videos with all of those poor, abused animals.

What if I control everything about your life including: what you eat and when; if, and how you procreate (cows, chickens and pigs are not left to naturally mate--they are impregnated with the help of people who often use an apparatus known as a “rape rack”); when and how your life is to end; and I slaughter you when I want to. Would you characterize that process as humane? Is that scenario acceptable to you? Any animal product you purchase in a store comes from an animal subjected to this scenario.

At some smaller farms, such as family-run farms that you can purchase animal products from, the animals do indeed eat their natural diets, aren’t drugged or mutilated, and do run free. But let’s talk about you again for a moment. Let’s say I treat you as well as I can while you’re alive, yet you cannot escape me. I continue to use you the way I wish to use you, I decide when and how you will die, and I eventually kill you when I feel the moment is right. Let’s say I shoot you in the head and you barely feel a thing. Is that okay with you? Of course not; I’ve just ended your life. You’d probably say I murdered you.

Furthermore, is it okay that I took your freedom away from you and used your life, your body for my purposes? Of course not. You have the right to your life free of use or enslavement by me. But nonhuman animals do not have that right. And harming someone--killing someone--even if it’s legal or it’s what most other people in your culture do, doesn’t make it the right or compassionate thing to do. For more on farming, including the truth about the labels on animal products, see Humane Myth and The Free-Range Myth.

But I’m a vegetarian!

Many vegetarians think that eggs and milk products involve less subjugation and/or suffering than other animal products, such as fur or meat. They like to think that eggs are about as cruelty-free an animal product as you can get, especially if they’re cage free. And there’s a good reason they think that: we’re surrounded by messages that tell us cage-free eggs are humane. Even the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals promote cage-free eggs.

But did you know that no matter where the egg production facility is located, or what the visible-to-the-public conditions are, the egg-laying hens come from the same hatcheries that kill the baby rooster chicks at only one-day old because they have no use for them? Did you know that hens are generally considered spent by egg-laying facilities at one- to two-years old and are then killed? And did you know that dairy cows are artificially inseminated over and over, are genetically manipulated to produce an unnaturally enormous amount of milk, and are killed by the time they’re six-years old when their normal life span is over 20 years? And did you know that while they’re alive, they are rarely permitted to nurse their babies (the males and some females are taken away from them to be confined, perhaps elsewhere , and slaughtered as veal)? How do you feel about milk and eggs now?

As for the small farm that provides better living conditions for the animals they kill, ask that farmer what happens to the male chicks and the spent hens. Ask what happens to the newborn calves. Ask how the cows are impregnated and how often. Always question anyone who tells you that some process involving an animal is humane, and decide for yourself if it’s acceptable. And ask yourself if it’s acceptable to have almost all of your choices taken away from you, and then your life taken from you, simply because someone thinks your flesh tastes good or your child’s skin makes soft gloves?

It seems like a stretch to be against horse racing and dog racing. It’s not like the animals get killed, and they love to run. Aren’t they just doing what they love to do?

Thousands of horses and dogs are created each year for the purposes of racing, and with the hope of making their owners a profit. Early in their lives, animals who don’t show promise are killed (this is what “culled” means), and as the training process progresses, there are further kills to narrow the group down to only the most competitive animals. Many injuries during training result in further kills if the careers of the animals are no longer promising. When the few animals who do make it to competition are injured, they are often killed if their injuries are too expensive to fix, or if the injuries will be career ending even if they heal well. Some lucky animals end up in the hands of rescue groups or sanctuaries, who will pay for their treatment and either give them a home for life or get them adopted.

Okay, but what about experimenting on animals for medical reasons, like to find a cure for disease or to see if something is toxic?

Do you think it’s ethical to breed an animal for the sole purpose of using her as the subject of an experiment (she’d more accurately be the object, as something would be done to her? Dogs, such as greyhounds, who are docile and rarely bark, apparently make great “subjects” and are often used for heart disease research. Beagles are often used, as well.

Furthermore, do you think it’s ethical to seize animals from pounds or from the streets for the purposes of caging them, cutting them open or exposing them to hazardous substances, collecting data, and then killing them? If it were your dog being experimented on, would that be okay? Would it be ethical then? Most people say no, as they’re emotionally attached to their dogs and value them.

The majority of animals used in research are rats, however, and most people aren’t emotionally attached to them and don’t value them. But is that what should matter? Given that rats have the same capacity for pleasure, pain and terror as your dog does, is it humane to breed them with genetic defects, artificially inflict them with diseases, expose them to toxic substances, and kill them? Why would it be ethical to use a nameless rat but not your dog? Is it ever ethical to experiment on a sentient being, without her consent, just because you can?

Finally, it’s never necessary to experiment on anyone. Either it’s a choice or it’s dictated by a governing body such as the FDA. It might be a legal necessity, but it’s certainly not a scientific one. In fact, a growing number of scientists now believe that experimenting on animals to gain knowledge about humans is just plain bad science.

And they have history on their side, as there have been instances where testing done on animals showed that a substance wasn’t dangerous, but that has turned out not to be the case (e.g., Thalidomide and Vioxx, among others). In fact, adverse reactions to animal-tested medicines are now the fourth largest cause of death in America.

There are myriad reasons why we still experiment on animals (there’s a lot of money in conducting the research, breeding the animals, transporting the animals, running the facilities, and keeping these business machines alive), but that doesn’t mean it’s good science or it’s ethical behavior. For more , see Advocates for Science-Based Medical Research and Alternatives to Animal Testing.

But if you’re against using animals, what about keeping cats and dogs as pets?

We have domesticated dogs and cats and we continue to allow the breeding of new ones when we’re currently killing them by the millions each year in places called “shelters” simply because they are homeless. We have an obligation to the animals in shelters to do our best to find good homes for them rather than kill them (and rehabilitate them if necessary, and sterilize and return feral cats). For a deconstruction of the myth of pet overpopulation as well as an outline of how to create a no-kill community, see The No Kill Nation.


Most people who begin considering the animals they use respond with:

Those are all understandable reactions. Fortunately, there’s plenty that you can do . . .

Transition to a vegan way of life

If you believe animals aren’t ours to use, you ought to align your actions with that belief, right? That’s what vegans do. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to dramatically decrease your usage of animals, as there are many meat and dairy alternatives available in grocery stores and over the Internet. For help decreasing the number of animals who are killed for your diet, a 21-Day Vegan Kickstart Program has been developed by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and includes a community of support, nutrition information, meal planning, and even recipes.

More than ever, manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories are offering products not made from the hair, fur or skin of other creatures. (For more, see The Discerning Brute and Alternative Outfitters).

Furthermore, household and personal care products that don’t contain animal products and weren’t tested on animals are more and more common, both in major retail stores and on the Internet. There’s even an iPhone app for determining if a product is cruelty-free. Check out the Vegan Store at  and Vegan Essentials and Cruelty-Free Shopping for all kinds of vegan products.

For restaurants and grocery stores all over the world that are vegan or vegan friendly, go to Happy Cow, or download the VegOut iPhone app.

Support an organization that directly helps animals.

If you want to help animals directly by donating or volunteering, there are local rescue groups, sanctuaries, wildlife rehabilitation centers, no-kill shelters and TNR efforts (Trap, Neuter, Return of feral cats), and see Alley Cat Allies) all over the world that desperately need help and funds. There are also sanctuaries that care for victims of animal farms, both large and small

Thank you for considering The Animals We Use!