I had a vivid dream last night: I dreamt that my old cat was still alive, and I felt incredibly happy to see him, and said something like, “I’m so glad I have more time to spend with you.” I was making plans to go see him again, as he lived in my parents’ house, or even bring him back to my house.
When I woke up, though, the happy dream made me cry, because then I realised I didn’t have any more time with him, and I felt bitter regret that I wasted the years he was alive.
When I was small, I loved my cat very much, and would spend hours and hours petting him. He was an unbelievably good-natured cat, never acting aggressive towards others, and always seeming to forgive anyone who hurt him accidentally or on purpose.
Somehow, as I grew up, I became more distant from him. I remember that the last few times I saw him, I had this thought that I should interact with him somehow, but feeling this vast emotional chasm between me and him.
I wasn’t living at my parents’ house when he died. But, strangely, I visited almost immediately before. He died one or two days after I left. It seems to have been some way that we had the chance to say goodbye.
Afterwards, I felt crappy for having ignored him so much during his last years. It felt like I had betrayed him, somehow.
Last night, after I woke up from my dream, I tried to connect psychically with his spirit. (I have practised mediumship a little and it seems to work for me when the soul I’m trying to connect with is also making an effort to connect. If this weirds you out, you might also find it interesting to know that I’m transsexual).
I found that the connection was quite easy this time. As some kind of message of acknowledgement and comfort, I felt his paws touch my face lightly.
I also had the impression that the dream itself was a real connection to him. That might have been why it was easy for me to connect; actually the connection had already been established.
I have the feeling that nowadays, if he were still alive, things would be different. I think that great emotional chasm is gone now, and that I could be as close to my cat as I once was, and hope to repair what I had broken.
I have the feeling that I know what caused me to act this way. Although it’s true I went through some years where I was rather emotionally distant from everybody, I think with my cat something beyond that came between us: speciesism.
Nowadays, I have thought quite a lot about systems of oppression. Sexism; racism; heterosexism (the oppression of non-heterosexual people); monosexism (the oppression of bisexual people as distinct from heterosexism alone); cissexism (the oppression of transsexual people). Having transformed from what appeared to be a cis, straight man to a trans, bisexual woman, I have experienced several of these oppressions first-hand.
It is so easy to ignore oppressions when you are not a victim of them; when you are, and especially if you previously were not, they scream out at you.
And the experience of losing privilege led me to ask myself: what oppressions am I now still ignoring because they do not affect me?
There is thin-ism – the oppression of fat people. Ableism – the oppression of those who are less able of body. Binarism – the oppression of those whose gender does not fit into the boxes of male or female, as separate from cissexism alone. Adultism – the oppression of children. Smartism – the oppression of stupid people. And so on.
I’ve spent some time thinking about how I might have been ignoring my privilege in these regards, and have attempted to act more sensitively towards these issues.
And of course, there is speciesism.
Now, I already was vegan for quite some time – first because of health reasons, then because of philosophical reasons, and finally because of compassionate reasons.
The philosophical reasons and the compassionate reasons would have sounded pretty similar. I believe that animals have feelings, and that those feelings matter, and that therefore we shouldn’t kill them — and we should especially not give them surgery without anaesthesia, take their children away, or raise them in tiny cages where they go mad. (These sorts of conditions are inevitable in the modern industrial farming complex, even when buying “organic”, “grass fed”, or “free range”).
However, when these ideas were merely philosophical, I didn’t really feel them. I merely agreed with them mentally. It was only as I discovered my compassion towards animals that I really felt them. My ideas became more balanced then, and I became less inclined to debate and more inclined to simply lay my feelings on the table for anyone who wanted to be inspired by them.
A large part of what let me transition from a philosophical viewpoint to a compassionate one was examining my privilege in regards to animals in much the same way as I have been examining it in regards to other oppressed groups.
For instance, I had previously made a feminist reflection on my use of language, avoiding using the word “girl” when I’m talking about women, and using the gender-neutral singular “they” instead of “he” or “he or she” (which still puts “he” first) when I’m talking about someone whose gender I don’t know.
In the same way, I thought about how language is influencing how I relate with animals. At some point I realised just how weird it was to call animals “it”, as if they were feelingless objects. So I began to try to use “he” or “she” whenever I talked about an animal, or “they” for when I didn’t know their gender. As I talk about my old cat now, it feels hard to imagine how I might have once called him “it”. What a horrible stigma I was laying on him, without even thinking about it.
In the same way, I now use who and someone to refer to animals, rather than what or something.
