PETA President: It’s Time to Relate to What’s on Our Plate

In an exclusive op-ed, Ingrid E. Newkirk asks: Why do we feel compassion for our pets, but not the animals we’re eating?

Are farm animals any different from household pets? Ingrid E. Newkirk argues we should value them equally. (Photo: Tooga/Getty Images)

Aug 30, 2012· 3 MIN READ

There’s a story behind the banner that hangs on the fence outside the PETA office just up the street from the White House. The banner shows an angelic cat’s face. In fact, she’s so appealing that if you are drawn to cats, or if, as my friend says, “cats make you crazy,” you fall in love with her at once. But her body isn’t that of a cat’s—it’s a hen’s. The slogan on the banner reads, “If you wouldn’t eat your cat, why eat a chicken?”

Washington is full of people from other countries. They can’t eat dogs and cats and monkeys here, but back home some of them, from quite a few different nations, may look forward to winter stew made from dogs strung up and even beaten to death. They may pick out a live cat from a hanging cage in their corner market as we would choose an avocado. It’s a way of eating that’s uncomfortable for most Westerners to think about. Why then is it any better, here in the U.S., to eat other animals with whom we are not as familiar, except after they have been disjointed, their innards have been removed, and they are served up as nuggets or an ingredient in a stew.

We ask—or wish we had the courage to ask—the dog eaters to consider that dogs are wonderful, to realize that they feel pain as acutely as any human being does, and that they get scared, show affection, and are really intelligent. We talk of how loyal and loving dogs are, how they have won medals in times of war, and how the average dog can understand more than 200 words of our language without being taught even one word, while we understand nothing of their language. We would shake our heads in dismay if the listener said, “Yes, that may be, but I like the taste of dog too much to stop eating it.”

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Of course, studies show that chickens are as smart as monkeys; there are stories of pigs who rescue drowning people at great risk to their own lives; and mother cows will jump a high fence and trek for miles to reunite with a beloved calf who has been taken away from her—just as slave women did years ago to reach their own children sold off to another plantation.

So, shouldn’t we, too, try to relate to who’s on our plate?

The story behind the banner involves a PETA volunteer named Olive and Olive’s cat, Moggie, who loved her and whom she loved back.

Olive was a terrific advocate for justice: women’s rights, civil rights—the lot. She engaged people at every turn. She believed in the principle of justice for all, and she argued knowledgably about equal consideration, sentience, and the history of social progress. When it came to animals, she described their suffering on factory farms, the mutilation, the horrible transport conditions, and their experience at slaughter. She gave out vegetarian recipes and fliers, spoke convincingly of the health and environmental reasons to stop consuming meat and milk, and showed how easy it is to find egg replacers and nondairy milks and cheeses that were not stolen from a cow. However, Olive was convinced that no one had ever become a vegetarian because of her. No one. And that depressed her.

One day, Olive ran into a former neighbor who had moved away years earlier. As they chatted, the woman remarked to Olive, “By the way, I’m a vegetarian now.” Olive was so flabbergasted that her diplomacy failed her. “You?!” she exclaimed. “I’d never have thought it.” “It was something you said once, Olive,” the woman replied. “Once, you were looking at Moggie, and you said, “I’d never eat a cat, so how could I ever eat any other animal?” The woman continued, “Olive, I could never get that idea out of my head.”

It is bad luck for certain animals, to put it mildly, that some human beings have never come to know them, just as it was bad luck for explorers to come across cannibalistic tribes who did not think of them as anything other than edible. Perhaps we can do our best to get the idea into as many heads as possible that killing others and stealing what belongs to them isn’t greedy and nasty just when it involves those we relate to most; it is also wrong when it involves those we don’t as readily relate to. It’s wrong on principle. Surely, no fleeting taste or food craving can ever justify our turning away from the facts: None of us wishes to suffer and be slaughtered, no matter which body we are in.

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