The consequences of love and compassion?

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God … and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature … was a contradiction in itself.

John Woolman, 1772

If it is right that we should show love and compassion for people, surely it is right that we should extend our love and compassion to animals, who can feel fear and experience pain in much the same way as humans. They may not be able to speak, but we can certainly see fear in their eyes and demeanour. I feel that being a vegetarian is a natural progression from being a pacifist and a Quaker.

Vera Haley, 1988

I have been troubled for years over this question of vegetarianism. For much of my life of course I worked with dairy herds, and believed strongly, and thoughtfully, in what I was doing. Contrary to some more extreme vegan opinion, cows are well cared for on most British dairy farms, and on the whole are loved by those who look after them. And yet it cannot be denied that the dairy industry depends upon the slaughter of animals: on the slaughter of bull calves (whether as calves or after rearing to 18 months or two years as beef animals), on the slaughter of “cull cows”, those too old or unfit to carry on bearing a calf each year and doing the undoubtedly hard work of giving milk twice (or occasionally three times) a day for 305 days a year.

Much the British landscape we cherish as natural is in fact formed by grazing sheep and cattle. The rolling downland and the open moors alike would be scrubland were it not for livestock. Thousands upon thousands of acres of hill farm are only productive due to the grazing of animals.

(I don’t propose here to go into the vexed environmental questions of land use, water consumption, methane production, and the relative merits of animal waste, green manure, and artificial fertilisers. There are many good arguments on each side; all that needs saying here is that the British livestock industry does think about these things, and much work is being done, especially on the increasing number of organic farms, to minimise the adverse, and increase the beneficial environmental effects of the industry.)

I find though that increasingly I cannot see “the animal kingdom” as something separate from humanity, over which we have some kind of inalienable right. Sentimentality helps no-one here, not the petting-zoo nor the noble-hunter variety, nor even the animal-rights-extremist kind. We do owe to our sister and brother animals our love and compassion, and it is hard to understand much of the work of commercial slaughterhouses in terms of love and compassion. The longer I go on with contemplative practice, the closer I find myself to all sentient creatures, from those we see as “less evolved”, like insects and spiders, to the higher mammals, and all in between. I don’t feel I can sidestep, or ignore, these things; but equally I can’t evade thinking, and feeling, and praying, them through by signing on any party line, whether vegan or the opposite. (Incidentally, ovo-lacto-vegetarianism makes no sense to me – see my own first paragraph above.)

I suppose I shall have to go on trying to work this through. Your prayers would be appreciated, though – it is getting to be an urgent and painful pressure. Somehow I must reconcile my ever-growing heart of compassion for my fellow creatures with what I know to be true about the way we find the food on which we, such numbers of us, live.

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