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We treat animals as things to be used: As food, as pets, as creatures to be gawked at in captivity. In an environmental and moral crisis, we need to find a better way

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Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist. Her latest book is Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls.

In the centre of the table is a box of Kleenex and several books about grief. The overhead lights are harsh, clinical, unflattering to our pink and wet eyes. There are four of us gathered there, and three are blubbering.

About our dead cats.

You didn’t expect that, did you? Grieving over a human, fine. Over a dog, maybe. Dogs are noble and stalwart. Cats are sly and opportunistic, with one eye on the food bowl and one on the next chance. If you were to ask a human to draw a chain of mammalian hierarchy, it might go something like this: humans > primates > dogs > cats > anything I put in my stomach.

And yet here we are, blubbering. I’ve dragged my friend to this meeting of the Toronto Pet Loss Support Group, over his protests, and now he’s outlining in beautiful and moving detail the recent death of the cat he and his partner had loved deeply. They had rescued the cat and his brother, who were both living with Feline HIV. Now both cats are dead in the prime of their lives, and my friend has a balled-up tissue in his hand.

I’m sitting with my own shredded Kleenex, and a line from Love Story, slightly twisted, keeps running through my head: What can you say about a 15-year-old cat who died? That he was beautiful (true) and brilliant (a bit of a stretch, though his rodent-killing skills were top notch).

His name was Perdu, and yes, he did get lost a lot. Or at least he wandered away and came back when it suited him. He was black, but turned a lovely rusty brown in the summer. He was our kids’ first and oldest friend. We got him as a kitten from our neighbour one hot summer day in London, and 15 years later, he died in my arms while I bawled and the very kind vet looked discreetly away.

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Elizabeth Renzetti's late cat, Perdu.Courtesy of Elizabeth Renzetti

He was “just” a cat, and when I told people I was going to a pet-loss support meeting they looked at me as if I had grown a second, slightly furry head. But that gathering gave me a chance to mourn Perdu, and think about animals in general, and the central place they hold in our lives. And the place we hold in theirs – a position of mastery and dominance, with humans always on top. We are so desperate for their company that we slap little jackets on squirrels and corgis and call them “emotional support animals” because we can’t bear to be apart from them for the length of a flight. We will spend thousands keeping some of them alive, if they live in a house, and put others on a grill, if they live on a farm.

It makes no sense, when you think about it. Canadians spent $8.3-billion on their pets in 2017, a figure that has been steadily rising for years. Forty per cent of Canadian households have either one cat or one dog. There are 8.3 million pet cats in this country, and 8.2 million pet dogs. Yet, we also killed 819 million livestock animals last year. A good number of those I put in my own belly, because until now I have subscribed to the doctrine that my old roommate once taped to our fridge: Remember your place in the food chain.

Unthinkingly, most of us follow a belief system that could be described as human supremacy. Well, except for the half-million or so vegans in the country. Animals exist at our pleasure. We hunt them or raise them to be slaughtered, gawk at them in zoos and test mascara on them to make sure it won’t burn our eyes. The lucky ones live beside us, on our couches, and we sprinkle their ashes under their favourite tree when they die.

What if the era of human supremacy is coming to an end? What if, a century from now, we look back on the idea of keeping animals captive and eating their flesh with revulsion? If the human race survives, that is. Intensive animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, and consumers’ desire to reduce meat consumption in the Western world has led to the explosive growth of plant-based meat alternatives. At the same time, there is a growing movement toward giving animals legal rights, so that they can be represented as individuals in court.

One day those of us who live in the Western world may realize the need to achieve some kind of greater harmony with our fellow species, one that does not rely on dominance and exploitation. If our robot overlords haven’t made us their pets, that is, as Elon Musk predicted. That would be poetic justice.

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On my way to meet animal-rights activist Jenny McQueen at a vegan café in Toronto’s east end, I pass a man asking his dog, “Are you stressed?” I also pass Pets at Peace, a pet crematorium, and I realize with a lurch that may be the place where Perdu was reduced to, in the vet’s words, “cremains.” (They’re sitting on my bookshelf at the moment, next to his pawprint pressed in clay.)

