Last September George Hook stated, in two consecutive radio shows, that he did not believe that other animals can feel and as a consequence he does not mind what we do to them. Ignoring my texts, emails and telephone calls to the radio station, Mr Hook refused to hear strong contradictory evidence and a voice in defence of the animal beings he refuses to acknowledge. The following article was submitted to the Irish Times and Irish Independent, but failed to be published in either. The Irish Times suggested that I write a letter to the editor. That also failed to be published. Interested readers can access the original radio interviews here (Day 1: Go to 25:07 Day 2: Go to 48:25)

Irish Farming & the Myth of the Superior Human

While we celebrated the myth of productive farming at the ploughing championships in September, and while our Government envisions a huge increase in the production of animal foods in the Food Harvest 2020, we are closing our eyes to some important facts. The fact, for instance, that animal agriculture accounts for as much as 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that it is harmful to soil, water and air; that it has virtually obliterated wilderness and the forests that the earth needs; and that it is one of the most significant contributors to destruction of the planet that we depend on for our survival.

We eat according to the myth that animal foods are essential for human survival despite the growing body of scientific evidence that points to the contrary. All the major world dietetics organisations have issued position statements that vouch for the adequacy and health benefits of well planned vegan, plant-based diets from infancy to old age, including for those with special dietary needs such as athletes. Evidence also suggests that a plant based diet has the potential to treat and even reverse conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

George Hook spoke to Fianna Fail Spokesperson on Agriculture, Éamon Ó Cuív at the National Ploughing Championships event (The Right Hook, Newstalk, 24th September, 2014) in an interview that echoed these myths. George Hook stated that he can barely associate a litre of milk with the cow it came from. He is not alone in his dissociation from the fact that milk is produced by mammals and that both cows and humans, being mammals, share the same emotional bond that enables them, as mothers to care for and ensure the survival of their babies. Nor is he alone in his lack of conscious awareness that the litre of milk on the supermarket shelf is the end product that necessitated forcible artificial impregnation of the cow, followed by loss of her newborn calf shortly after birth, so that the milk she lactates can be sold to humans who think they need it. A survey conducted by the UK charity, LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) in 2012 demonstrated that a significant percentage of young adults are unaware of the origins of their food. A third of those surveyed were unaware that eggs are laid by hens, and less than half indicated knowledge that steak is the muscle tissue of cows.

This begs the question as to how and why this dissociation exists. It is very likely that if people connected with the sentient animals who suffer for the food that most of us consume, there would be a vastly reduced market for animal foods.

Mr Hook voiced another very significant myth in his interview with Minister Ó Cuív when he stated his disbelief in the ability of other animals to feel pain. Although a basic knowledge of biology quickly dispels the notion that animal life could survive without the capacity to avoid pain, Mr Hook is not alone in his erroneous belief. A study published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2010 revealed that that 30% of the population of Norwegian Dairy Farmers assessed did not believe that cows feel pain just as humans do, or that conditions such as bone fracture, joint injuries and arthritis, labour difficulties, mastitis and pneumonia cause the same suffering to other animals as they cause to humans.

Astonishingly, Minister Ó Cuív, who hardly lacks the knowledge that in 2009 the EU ratified the Lisbon Treaty granting some legal status to animals by virtue of their sentient capacity to feel pain and to suffer, failed utterly to correct George Hook’s mistaken belief about animal sentience. Scientific fact, rather than socio-cultural myth, demonstrates that other animals share the same neurobiological mechanisms that make us conscious and enable us to feel pain and pleasure. There is clear evidence that our use of other animals results in their suffering. Myths are sustained by advertising that depicts laughing animals who willingly hand us slices of their slaughtered bodies or glasses of their children’s milk, with no reference to the gruesome fact of slaughterhouse deaths or the terrible grief of mothers and their young when they are separated.

It is a sad fact that we regard ourselves as the superior species with a higher intelligence, yet we believe myths that enable us to deprive others of their right to liberty and life and that enable us to live in ways that cause immense suffering. Myth allows us to inflict legal, brutal mutilations on farmed animals. Myth allows us to believe that our consumption of the reproductive cycles of hens is more important than their need to fly, run, jump, have dust baths, form relationships, hatch and rear their young, and live to the natural end of their lives. Myth allows us to believe that hens lay eggs for us on a daily basis, when fact tells us that hens, in the natural state, only lay two clutches a year that they raise as their children. Myth allows us to gas or grind alive day old male chickens because they don’t profit the egg industry. Myth allows us to imagine that the lives of others are not as meaningful to them as our lives are to us, and condones our condemnation of them to short, miserable lives lived in cramped confinement with thousands of their comrades without ever feeling grass beneath their feet, or, in George Hook’s words, without ever seeing the light of day.

Every life is precious to the one whose life it is, regardless of species. It is time we emerged from the dark age of the myth of human superiority and began living according to fact. There is no shortage of scientific fact on the sentience of other animals. There is a growing body of literature that helps explain our ethical obligation to accord other animals their right to life free from human exploitation. There is a concomitant growing body of information on how to live a responsible vegan lifestyle that has benefits for the environment and for all life, including our own and other human life. We have no excuse left for the myth of the superior human.

Sandra Higgins BSc (Hons) Psych, MSc Couns Psych
Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary
Matilda’s Promise Animal Rights & Vegan Education Centre