The Caring Vegetarian

By Nick Cooney

July 12, 2012

“There are more important problems to worry about than animals.”

If you’re an animal advocate, you’ve probably gotten a response like this at least once. You may have heard it at protests, when passing out vegetarian leaflets, or even when speaking with friends about animal cruelty.

As a way to ignore the issue at hand, some people spin things around and accuse animal advocates of being the uncaring ones. There is a persistent notion among some that vegetarians and vegans care only about animals, and not people.

The idea is not a new one. In the 1940s, one leading psychiatry journal even published a scholarly article entitled “The Cruel Vegetarian.”  The author — the head of psychiatry at a major American hospital — argued that vegetarians were domineering and sadistic and that they ‘‘display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings.”

Of course we know that is not true. Most animal advocates also care deeply about a broad spectrum of social justice and humanitarian causes. An interesting recent study shows that vegetarians and vegans appear to have more of an empathetic response to both human and animal suffering.

Vegetarian, vegan and omnivore brainsFMRI brain scans showed that the areas of the brain associated with empathy (such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the left inferior frontal gyrus in this study) were more activated in vegetarians and vegans compared to omnivores when all three groups were shown pictures of human or animal suffering. Written questionnaires on empathy, in both this and other studies, seem to confirm higher empathy levels in vegetarians and vegans (Preylo and Arkiwawa, 2008; Filippi et al, 2010).

Why do some people still have the impression that vegetarians care only about animals and not people?

For one thing, sometimes our anger over animal cruelty gets directed at others. While it’s frustrating when someone does not care about animal abuse, we need to realize that attacking them for it does no good for animals. It simply creates more of a divide between us and those we are trying to persuade.

A second reason could be that, although there are many serious issues that are worthy of our attention, we have made the choice to focus on farm animals. Because we focus on these issues and not others (poverty, environmental destruction, human health, etc.), we may unintentionally give the impression that we don’t care about other causes.

So when talking to friends, family or the public, it may be helpful to mention our concern for some of these issues. It’s easy to point out that we eat vegan for the same reason that we donate to fund anti-malaria efforts in Africa: they are both easy ways to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

And sure, it’s true that a small number of people love and dote on animals but lack much empathy for other human beings. While we may not be able to change their attitude, we can work to ensure that, in our own lives,  our empathy and compassion truly extend to all living creatures.

 

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Veg advocacy: a numbers game

By Nick Cooney

May 15, 2012

Of the many animals I’ve met at Farm Sanctuary, my all-time favorite is Bella Maria. Bella was one of over 100 piglets rescued from a cruelty case in upstate New York. She and the others had been left to fend for themselves in the snow- and ice-covered fields of a small farm; some were found literally frozen to the ground.

The winter the piglets arrived I was a Farm Sanctuary intern. My favorite part of the day quickly became going into Bella’s pen and giving her belly rubs. Because she was recovering from surgery, she had to be kept in a pen by herself. Bella loved having company so much that she would oink and snort with happiness. Sadly, Bella died not long after being rescued. She was gone but she has not been forgotten, at least not by me.

Most of us have one or two animals we consider truly special. These individuals may even be the reason we became animal advocates. If one animal is so valuable, intelligent, and deserving of protection, then clearly all others are as well.

If we see individual animals as valuable, shouldn’t we do the things that will help the greatest number of them? When we feel emotionally connected to animals and their suffering, it’s hard to take a step back and look at them as numbers. It’s hard to look at helping them the way an investor might look at earning dollars and cents, asking: how can I spare the greatest number possible? Yet this approach will ultimately save the greatest number of individual animals – individuals just as unique and capable of friendship as Bella Maria, or those whom you hold closest to your heart.

This is why veg advocacy is so important. It allows regular people like you and me to spare the lives of hundreds if not thousands of animals each year. This large impact would not be possible if we focused our time and money on animals in shelters, horse-drawn carriages, circus cruelty, or most other animal protection issues. Veg advocacy’s “by the numbers” approach has some interesting implications. Consider the following.