Ms. McQueen sits at the front of the café surrounded by pamphlets portraying the suffering of chickens and pigs and sled dogs. In October of 2018, she woke before dawn to the sound of banging on her window and shouts of “police!” She let the officers in and they led her out in handcuffs. They took her phone and camera and laptop. At the station, she was charged with breaking and entering and mischief over $5,000.

“I’ve been in handcuffs a few times, all for animal rights,” Ms. McQueen says. Her accent puts her place of origin in Liverpool, and her t-shirt reveals her avocation: It says Direct Action Everywhere, the U.S.-based animal-liberation group that is devoted to exposing the practices of industrial livestock farming and “to openly rescu[ing] animals from places of violence.” Of course, one man’s enslaved animal is another man’s property, and when Ms. McQueen “liberated” two piglets from a sow farm in Ontario, she brought down the wrath of the law. Which was part of the plan.

In 2016, Ms. McQueen and fellow activists entered the Adare Pork Ltd. pig barn, armed with cameras. They documented what Ms. McQueen called “shocking” conditions, including “dead piglets everywhere.” She reported what she’d found to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But much of what she found is in fact industry standard – gestation crates in which pigs cannot turn around have been prohibited in Canada since 2014, but only for newly built facilities, not for ones that already exist.

Ms. McQueen was not only willing to be a martyr for the pigs’ sake, she was hoping to be one. “I wanted a full trial. I wanted a platform for the animals. That’s what it’s all about.’’ A trial might draw worldwide attention, which happened when fellow activist Anita Krajnc was tried in 2017 on public-mischief charges after she gave water to pigs on their way to an Ontario slaughterhouse (the judge dismissed the charges). Ms. McQueen was frustrated when the Crown dropped the charges against her, but she is involved with other animal-protection causes, including fighting the practice of adorning parkas with coyote fur, and flesh-shaming a guy who runs a popular barbecue joint (she persuaded him to carry the Beyond Burger vegan option, on a separate grill from the meat).

As I leave, Ms. McQueen gives me the pamphlets. I don’t particularly want to look at them. I eat meat – although much less than I used to – and my guilt cup runneth over. Love some animals; eat others. This is the air we breathe from the first delicious whiff of hot dog cut into tiny non-chokeable bits. It is a cognitive dissonance we live with.

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Elizabeth Renzetti eats much less meat than she used to.Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

In an academic paper called The Psychology of Eating Animals, this dissonance is known as the “meat-eaters paradox.” The academics who wrote the paper, Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam and Brock Bastian, note that people who eat the most meat are tied more to authoritarian tendencies and “social dominance orientation” – i.e., they know their place on the food chain and don’t wake up in a cold sweat about it.

On the question of how we can hold a burger in one hand and Bubba’s leash in the other, the authors suggest that we humans are very good at compartmentalizing. The more “mindful” we believe an animal to be, and the more capable of suffering, the less likely we are to want to eat that animal. The authors performed an experiment where they gave test subjects nuts or beef to eat, and then asked them afterward about cows’ capacity for suffering. “We found that participants who had recently consumed beef, but not nuts, restricted their moral concern for animals and rated the cow as less able to suffer.”

But not only do cows suffer, they also “feel” in a more traditional way than we are willing to recognize. As neuroscientist and animal advocate Lori Marino recently wrote in Aeon magazine, experiments on livestock demonstrate their inner lives: Sheep and cows can distinguish individuals among other sheep and cows, for example, and lambs and calves are better-adjusted if they have longer, closer bonds with their mothers. As she writes, “the scientific literature on everyone from pigs to chickens points to one conclusion: farmed animals are someone, not something.”

The Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal has spent decades studying the inner lives of mammals, a vocation that earned him scorn from fellow scientists early in his career. In his latest bestseller, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, chimpanzees cherish friendship and rats display empathy. Wilfully ignoring the complexity of animals’ social behaviour is a form of human supremacy he calls “anthropodenialism.” Dr. de Waal writes, “To me the question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long.”

If we accept that animals not only can suffer but also experience what we call fellow-feeling, then we humans are indeed in a pickle. “If animals are like rocks, we can throw them onto a heap and stomp on them,” Dr. de Waal writes. “If they are not, however, we have a serious moral dilemma on our hands. In this era of factory farming, animal sentience is the elephant in the room.”

