Monday, 14 March 2011

Animals as Individuals

Every morning, after dragging myself out of bed, I head straight downstairs to put on the kettle. This used to be motivated only by my need for a comforting cuppa to help me recover from the trauma of getting up (I am the eternal student!), but since moving house in December my morning cup of tea has become a bit more of an event. This is because - and this may sound mundane - when making my tea I have a perfect view of the bird table in my neighbour’s garden. Despite only having been here three months, I already recognise the dozens of different characters that congregate there each morning, and look forward to seeing (and of course, hearing!) them as I walk down the stairs. It is sometimes the favourite part of my day, and I feel really blessed to be party to this little scene every morning.

This post is about recognising the beauty in each and every creature, and it is inspired by an entry I saw on Not One Sparrow a while ago called ‘Unforgettable Faces’. It featured the wonderfully expressive artwork of Sam Dolman, who attempts to capture the individuality of farm animals in touching portraits. (His work can be seen here):

My veganism is driven by a variety of factors, one being my belief that it is important (and joyful!) to see every animal as an individual with a unique personality. If you look closely enough, most animals show character traits that would make them worthy of a Dickens novel. Our tendency to see the unique personalities of animals is manifested in the numerous examples in literature, film and art work of the characterisation of them as human-like, especially when these works are aimed at children. This speaks of a childlike relationship to animals that is defined by interest, compassion, and innocence, and it is one that many of us never lose. I think that appreciating and relating to creatures in this way allows us to connect with them on a deeper level, and it is this personal connection that partly fosters our compassion for them. There are numerous examples throughout history of violent regimes dehumanising a collection of individuals in order to persecute them, and this de-individualisation is undoubtedly evident in the factory farming industry. In this system, animals become homogenised factory parts - merely cogs in a machine that grinds out meat.

Within this system animals lose their identity as individuals, and with their personalities brutally and systematically stripped away from them they become – to the majority – food, not friend. A psychological disconnect allows people to detach from the reality of where the meat on their plate has come from. Most people could not watch a lamb chasing its brothers and sisters in a field on a summer’s day and then kill it. After watching it for no more than a minute, that lamb will have become an individual to the onlooker. It will have displayed a personality. Maybe it will even have earned itself an affectionate name. We have an innate desire to relate to our fellow creatures personally; after all, naming God’s creatures was an important part of our role as stewards of creation.

Of the individual personalities Sam captures in his paintings, Ben DeVries writes:
‘What better way to encourage people to see these valued creatures of God as worthy of our attention and care, especially when they are so often reduced to a faceless number (among billions of others forgotten) in the factory-farming system?'

I couldn't agree more with the sentiment Ben expresses here. A lack of emphasis on the importance of appreciating the uniqueness of every individual, both human and non-human, has always been a problem for humanity, and also for the church. Beautiful and infinite variety can be witnessed in God’s creation, and yet Christianity as an institution can, at least in my experience, feel somewhat claustrophobic. Variety of belief and conceptions of God are not always celebrated or welcomed.

I sometimes feel like God is very far away, and those who are close to me know that I struggle to read the Bible or go to Church. These are seen as the most obvious and conventional ways to feel close to God, and an important part of developing your faith. For some reason, however, these ways of relating to God just don't really work for me. I feel closest to God when finding joy in His creation and sharing this with those around me. This is my way of feeling connected to God, of sharing things with Him, of finding a bit of peace, and I think it's a shame that we don't explore this way of relating to God more. I'd like to think, inbetween sessions of moaning about how late the bus is, or pondering for the millionth time what career path I should pursue, that I take the time to admire and wonder at every unique little character I come across and happen to share my brief time on this planet with.

Now, for all my talk of fluffy children's characters I could be accused of arguing for cuteness as a qualifying factor for compassion. This is not my stance at all. I am trying to articulate that perhaps seeing an animal as an individual, with its own thoughts, fears, and experience of pain and of joy, is an important aspect of developing a more compassionate attitude to non-human animals. Far from being cutesy and cuddly, the fight for animal rights is one about politics, ethics, and ultimately an expression of what our values are. Do we value justice, peace, and compassion that extends outside of our own species? This is what it really comes down to, and I simply cannot see any other answer than 'yes' for those of us that believe in a loving and merciful God who remembers every sparrow.

Please do check out the incredible series of posts on Compassionate Eating on Not One Sparrow’s blog; I really cannot emphasize enough what an honor it is to be writing about this cause alongside them.

Peace and love. Cook some vegan cupcakes, walk to a nearby field and watch some spring lambs bounce about. Feel cheered. :)


p.s. Just to prove that compassion knows no species, look at this critter I trapped and freed from my old flat a few months ago (after much screaming, obviously...) I'm not sure if my kindness was fuelled by a respect for creation or a fear that his friends would come and get me if I hurt him!

Sharing thoughts on peace, love, and vegan cupcakes!