The blog Counting Animals recently calculated the number of animals spared per year for each person who goes vegetarian. The result? Each new vegetarian spares 30 farm animals, 28 of which are chickens, from a lifetime of suffering. Each new vegetarian also spares several fish raised on fish farms and over 200 wild fish per year. Together, chickens and fish represent over 99% of the animals being raised or killed for food.

To help the greatest number of animals, then, we must focus on getting the public to reduce or eliminate their chicken and fish consumption. (While fish are killed in much higher numbers, most live a natural life up until slaughter; chickens endure far greater suffering throughout their lives.)

In an interview with CNN, Farm Sanctuary President Gene Baur noted that the number one thing Americans can do to help farm animals is eat less chicken (and fewer eggs). Persuading one person to cut their chicken consumption in half spares 14 unique, intelligent individuals from a lifetime of misery. A person who stops eating any chicken or fish eliminates nearly all of the animal suffering and killing he or she would otherwise have caused.

Therefore, a primary goal of our veg advocacy efforts should be helping others reduce or eliminate their consumption of chicken and fish.

One humane educator began ending his talks by encouraging students to go vegetarian or, if they didn’t think they could do that, at least cutting out or cutting back on chicken consumption. He explained to them that by simply not eating chicken (or eating less), they could personally spare dozens of animals a year from a life of misery. As a result, more students began deciding to either go vegetarian or cut back on chicken.

The outcome was more individuals spared – individuals just as special as Bella Maria, and the animals you hold closest to your heart. We can honor our love for them by focusing our advocacy efforts on sparing the lives of as many other individuals as possible.

 

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Former vegetarians: Who they are and why we lost them

By Nick Cooney

May 1, 2012

Why do many vegans and vegetarians go back to eating meat? When I was in college, one of the most active members of our campus animal rights group went from dedicated vegan activist to dedicated chicken eater in a matter of months. If you’re like me, you’ve probably scratched your head wondering why some people stick with veg eating and others don’t.

Academic studies published over the past 10 years, as well as an informal survey by Psychology Today columnist Hal Herzog, give us some insight. According to former vegetarians, they’ve typically put meat back on their plates for the following reasons:

Taste – Many craved meat and were bored with vegetarian food

Health – Some had less energy, were anemic, or had other health issues

Inconvenience – A number felt eating vegetarian took too much time, they didn’t know how to prepare veg food, or it was annoying to be vegetarian when eating with friends.

We need to keep these issues in mind when encouraging individuals to eat vegetarian. Aside from just telling people why they should change their diet, we need to tell them how: how to make or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals, and how to eat healthy.

Of course, those of us who stayed vegetarian or vegan encountered the same problems. We just had the resources and dedication to work through them. So what gives? Are there simply fundamental differences between people who stay vegetarian and people who don’t? A new study published in the journal Appetite suggests there are. The study found four key differences:

Motivation – Both current and former vegetarians care about animal welfare, health, and the environment. But those who stick with veg eating care more about these issues, especially animal welfare. Concern for animals represents, by far, the biggest difference in beliefs between current and former vegetarians. Therefore, regardless of why people initially went veg, after they’ve made the switch we need to inspire them to care about farm animals. The more they start to care about farm animals the more likely they’ll stick with vegetarian eating. Since their behavior is now animal-friendly, it will be easier for them to adopt an animal-friendly attitude if we encourage them to do so.

Identity – People who stay vegetarian think their food choices are an important part of who they are. This was never the case for former vegetarians, even when they first went veg. Why is this the case? Well, it’s a fact of human psychology that we don’t like to change our sense of self-identity. The more we see veg eating as part of our self-identity, the harder it is to go back to eating meat. Therefore, after someone becomes vegetarian we should encourage him or her to see vegetarian eating as an important part of who they are. For example we might give them vegetarian bumper stickers or t-shirts, encourage them to talk to their friends about why they’re vegetarian, or sign them up for Veg News magazine or a vegetarian email list.

The Switch – People who stay vegetarian are more likely to have made a gradual switch. Maybe that’s because a gradual switch is easier, both for the person going vegetarian and also for family members with whom they eat. In contrast, former vegetarians were more likely to have made an abrupt switch when they first went veg. With this in mind, we should encourage people to take the first steps towards vegetarian eating rather than encouraging them to go from zero to vegan in sixty seconds.

