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Some We Love, Some We Eat

The recent Netflix blockbuster My Octopus Teacher chronicles a mutual relationship between a man and one of the world’s most bizarre looking animals – an octopus. It also lays bare our highly conflicted relationship with non-human animals. Some we fear, some we love, and some we eat.

How It All Begins

Our relationship with animals begins upon birth. Toy animals are the very first objects we handle. Our favorite fairy tales revolve around animal lives. Our family dog gives us unconditional love, when our schoolmates or even our siblings may not.

We receive social permission to discriminate and abuse animals when our parent tells us that the dog on our couch is to be loved, taken care of, and played with, but the pig on our plate is to be tormented, slaughtered, and consumed. We abide by this social norm even though we are well aware that all animals share many of our own feelings of joy, affection, sadness, and grief, as well as our ability to suffer.

We now know that similar social norms foster discrimination and oppression among people because of their skin color, nationality, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Who Survives the Sinking Boat

Nothing illustrates our conflicted relationship with animals as well as the vastly differing valuations we place on different animal lives.

We are frequently told that people are more important than animals, and that we should not compare mass killings of people and animals.

But we fail to apply that norm when it comes to our own “pet” – dog, cat, or horse. People have run into burning buildings to save their pets. If our dog and a Sudanese child were competing for life-saving surgery funds, our dog would get to live.  In the apocryphal story of us, our dog, and a stranger on a sinking boat big enough for two, the stranger should wear a life jacket.

But there is more… We love our pets, yet support other pets being “euthanized” in our neighborhood “shelters.” We set up bird feeders in our back yard, then let our cat outdoor to kill the birds. We have pet snakes, then feed them live mice. Hunters love their dogs, then use them as accomplices to hunt and kill other animals. We subsidize the tormenting and killing of cows, pigs, and chickens, yet condemn East Asians who accord the same treatment to animals we call pets. And, the most basic contradiction of all – we love some animals and eat others.

We Love Predators

As part of our conflicted relationship with animals, we hold a strange fascination for predators in the animal kingdom.

In the aquatic world, we love the orcas (also known as killer whales), who dine on baby whales, dolphins, cute seals, playful sea otters, and lovable penguins. But whales, dolphins, seals, sea otters, and penguins eat other animals too. The vast beds of kelp and other sea vegetation are left to crustaceans, snails, sea turtles, and jelly fish, who are too slow to catch anything that moves.

On land, most of us do oppose the hunting of deer, antelope, gazelles, zebras, wildebeest, and other grazers. But we really get bent out of shape when the hunt involves a predator like a lion, tiger, or wolf.

In the sky, we hold great admiration for eagles, hawks, ospreys, falcons, and owls – all birds of prey.

Even in our home, we prefer flesh-eating dogs, cats, and ferrets to plant-crunching rabbits, guinea pigs, or hamsters.

Other than that, we tend to relate well to animals who look like us, like our pets, or like the animals in our story books. This is precisely what made the My Octopus Teacher documentary so remarkable and captivating.

Ending Animal Exploitation

Historically, our relationship with animals has been based almost entirely on their exploitation – for labor, for transportation, for food, for clothing, for experimentation, and for entertainment.

It would be so rewarding to claim that the extent of exploitation has been vastly reduced because of advances in our moral standing, but that has not been the case. Instead, the key factor has been advances in technology, mostly beginning with the end of the 19th century.

That’s when invention of the telephone and telegraph liberated homing pigeons from communication slavery. That’s when invention of the steam engine and development of railroads, liberated horses from long distance hauling. That’s when invention of the diesel engine liberated more horses, mules, and other animals from agricultural labor. That’s when invention of the gasoline engine liberated still more horses from carriage duty.

More recently, development of synthetic fibers has reduced the demand for leather, wool, feathers, and silk. Advances in computer simulations, use of cell cultures, and other breakthroughs have reduced the use of primates, dogs, rabbits, and rats in experimentation, testing, and education. The explosive growth in television programming has reduced the demand for animal spectacles.

But, the biggest and most consequential technological advance to end animal exploitation has only just begun. The replacement of animal flesh, milk, and eggs with plant-based and cell-based products will spare billions of cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys from atrocious abuse and death.

A Closing Note

We pride ourselves on being intelligent, rational beings. We have gone to the Moon, stored the world’s knowledge on a data card, developed the Internet, unraveled and modified genetic codes, and cured deadly diseases. Yet, most of us are terribly conflicted about our relationship with non-human animals and the natural world.

Vegans are not. We are not afflicted by the troubling cognitive dissonance between our feelings, beliefs, and actions. We practice compassion and respect for all sentient beings. That’s how we relate to animals.

The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Farm Animal Rights Movement

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17 thoughts on “Latest Post”

  1. Incredible what you experienced over your lifetime. A true survivor and someone who has dedicated a lifetime to saving lives. I’m going to subscribe to your blog.

  2. Thank you so much for this. Very wise words that must be spread and shared. Many people will not want to hear these words because they don’t want to think of themselves as bad people but the animals depend on us to share.

