I recently attended an animal rights symposium at my university’s law school which addressed a wide variety of issues from animal agriculture to hunting and wildlife rights. The final keynote speaker left a lasting impression on me and made a fascinating connection between violence towards animals and violence towards people. This link sheds light on a common critique we often receive from vegan skeptics: why focus our efforts on animal suffering when we live in a world still plagued by violent war and immense suffering of humans?
The keynote speaker at the symposium, Geoff Fleck, is an attorney who tries cases of white-collar crime and felony cases of violent crimes, including homicides. His larger passion, however, is the prosecution of animal cruelty cases; he has prosecuted over 50 of these cases in the past year alone. Despite his often grim career, Fleck has a remarkable sense of humor and a bright, contagious optimism that was truly inspiring. Although his presentation was replete with heart-wrenching images and facts about violence against animals and people, the audience was somehow left feeling hopeful.
Fleck began his talk with the assertion that animal rights are the new form of Civil Rights; instead of fighting racism, animal rights activists target speciesism, a form of discrimination that is founded on the assumption of human superiority over non-human animals. Fleck contends that speciesism follows the same patterns as other forms of domination of the weak by the strong, and is enmeshed in a very, very long history of the mistreatment of slaves, wives and women, children, the mentally infirm and the physically disabled. Vulnerability has always led to abuse, he offered, and the weakest therefore need the most protection by the state. A quote by Gandhi was fitting: “the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.”
The link between violence to animals and violence to humans is so well established, Fleck added, that it is now simply referred to as “the link”. Hundreds of pages of scholarly literature have been dedicated to this topic, and the statistics he offered us made the connection abundantly clear.
According to one study, Fleck said, seventy-five percent of violent offenders (to humans) had prior records of cruelty to animals. Another study found that 25% of aggressive inmates had committed five or more cases of animal abuse as children. Pet abuse is one of the four main indicators of domestic partner abuse (along with drug and alcohol addiction and lack of high school education). 36% of serial killers were cruel to animals as children, 46% as adolescents, and 36% adults. In another study, 32% of children living in homes where domestic violence occurred abused animals. And here was the most shocking: if an animal is being abused in a household, 88% of the time a child is also being abused.
All of this tells us that violence is violence, whether it is committed against a human or a non-human animal. It shares a common root, somewhere deep in the core of human existence. Both forms of violence—towards humans or animals—can be passed down from parents to children, and one form often translates into the other. Both forms are perpetuated by a culture which has come to normalize violence.
I frequently debate with one of my professors about the ethics of eating meat. Recently he argued that his problem with the vegan position is the overt or implied evangelical superiority when we’re still killing each other over war. Once we’ve solved that problem, he said, we can turn to the issue of eating meat.
Evangelical superiority aside, the facts above illustrate that this divide between war and our current system of meat production and consumption is not so clear cut. We should not and cannot wait to end animal cruelty until we’re no longer killing each other; the two forms of violence are one in the same. They are fundamentally linked.
The good news is that, because this link exists, progress on one front means progress on the other. Leo Tolstoy said “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields.” Whether we succeed in lessening cruelty to animals (eliminating the slaughterhouse) or violence against humans (erasing battlefields), we begin to break down that entrenched system of domination of the weak by the strong that has inflicted so much pain on billions of beings for thousands of years.