Besides this, I learned not to use the word “sentient” in a way that excluded animals. “Sentient” literally means feeling, and it is usually used to define a quality that is unique to humans. Some say dolphins are sentient too, and in fiction, aliens or humanoid races who have language are called sentient. But other animals are not considered sentient.
The concept of sentience is loaded with cultural assumptions. It really refers to two things: on the one hand, language and the ability to conceptualise; and on the other hand, the ability to feel. The unchallenged assumption that is built into this word is that if you don’t have language or the ability to conceptualise, you also cannot feel, or at least, your feelings don’t matter. I find this a horrifically speciesist idea. (And if you want to know how indignated I really am, try replacing “speciesist” for “racist” and consider how that word feels).
The word “person” has a similar loaded meaning. “Person” means two things: one, a human; and two, someone who is “sentient” (with all the layers of meaning that that word contains). The implication is ultimately that those who are not humans don’t have feelings.
At one point I mulled this word over for quite some time. I would rather like to be able to call animals “people”, as it would describe the level of respect and importance which I feel for them. However, I would also be implying that they are humans, which many people would object to. For now, I won’t normally use the word “people” in this way, but I think it has been helpful to reflect on my use of the word.
I also learnt from other people who were closer to animals than I. My ex-partner Anja has always been very close to cats, and as I began to see them through Anja’s eyes, I learned to take their feelings and their personalities more seriously. I think when I was small, I very much learnt the idea that animals don’t have feelings and don’t really have personalities, or are at least much less complex than humans are. I had this fear that I would have been laughed at if I talked about an animal like they were some kind of small, language-free person. With Anja, I learnt to be able to think that way and not fear to be laughed at.
I also began to take animals’ needs more seriously. When I saw a dog chained up outside in the cold, I thought about the callousness of the human who kept them there, who would almost certainly argue that dogs don’t have the same need for warmth than humans have. Or one time when I hitchhiked in a truck that was carrying horses, I very gently brought up the topic of how scared and uncomfortable the horses must be in that barren, metal trailer. This was, of course, dismissed with the idea that they were doing just fine. Naturally, someone who worked such a job had to think that. But I didn’t feel so sure.
Imagine my reaction when rat poison was laid down in the building complex me and Anja lived in. Most people would have read the little notice regarding that and not batted an eyelid. But me and Anja thought about how it must be like to die in horrible pain, just for the sake of some people’s aesthetic preferences.
And what about animal testing and experimentation? While I don’t know if there is no situation in which experimenting on animals could be consistent with a compassionate perspective, I know that most of the times when it happens nowadays it is not. I uneasily thought about what we would have to do if we respected animals on an equal level to humans. Perhaps animals can sometimes be better than humans for those experiments that really are necessary, but if so there is the problematic issue of their inability to give consent.
I do see a difference between killing an animal and killing a human. I also see differences between those and harming insects and plants (which I believe have feelings). I think for me the difference has to do with their lifespan, and perhaps something harder to define like life energy or life purpose.
However, most people have absolutely no respect for animals. I think there is a difference between balancing your needs with that of others, and completely disregarding the needs of others.
Overall, I see that speciesism teaches us that animals are objects, and to ignore or discount their feelings. In lesser ways, different systems of oppression do the same thing: sexism allows women’s bodies to be bought and sold through prostitution or marriage; racism once enabled people to be bought and sold as slaves, and currently causes many to still discount their feelings as less important.
To break out of speciesism, we must challenge this idea that animals don’t feel, don’t matter, are not intelligent, and are objects. We must see them as they really are: creatures much the same as us, just without the ability to speak or conceptualise. They may be less intelligent than us in a conventional, IQ sense, but there are many forms of intelligence, and even then, they are usually smarter in the conventional sense than we give them credit for.
You probably understand what I mean when I say this now: animals are people.
Yes, I know they are not humans. But they are people.
I believe that by challenging and breaking down my speciesism, I finally broke down this emotional chasm I had between me and my cat. Though he is not here anymore, I feel that things are better between us. I think I need to heal a little more still, but at the very least I can feel for him again. Feel for him as a creature, as a person, not a feelingless object.
I think it would have been much harder to do this without being vegan. I think the practice of meat eating more or less necessitates speciesism. If you thought about killing and eating any of the other oppressed groups I mentioned in this article, you’d get what I mean.
“But they are animals, not humans!” you might say. “That is why we can eat them!”
To which I would say, or think at least, because most people wouldn’t understand what I meant: “They are people.”