    1. I don’t think anyone but a survivor could openly own and say this, without being totally shamed by so many, because it sounds disrespectful, but I totally agree,I’ve used those rotten comparisons in my mind,and you sir have the ultimate right to shout that out. My respect for you sir, immense. Thank you for your compassion for the defenceless.

  3. Dr Hershaft is one of the very few who can refer to the Holocaust when referring to animal rights. To the best of my knowledge PETA previously drew comparison and it caused controversy.


      I am very happy to meet you, even if it’s on the computer. I have thought for many years that in order for there to be peace in the world, we have to stop killing and eating animals. We have to start with the animals and work our way along our paths to people. It’s horrible what we do to animals not even giving the smallest thought to the suffering we are causing them. I am not without guilt in this area as I ate animal flesh for the first forty years of my life until I met my husband to be who was a vegetarian. Now we are both vegetarians, but we do eat frozen yogurt and ice cream causing suffering to cows. I am now pledging to become a vegan and hope I will have the willpower to stay a vegan. Since I am now 83 years old, I will have to begin again doing some cooking as vegan food, I’ve found, is difficult to find. So I said to myself, this is too hard. So wish me well that I can stick to a vegan diet.

  4. Carla Sofia Salas

    THANK YOU só much for speak for animals and for show to the world the meaning of what they eat, and that a steak in your dish is more than a piece.of meat and potatoes! It’s a dead body part of a living being who had a cruelty life and a brutally dead!
    We are what we eat!

  5. Hi.
    What you quoted as similar between Holocaust and animal slaughter, stems from both been brought to us by same people. Modern “farming ” and slaughter comes from Germany and was brought to the States by Germans who went to live there. Four years after Neuremburg, all the scientists sentenced to death were freed and brought to America. They became CEOs in all the mayor companies, including pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.

    However, how can you compare what is done to animals, though wrong, to the Holocaust? By doing so you disgrace your parents’ memory, which is up to you, but also that of all the others who were murdered. It cheapens the Holocaust and is especially insulting because you mention your parents died there. I really don’t think it helps the cause either.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Nicole.
      The Holocaust and killing animals for food are two manifestations of the common capacity of otherwise normal people for committing unspeakable acts. The victims are not comparable, because we relate to them differently, but the oppressive mindsets, sanctioned by prevailing social norms, are amazingly similar.

      Please don’t presume how I should deal with my parents’ memory.

  6. Thank you Dr Hershaft for this very moving informative piece, I have read it twice so far. I agree that animals must think of us as Nazis but I think not all animals because some animals are in sanctuaries but unfortunately very few compared to the many billions of land animals murdered unnecessarily for food every year and trillions of sea life. I became a vegetarian in 1979 merging into veganism by 1999. In 1981 I went to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on a 2 week trip to Israel with my husband & his parents, some of what I saw at that museum is still in my mind now. Some years later we visited the Holocaust Jewish Museum in Sydney & later still I became a member of the museum. Thank you again Dr Hershaft.

  7. Thank you so much, Dr. Hershaft, for your words and thoughts and for sharing them with us. You show us how similar the victims were/are tortured and killed, and you can do this, because you know what you are talking about. Though the victims are different, the methods of torment are more equal than different. We have to stop the wars against other beings, any war against any being. It is not humanlike and we can do it better. The first step is very easy: GO VEGAN (and talk about it)! Best wishes from Germany and stay healthy.

  8. Thank you, Alex, for your heartfelt expression of what I have known for at least 30 years. Your beautiful testimonial underscores why I became a vegan over 26 years ago while in college (27 as of New Year’s Day 2021). As a Reform Jew who experienced ample anti-Semitism throughout my formative years, I can’t stand to see anyone subject to bigotry of any kind. I have no tolerance for moral hypocrisy that segregates non-humans from our moral sphere simply based on their different species, as if we should only respect the dignity of humans, and all other beings are legitimately exploitable for any purpose. I believe Tikkun Olam, the Jewish principle that advocates “healing the world” by definition must include veganism as a moral imperative. The notion of intersectionality also must include non-human beings in our moral community, lest we undermine the values we claim to uphold. As an agnostic Jew, I prioritize moral consistency over superstition. I don’t celebrate Jewish holidays or attend synagogue for Shabbat as I did when I was younger, though I had a Bar-Mitzvah and Confirmation, but I cannot accept any self-described Jew who consumes non-humans, has no qualms about vivisection and other myriad abominations against non-humans so ubiquitous in our daily lives as being consistent with Jewish values. Mohandas Gandhi advised us to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “No one is free when others are oppressed.” I am personally offended by anyone, especially Jews, who proclaim that comparing non-human animal exploitation to the Nazi Holocaust “cheapens the memory” of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Third Reich. This is patently hypocritical and willfully ignorant, particularly when most of us know firsthand what bigotry feels like. This is exactly why I rebel against all true bigotry, regardless of who the subjects of such discrimination happen to be.

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