Support – Those who stay veg are more likely to have joined a vegetarian potluck group, message board, or other social circle. These support systems provide both encouragement and practical advice on veg eating. Of course, people who see vegetarianism as part of their self-identity (in other words, those who are already more likely to stay vegetarian) are also more likely to seek out vegetarian social groups. So it’s possible that, for many people, social support is just icing on the cake and not the reason they stay veg. Still, social support can only help, especially if we can get less-enthusiastic vegetarians to join.

Whew! That’s a lot of information to take in. Who knew that helping people eat vegetarian could be so complicated?

To boil it down, if we want to help more people stay veg, we should help current vegetarians: a) learn how to cook or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals; b) learn how to eat healthy; c) care a lot about farm animals; and d) see vegetarianism as an important part of who they are.

Any time we do one of these things, we will help current vegetarians stay the course. As Ben Franklin wrote, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Helping someone stay vegetarian can be just as good for animals as inspiring someone else to go vegetarian.

 

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I’m going meat-free…How about you?

By Nick Cooney

April 3, 2012

“How I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say…You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs.”

If you’re familiar with the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration,” you can thank Frank Luntz. You can also thank him for the powerful quote above.

Luntz is a Republican Party consultant who conducts polling to see which words and phrases resonate with the public. Luntz popularized the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration” after polling showed they were more effective in promoting Republican ideals than the original terms “estate tax” and “oil drilling.”

Whether or not you agree with Luntz’s politics, his point rings true: language matters. When making the case for vegan eating, the words we use matter too. Some phrases appeal to meat eaters, and some phrases will be more likely to turn them off.

Case in point: a study by British trade magazine The Grocer found that the public was more likely to embrace vegetarian meat products when the products were labeled “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian.” Over the past four years an increasing number of British supermarkets and vegetarian meat producers have switched labels from “vegetarian” to “meat-free,” and as a result they are seeing increased sales among meat-eaters.

On this side of the Atlantic, vegetarian meat producers are catching on. Pick up a bag of Gardein vegetarian meat, and you’ll see the label “I’m meat-free!” Even Lightlife is catching on, labeling their products “meat-free” or noting they are packed with “veggie protein.” Virtually none of their products still carry a prominent “vegetarian” label.

Why does “meat-free” seem to go over better than “vegetarian” with the general public? Industry experts think the term “vegetarian” has negative connotations for many people. Maybe some have had negative experiences with vegetarians. Perhaps, due to guilt, social norms, or other reasons, they simply look down on all things “vegetarian.” For those over 30 years old, the term might conjure up memories of a flavorless tofu burger they tried back in college.

(It’s possible that for those who are 21 and under, “vegetarian” does not have as negative a connotation. Higher percentages of those age groups consider themselves vegetarian, and they have grown up with a much tastier selection of vegetarian products.)

Using the word “vegetarian” also raises the sticky issue of self-identity. The public may see vegetarians as a distinct group of people quite different from the average American. Ditto for vegans. That’s why, when asked about my diet, I don’t say “I am a vegan” or “I am a vegetarian.” I say, “I don’t eat meat.”  I don’t want the people I’m speaking with to lump me into a box, as if who I am is determined by what I eat. More importantly, I don’t want them to think they need to take on a new identity – joining me in the box – in order to cut cruelty out of their diets.

For a funny parallel example, consider the following. Which of these statements sounds more palatable to you? “You should become a Canadian,” or “You should move to Canada.” The first statement focuses on identity, while the second focuses on action. The second statement is probably more palatable to most Americans.

The bottom line?

When we leave issues of self-identity off the table, we make it easier for our audience to hear our message.

When we use words that don’t have negative connotations in the minds of our audience, our audience will be more likely to listen.

At times “meat-free” can sound a bit awkward when you try to work it into conversation. But after learning what the research has to say on this issue, I’m planning to use “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian” whenever possible.

In other words, I’m going meat-free. How about you?

 

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