The inability to recognize the inherent value of other sentient beings, apart from the use we can extract from them, is a fundamental people thing. “Human beings are speciesist,” writes the moral philosopher Peter Singer in his seminal 1975 book Animal Liberation. Not only that, we’ve been trying to justify our place on the apex from toga-times, from Aristotle’s argument that nature “has made all animals for the sake of man” to the Old Testament fable about God giving his favourite creation dominion over all things.

Speciesism has had a remarkably long run, and has rooted deep in Western consciousness. Only recently is it being seriously challenged by some biologists and legal experts. It has taken a climate crisis caused by our own profligate behaviour, as we gaze over dying ocean reefs and the prospect of a million extinct species in the coming decades, to begin to grapple with the consequences of industrial farming and deforestation, two of the most serious consequences of speciesism.

There is a paragraph in Dr. Singer’s book that is so staggering I went back and looked at the copyright page. The version I was reading had been updated by the author in 1990 – nearly 30 years ago. “The prodigious appetites of affluent nations for meat means that agribusiness can pay more than those who want to preserve or restore forests. We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet – for hamburgers.”

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None of the hamburgers on this grill are made from meat: They're an array of plant-based products from Beyond Meat, Unbelievable, Yves and Lightlife.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

That gamble has turned out to be a very bad bet, and it is only small consolation that, at this late stage in the climate emergency, people in the Western world are looking for a new hand. The consumption of beef is falling in Canada; the number of vegetarians is growing, especially among the young, and boomers are turning into flexitarians – that is, restricting their meat consumption. Beyond Meat, a vegan substitute that tastes remarkably like beef, is the hottest flavour in the food industry and is being served at several fast-food restaurants, including, as of recently, Tim Hortons. Even KFC is introducing a vegan “chicken” burger.

“It’s a plant-based tsunami,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “The speed of this movement is something I’ve never seen in 20 years.” The near future will bring plant-based substitutes for chicken, fish, pork. It will bring meat you can grow in your own kitchen. Prof. Charlebois was supposed to try lab-grown meat a few weeks ago at a conference in New Orleans, but its creators couldn’t get a certificate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in time.

I express slight disgust at the idea of test-tube meat, and Prof. Charlebois is surprised: “I’d eat it. Wouldn’t you?” Indeed, I’ve eaten kangaroo and guinea pig and enough cows to fill a small ranch, so what’s wrong with stem-cell steak? Like my moral equivocating over pets versus meat, it makes no sense. I’m in the wrong demographic, though. Prof. Charlebois’s research indicates that young people are less queasy with the idea of lab-grown meat; being carnivores just isn’t as important to them.

It is part of a new reckoning in the West (in other parts of the world, where animal protein is more powerfully correlated to status, meat consumption is rising). By 2025, Prof. Charlebois estimates, 10 million Canadians will have stopped eating meat or restricted its consumption. But will we stop eating animals entirely in the near future? The food futurist responds without hesitation: “No.”

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A chef cooks lab-grown steak produced from cow cells by Israeli company Aleph Farms during a demonstration at the company office in Rehovot, Israel.Amir Cohen/Reuters

We might not stop eating animals tomorrow, but we are rethinking our relationship to them. Human supremacy is being challenged on the farm and on our plates, and in one other important realm: the courtroom. While laws exist to protect animal welfare (many of them hugely outdated), there is no recognition of animals having legal rights of their own, such as the right to be represented in court. That’s where animal advocates see an opening in the moral fabric.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, for example, issues legal challenges “to change the common law status of great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘legal persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity.” The organization files habeas corpus lawsuits arguing that its “clients,” such as Kiko the abused chimp and Happy the misnamed elephant, have been unjustly deprived of their liberty.

In Canada, similar lawsuits have been launched on behalf of animals. For years, a battle has been fought over Lucy, “Canada’s loneliest elephant,” a pachyderm who has lived at the Edmonton Valley Zoo since 1977. Lucy has foot ailments, and worse than that, she’s the only elephant at the zoo, a terrible situation, her advocates say, for a mammal who would normally live in a complex social structure. So far, efforts to move Lucy to an elephant sanctuary in a warmer climate have failed in court.

