Over the past couple of years, as I’ve gotten more involved in veganism and discovered just how problematic our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom really is, I’ve had to seriously rethink what it means to be an “animal lover.” I’ve met so many people who claim to “love” animals, but they all seem to interpret this in different ways. One of the interesting paradoxes in our culture is that a person can perceive herself to be an animal lover and yet routinely ingest their dead bodies or wear their skin.

Something very sad and strange that I’ve observed is that our “love” of animals is actually responsible for immense amounts of suffering. We find animals entertaining and beautiful and we want their companionship– how could we not? They are fascinating and able to relate to us in positive ways that transcend human language and boundaries. But consider this: because there is such a demand for “pets,” how many thousands of malnourished dogs are languishing in dark cages in puppy mills? How many thousands of exotic animals get sold on the black market and forced into highly unnatural conditions? What about the homeless domestic animals that are born because their parents weren’t spayed or neutered?  What about the animals (like mice and rabbits) that are bred to be live food for our pets (such as snakes)? And because there is such a demand for entertainment involving animals, circuses still train animals to use in their acts. Keep in mind that “training” typically involves things like whips, hooks, and cattle prods. (How much utility are we really gaining from watching an elephant stand on its hind legs on demand?)

I always found it very strange that you can buy little figurines of cats made with real fur. Presumably one would buy them because one “likes” cats, and yet some creature inevitably suffered to make these little figurines! Even now, as I’m writing this, I have a couple of fake birds that I bought several years ago sitting on my shelf. They are made from real feathers.  I bought them because I “love” birds, but at the time it did not occur to me what awful objects they really are.  I keep them around because I find them pretty, but they remind me of what a sinister relationship we have with other beings.

What I’ve realized is that there is an enormous difference between loving something selfishly (unconsciously) and selflessly (consciously).  In my opinion, there are two components to loving animals: finding them appealing, and respecting their rights to have their needs met (which may vary greatly depending on the animal!). These two components don’t always go together; there are many people to express one without the other. My eight year old self who relentlessly squeezed her siamese kitten and pulled its tail had the first but not the second; the man who is indifferent to other creatures but believes they deserve to be left alone has the second without the first.

For those wild creatures that need to be left alone, is there a way to observe and admire them in a way that meets our desires without interfering with their needs? For those domestic animals that need human interaction, is there a way to relate to them that meets their needs without causing them harm? Are we capable of becoming less selfish in how we relate to other creatures?

We are constantly mapping human emotions and behaviors onto animals. Our first companions as children are frequently stuffed animals. The characters in our stories and fables are animals. If you’ve ever watched the series Planet Earth, you know that the descriptions of the animals’ behavior inject a certain humor and quirkiness because they are framed in terms of human habits. We do this as long as it is convenient to us and entertains us. Then, as soon as we want something from the creature that involves causing it harm, whether its meat or skin or even its obedience to commands, we retract those human characteristics. Our rationale for causing them harm is the fact that they are not human. (Of course, we often anthropomorphize them to justify sparing them harm, too, but should that be the reason to spare them?)

At the core of nonviolence, I believe, is the desire to meet one’s needs without infringing on the needs of others and to strive to meet the needs of both parties in any interaction with another being. We think of nonviolence as simply refraining from outright cruelty and killing, but so much suffering arises simply because we are not aware of what we are doing and where our money is going! To bring a creature into being (whether it’s a human baby or a mouse destined for a lab) in a situation where his or her needs cannot be met, is to create suffering for that being. How many beings suffer simply because it does not occur to us, in our culture, to take their needs into consideration?

Ultimately the question I want to leave for the “animal lovers” out there is this: when we say we love another being, do we love it because of what it does for us, or simply for what it is?