My email inbox was brimming over today with people asking me to respond to the most absurd claim I've heard in a long time. In an essay that somehow found it's way into the New York Times, a newspaper that has published numerous essays about the detailed scientific research that has been performed that shows that many nonhuman animals (animals) experience rich and deep emotional lives, Kate Murphy, a Texas journalist, claims "Eating is an orthodoxy you can practice three times a day. And because there is no definitive scientific evidence that animals experience emotions as we do, nor is there irrefutable proof that eating any particular diet is healthier than another, we are all free to use our individual feelings, desires and experiences to shape our eating ethos without fear that our beliefs can be effectively challenged. Just like you can't prove there is or isn't a God." Ms. Murphy's essay is titled "Blessed Be My Freshly Slaughtered Dinner," in which she tries to argue that it's perfectly fine to kill animals for food.
The New York Times should not have published this essay, not because Ms. Murphy favors meat diets and supports what has become known as "the eat-what-you-kill movement," but because she conveniently and extraordinarily ignores reams and reams of detailed data that show clearly that many nonhumans experience a wide variety of emotions "as we do." I often write about this research and you can find much more here and here. Ms. Murphy does attempt to appeal to authority by noting that Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, once said, "he would eat only meat he killed himself as part of a reported yearlong 'personal challenge.'" Who really cares about Mr. Zuckerberg's meal plans?
Animal welfare is based on what animals feel
Ms. Murphy's claim about the absence of data on the emotional lives of animals is absurd, incredibly uninformed, and thoroughly misleading. For example, we now know that rats, mice, and chickens, in addition to many other animals, display empathy, and that "food animals" also experience deep and rich emotions (see also). Indeed, animal welfarists across the board claim that the concern for the welfare of other animals is based on animal feelings and, for example, iconic world renowned animal welfarist Dr. Temple Grandin does what she does to reduce the pain and suffering of "food animals" -- to make their lives "relatively humane" -- based on what we know about the emotional lives of these sentient beings (see also an interview published in the New York Times called "Temple Grandin on Autism, Death, Celibacy and Cows" in which she talks about animal feelings). A thorough and current review of this literature can be found in the recently published fifth edition of Dr. Donald Broom and Dr. Andrew Fraser's book called Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare. The extremely significant Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness also recognized these scientific facts, as do a vast majority of scientists. The list goes on and on and the wealth of available scientific evidence about the emotional lives of animals makes utterly inane the claim that "there is no definitive scientific evidence that animals experience emotions as we do."
It's clear that researchers themselves know that other animals are emotional beings, and that is why there are numerous studies that attempt to enrich the lives of animals who are used by humans to reduce pain and suffering, and why there is legislation to protect other animals from pain and suffering. Some excellent examples, and there are many more, include a research paper titled "Assessment of positive emotions in animals to improve their welfare" and also essays that detail how a cow's ears tell us how they're feeling, how a cow's nose can reveal inner emotions, and how pigs display empathy. Donald Broom and Andrew Fraser's book mentioned above is a goldmine of current information on the emotional lives of "food" and other animals.
If one chooses to eat other animals even in the "eat-what-you-kill" movement, she or he must know they are killing sentient beings who care about what happens to themselves, families, and friends. And, the question is not "What are you eating," but rather "Whom are you eating." Animals are not disposable objects, but rather thinking and feeling beings, and those who choose to eat them can't conveniently ignore what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of these individuals.
How this essay escaped the careful eyes of the editors at the New York Times baffles many others and me. If Ms. Murphy and others want to justify eating other animals they ought to come straight about what we know about the emotional lives of other animals from detailed comparative scientific research, and not make thoroughly vacuous claims to support their meal plans. As noted by Dr. Betty Moss, Ms. Murphy and others on whom she relies greatly fail on many different accounts by ignoring what we know. For more on the many misleading claims in Ms. Murphy's essay please also see Carol Adams' "How To Write An OpEd For The New York Times Defending Meat Eating And Get It Published."
It's surely not asking too much for those who write about animals to know about the vast amount of scientific research that has been done and is readily available.