In 2011, when ZooCheck’s challenge on behalf of Lucy was rejected by Alberta’s Court of Appeal, Chief Justice Catherine Fraser wrote a lengthy dissent that is still hailed by animal-justice advocates. She concluded by saying, “The appellants, for the public and on behalf of Lucy, are entitled to their day in court.”

But if animals are not yet granted their day in court, they have recently had their day in Parliament. After more than 20 years of trying unsuccessfully to update Canada’s animal-cruelty laws, three federal statutes just passed that caused activists to rejoice. One banned bestiality and revamped animal-fighting regulations; another prohibited keeping dolphins and whales in captivity; and the last stopped the import of shark-fin products.

“This month has been a watershed moment for animals in Canada,” says lawyer Camille Labchuk, who is also the director of the advocacy group Animal Justice. “The last time Parliament passed any serious new animal protection legislation was in the 1800s.”

Ms. Labchuk is also organizing Canada’s first Animal Law Conference at Dalhousie University in October. Lawyers and scholars from around the world will gather to discuss issues from dangerous dogs to animal experimentation and the broader challenge of “animals, justice, and the moral community.” The keynote speaker is Peter Singer, the grand poobah of animal rights, the man who warned, decades ago, that we were selling the planet for hamburgers.

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What if the refusal to kill and eat animals is more than just a personal decision made in the moment? What if it’s a creed, a belief system on par with religious worship? That may seem like a wacky idea now, but many of the tenets of equality that we take for granted once seemed absurd.

One Sunday morning, with my junior cat circling around my ankles – please don’t tell her I said that – I call Adam Knauff at his home base in Kenora, Ont. Mr. Knauff is a forest firefighter employed by the provincial government, and he’s just returned from battling a blaze in Northern Ontario. He’s also fighting for something else: For his ethical veganism to be recognized as a creed under the province’s human-rights code. He and his lawyers, with the support of Animal Justice, are taking this legal fight to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

Mr. Knauff describes himself as “an extremely private person,” a live-and-let-live kind of guy. He’s been vegan since he was 18, when he decided “I just didn’t want to kill anything. It was as simple as that.” But he is also a firefighter, part of a tough and hardy community doing a dangerous job in difficult conditions, and therein lies the tension.

The core of Mr. Knauff’s complaint is that he was not provided with adequate food when he was fighting fires in Williams Lake, B.C., in the summer of 2017. He could not eat what the other firefighters were eating, and suitable vegan substitutes were not provided. He sometimes had to subsist on protein bars, which didn’t provide the kind of sustenance he needed for strenuous work. He says that when he complained, he was sent home and his pay was docked. He worries that his professional reputation suffered.

“I wasn’t getting enough food, or any food sometimes. When I tried to get it, I was punished and sent home,” Mr. Knauff says. “Now it’s really opened up this whole dialogue. Why I did have to struggle and be treated differently from everybody else, when I don’t think my choices in life are bad?”

As we talk, I can hear church bells beginning to peal on his end of the line. Mr. Knauff laughs, but he’s serious about his legal challenge. As he sees it, he follows his beliefs every day – more so than some people who go to religious services once a year. “I truly believe that I and all seven billion of us can live on this planet without killing, using and abusing animals for food or clothing or labour. I’m choosing to live every single day of my life with that creed.”

What Mr. Knauff is attempting, at its core, is challenging the idea of human supremacy. Maybe, he thinks, someone will read his story and rethink their lunch choice that day. Maybe they’ll skip the flesh.

My conversation with Mr. Knauff makes me think about lunch, and dinner, and all the lunches and dinners that have come before. The junior cat is sitting on the floor, looking at me. Her name is Athena, but we call her Theenie and Missus and Pretty Girl, and she’s my favourite of all the cats I’ve ever had, but don’t tell her that, either. Possibly she wants her head scratched, more likely she wants her bowl filled. What she wants is to live.

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Perdu enjoys a catnip trip as Athena watches from above.Courtesy of Elizabeth Renzetti

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