Opinion / 3 June 2019

The Necessity of Suffering

"Don’t do that. It hurts the goat."

A few years ago, my boyfriend and I went to a small family farm to do something neither of us had ever done before: to buy a billy goat and a lamb.

We were acting as intermediaries for a Slovenian farm animal sanctuary that wanted to save the pair from being slaughtered. There were not just those two animals – there were a bunch of others whose lives we could not save. We were standing at the enclosure, looking at the baby goats and lambs playing, knowing that they’ll be dead – slaughtered – very soon. It was an emotionally daunting and a very bitter scene. And then there were the farmer’s children there, among those animals, feeding them. One of them, a four-year-old, picked a bit of grass and put it on a goat’s back. I’ll never forget the response of his mother. She grabbed the child by the hand, saying: ‘Don’t do that. It hurts him’. Needless to say, we could not persuade her to spare that exact billy goat from slaughter or to stop further impregnation of the two mother goats living on a farm and sending their babies to slaughter, so she and her family could take their milk for themselves.

This is not an extreme case of cognitive dissonance, though it may seem like it. This sort of cognitive dissonance is, in fact, our cultural default. For example: There is something called ‘cruelty free’ cosmetics. Those products can legitimately be made out of snails, crushed bugs or body parts and fat from different non-human animals – from whales to cow foetuses. ‘Cruelty free’ just means that the product wasn’t tested on non-human animals; it can, however, also mean that some sentient creature died, so you can smash that anti-aging cream or whatnot onto your face, thank you very much.

Much in the same fashion, there is also a strong tendency to say that factory farming is wrong, that slaughterhouses should be closed, that ritualised slaughter (like the ‘koline' pig slaughter tradition in Slovenia) is barbaric, that hunters are horrible macho killers, that Muslims with their halal slaughter are savages, that Chinese people who eat dogs are cruel and should probably die the same horrific way as those dogs and that we should all skin those awful people who wear fur and make clothes out of their skin.

Nope, people don’tl ike to be cruel to animals. We love animals – don’t we? And at the same time, yes, we should, by all means, defend our precious culture, never let those aggressive vegans tell us what to do and just kill non-human animals humanely, without any cruelty. But I’m still yet to hear a solid argument on how you can kill a sentient being, one who doesn’t want to die, and label the act humane. (Defined as ‘with human feeling or kindness’).

The most important question here obviously is: What is cruelty? It can be defined as ‘indifference to suffering or pleasure in inflicting suffering’. When we discuss cruelty to animals, it is a term that is most often associated with ‘better living conditions’ for farm animals, ‘anti-testing’ and ‘anti-fur’ campaigns and concern for well-being of ‘non-animals’ we put into category of ‘pet’. But law facilitates another definition of cruelty to non-human animals; the law often defines it as ‘unnecessary suffering’, which raises the question of what would then constitute necessary suffering.

In our society, we often present killing non-human animals for food, clothes and a variety of everyday products like cosmetics as this ‘necessity’, but is it really so? We don’t need animal products for survival. In fact, research shows that we may actually be better off without it. And we certainly don’t need non-human animal skin for clothing or shoes or cosmetics. In addition to that, we know today that animal agriculture has a major negative impact on our environment and the same goes for fishing, that is ravaging the oceans.

Not only is industry that results in killing non-human animals by no means a necessity; it is actually harmful for us, for wild and captive non-human animals and for the environment. So, if we are dealing with unnecessary suffering that we’re inflicting quite indifferently, this is, by our own definition, cruelty.

But what – at least to me – seems the ‘cruellest’ is the indifference that ‘good people’ everywhere express toward those cognitive dissonances, toward our representations of non-human animals as mere assets and our merciless killings of untold billions of non-human sentient creatures annually. Normally people can see that killing can never really exclude some sort of suffering, when we kill someone who doesn’t want to die.

This shows that the very concept of ‘cruelty free’ can often incorporate cruel practices. If we really want to be ‘cruelty free’, we should start by not being indifferent to all kinds of suffering.