This is a topic that causes some controversy, and still surfaces very often in debates surround animal rights and veganism. Most people consider themselves animal lovers, so having that challenged by vegans makes people understandably defensive, since for many people it is a large part of their identity. When vegans call this into question they are not suggesting that people who choose to eat animals don’t love any animals, only that you cannot claim to love an animal if you also eat that same animal.
It’s important to acknowledge from the outset that loving animals isn’t synonymous with veganism. You can be vegan and have no personal affection towards animals whatsoever, or even be scared or disgusted by them. People tend to assume that all vegans are animal lovers, and while many of us are, there are still plenty of vegans who have no strong feelings about animals either way, because veganism is about justice, not love. You don’t have to love an animal to care about their well-being, however, you do have to care about an animal’s well-being in order to claim to love them. What is being claimed then, is that you don’t have to love all animals to be vegan, but you do have to be vegan to love all animals.
The basis for this argument is quite simple; you cannot claim to love someone if you are choosing to actively cause them harm. By choosing to eat meat and other animal products, you are quite literally paying for those animals to be bred, exploited and killed. Interestingly, this argument becomes much less contentious when we change the animal in question to any other animal which isn’t traditionally farmed. If a dog owner paid someone to kill their dog when that dog was perfectly healthy and posed no risk to human safety, you would seriously call into question how much that person really loves their dog, regardless of what they said. People may argue that this is different since a dog is a pet, however, our designation of them as such does not make them inherently any different to pigs or any other farmed animal, nor should it change their moral status in any way.
Objections will come to mind at this point, that vegans can’t possibly claim to know how someone feels about animals. You do love animals, you know you do, you’re fascinated by them, they make you happy, you have a deep personal connection with them and you always have, but you do still eat animals and those two things are not incompatible. It is important here to realise that when we talk about people not “loving” animals, we aren’t doubting that people are interested in them, and maybe even feel a deep connection with animals. However, love is not just a feeling, it is a doing, it requires certain behaviours. If a human claims to love another human but then directly contributes towards harming them, regardless of how strong their feelings were for that person, we would call into question their claim to love the person they hurt because their behaviour would not be consistent with love. If we allow people to say they love humans or animals regardless of how they choose to behave towards them, then the term itself becomes utterly meaningless.
It may be that you genuinely do love some animals, and would always act in their best interests, but if you are paying for an animal to be shot in the head or have their throat slit then do not love that animal, under any reasonable definition of the word. You therefore love some animals, but you specifically do not and cannot love the animals you are eating, because you are contributing towards their exploitation and death. If you are eating animals because you have no choice then that is a completely different scenario, since you cannot be judged for actions you do not freely choose, but if you are by choice causing harm to some animals then it logically follows that you do not love all of them.
If when you say love you simply mean you are interested in them, have a personal connection to them and have positive feelings towards them, then I can accept that you can “love” animals and still choose to eat them, but only under that very limited definition of love, the kind of love we mean when we say we love an object, like a phone or a car. But real, meaningful love, the kind we have for other sentient beings, has to involve loving behaviour. We judge people by their actions, not by their feelings or their words, and we all know intuitively that someone who chooses to harm us when they could do otherwise does not really love us, regardless of how sure they are that they truly do. We do not truly love someone if our behaviours is in direct contradiction to that professed love, and the same has to be true for our treatment of animals.