Seeing the Animals . . . and Ourselves
Chickens being collected for slaughter. Spain, 2009.
Almost every hour brings astonishing news about the unrelenting toll of the coronavirus. As it engulfs countries and upends billions of lives, COVID-19 is shattering assumptions about the durability of public health systems, economies, and humans’ adaptability. It’s also revealing the limits of technology in containing a disease that began in non-human animals and, with human interaction, leapt the species barrier with unprecedented ferocity.
As we, too, experience the fear and dislocation COVID-19 is spreading, we wonder: could this terrible reality allow us, in time, to rethink the terms of our relationship with the natural world? Could it allow us to see other animals with more reciprocity and honesty, including the still-unknown animal host in the Wuhan “wet” market who first transmitted the coronavirus? And if we did, could we “bend the curve” away from the global commodification of non-human animals and ecosystems we’ve come to expect, and not only help prevent a future pandemic but protect life on Earth?
Animals packed onto trucks at the sale yards, Thailand, 2019.
A duck being slaughtered. Vietnam, 2008.
What it might mean for humans to really see the other animal is a question that’s animated each of us — Jo-Anne as a photojournalist and Mia as an international public policy analyst—for two decades. Of course, we encounter animals every day: dogs and cats, squirrels and sparrows, mice and rats. But we mean a different sort of seeing: the kind that might help us survive. The current situation suggests this isn’t hyperbole.
Industrial pig farming. Italy, 2015.
A sow and piglet in a sow stall. Italy, 2015.
Butchering pig carcasses at an outdoor market in Thailand, 2019.
Cows hanging by hind legs at a slaughterhouse in Turkey, 2018.
Jo-Anne visits factory farms, live markets, fur farms, and slaughterhouses around the world, where animals live and die at our whim. Her photos highlight the paradox of how billions of animals exist, yet are shut away in windowless sheds far from cities, some protected by “ag-gag” laws that make it illegal to shoot photos or videos of animals, whose individuality and identities are rendered invisible in commodities—“pork,” “beef,” “cutlets.” In Jo-Anne’s experience, the media are often unwilling to show her photos for fear they may upset not only the public but the companies that advertise animal products on television, in print, and online.
Mia tries to focus policy makers’ attention on how the globalization and scale of industrialized animal agriculture threatens not just the environment, public health, biodiversity, and climate change, but deeply compromises animal welfare. For years, her questions to those in international forums about changing the food system to reduce animal consumption and halt the expansion of monocultures of feed-crops were dismissed—if they were recognized as questions at all. Until recently, many environmental groups mostly ignored the issue of meat, and economic incentives and compliant policy-makers pushed further consolidation of animal agriculture in countries around the world.
Yes, some of these stubborn realities are changing. Meat and dairy consumption is now entering international discourse around solutions to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, plant-based meat and dairy options are growing popular, and more municipalities and legislators are confronting the exploitation of some animals in circuses, laboratories, and fur production or sale.
Yet, animals are still on the periphery of our vision—even on issues directly affecting them. For instance, the journal Science reported that North America had lost three billion birds since 1970. Yet, in 2016 alone, the U.S. slaughtered nearly three times that number of chickens for food. Some animals remain unseen even in statistics: fish aren’t counted individually, but measured by the ton.
Chicken factory farm. Spain, 2011.
Barramundi in a fish farm. Australia, 2017.
The irony is that wild animal loss through land-use change, rising temperatures, and human encroachment is at least partly caused by our craving for a handful of species to whom we devote vast natural resources, including four-fifths of the world’s arable land. So significant is our commitment to eating cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry that the first three constitute 60 percent of the biomass on Earth (we humans are 36 percent). The gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and rhinos whom many conservation groups struggle to conserve are now only four percent of the total.
And the COVID-19 emergency, the 2019 African swine virus in China, which led to the early death (through disease or culling) of up to 100 million pigs, and an avian flu found last week on big poultry farms in Germany, underscore that putting animals—whether wild or domestic—in close confinement and in great numbers raises the chances of catastrophic zoonotic pandemics.
Massive fur farms. Canada, 2014.
So, what do we mean by really seeing the animals? And what difference could it make?
Animals transported for slaughter from across Europe through the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Turkey, 2018.
First, we believe the long-held higher valuation of wild, natural species over “unnatural” domesticated animals is no longer tenable. Humans will not conserve the former by ignoring the reality of the latter. As an illustration, the recent wildfires in Australia, which Jo-Anne documented, show how increasing heat and drought will not only make ranching untenable, but bring wholesale destruction to many species and almost surely lead to the massive loss of individual animals’ lives.
Sheep graze on scorched land in the Buchan area. Australia, 2020.
Secondly, animals must be present in public policy. Sidelining industrialized animal agriculture in our efforts to decarbonize the economy and curtail greenhouse gas emissions is no longer possible. Increasing antimicrobial resistance, the loss of topsoil, destruction of forests, and ocean acidification—all results of industrial animal agriculture—indicate that the “animal question” is central to the future of the planet. Surely it must be our responsibility to extend public policy beyond our survival to that of the millions of other species dependent on us for theirs, too.
Thirdly, homo sapiens needs to recall that we once saw the animals: they were our guides, ancestors, totems, and companions. For many indigenous peoples today, they remain signifiers of value and meaning. But modern economies’ relentless commodification of animals (domesticated, wild and semi-wild) has led to their vanishing from our sight, our concern, and our social structures. Yet, from the largest cetacean to the smallest phytoplankton, they’re all hostage to human actions, or inaction.
Lechwe and visitors taking a selfie. Germany, 2016.
An Eastern grey kangaroo and her joey who survived the forest fires in Mallacoota. Australia, 2020.
By seeing animals, we can reduce our exploitation of them and free up precious land and sea for rewilding and restoration. By seeing animals, we can better secure their habitats and natural behaviors and promote the goals of “one health,” which links the well-being of human societies, animals, and the environment. In seeing animals, it’s clear we not only give them a chance to survive, but ourselves one, too.
Mia MacDonald is the executive director of Brighter Green, which works to advance public policy on environmental, animal and global development issues.
Written by Mia MacDonald and Jo-Anne McArthur.