Why do the public care about escaped slaughterhouse animals, but not those who end up on their plate?
Over the past few years, there have been several incidents of animals escaping from slaughterhouses and running into public spaces. That animals should seek to escape their awful fate is no surprise to anyone who knows anything about animal intelligence or slaughterhouse procedures, but what never fails to surprise me is the public reaction to these incidents. These stories consistently generate enormous public interest, they make headlines even far away from the areas of escape, and most readers are overwhelmingly in support of the animal and their dash for freedom. The question is, given the fact that most of these people support animal slaughter and directly benefit from it, why should anyone care about these animals and their attempts at escape?
A particularly famous example of this is the story of Emily The Cow. In 1995, Emily ran away from Arena Slaughterhouse in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, after she was unloaded from a slaughterhouse truck in the morning and was next in line at the kill floor that afternoon. Despite being her 1600-pound bulk, she reportedly leapt over the five-foot gate and made her escape into local woodland. Police had been ordered to shoot on sight, but amazing she managed to find the food she needed to survive, with the help of many humans along the way, including one farm which grew crops for needy people. Meg Randa and her vegetarian family managed to coax the cow onto their land, and bought Emily from the slaughterhouse she had escaped from for only one dollar. Emily lived the rest of her life with the Randa family, but by this point she had already become internationally famous, and became the face of many animal rights campaigns. Emily received thousands of visitors over her lifetime from all over the world, all wanting to see the famous fugitive cow who refused to die for a hamburger. When Emily died, the family even commissioned a life-sized replica in her memory.
This is only one of such stories of the public showing intense support for animals they would usually have no problem consigning to death. It could be argued that this is simply a natural reaction to any animal in danger, that the public will rally behind them in the interests of their safety. This makes little sense when we remember that thousands of hours of undercover slaughterhouse footage exists showing animals in exactly the same position, as well as footage of animals being loaded into slaughterhouse trucks. Such public outcry for these animals are rare, and are usually directed by animal rights groups rather than the general public. Our reaction to animals being slaughtered for our food couldn’t be more different to our reaction to those who escape, and since most people claim to have no moral issue with slaughtering animals for food, shouldn’t the public support animals like Emily being returned to the slaughterhouse, rather than campaigning for their release and safety?
It isn’t just animals who have the fortune of chancing upon a vegetarian who enjoy public support, either. In the case of a cow who escaped from a polish slaughterhouse, calls to have the cow shot have been met with fierce opposition, with one local politician saying he has made it his mission to save the “hero cow”. This local politician admitted he was “not a vegetarian” but nevertheless worked to make sure she was not returned to slaughter and granted a happy life. Earlier the same year, a Dutch cow called Hermien escaped a slaughterhouse and took refuge in a forest near Lettele for six weeks. Again this case the cow was saved by non-vegetarians, with locals rallying to save her by crowd funding for her care at a cow sanctuary. There are dozens of these cases, but the pattern in each one is almost identical, that as soon as the animal is our of the slaughterhouse the public not only supports their escape, but is willing to fund it and vehemently oppose any attempt to get them back to the slaughterhouse.
My feeling is that this is a stark example of the power of narrative and individual stories as opposed to mere statistics. Meg Randa herself said of Emily that “as soon as she had a name… she had a face and a personality, and people were really rallying behind her.” When an animal breaks free of a slaughterhouse, in that moment they break away not only from their captivity, but from the faceless numbers of animals being slaughtered for meat, and they forge an individual story set aside from all of those figures. Suddenly these animals are not simply one among a collective doomed to die, they are an individual, with an individual struggle that is much easier to empathise with than the other hundreds of animals likely slaughtered in the same facility that day. A personal story of struggle against the odds invites empathy, compassion and mercy, and we can scarcely imagine greater odds than an animal fighting against an industry which wants to kill her for her flesh.
It is often said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian, but escaped animals show us what happens not if we remove those walls, but if an animal leaps over them and into our world. The industry takes great care to keep us from considering animals as individuals, to make sure we don’t think of these animals as living, thinking and feeling beings, who share our desire to live and our fear at having that taken away. That the same people who supported Emily’s dash for freedom likely dined on the flesh of her brothers and sisters that same week is a sign of hypocrisy, yes, but it is also a sign that this lack of compassion towards animals does not come naturally to us. Once the careful degrees of separation enforced on us are removed we do care, fiercely and instinctively. Perhaps it is just the case that it is the spirit of these animals we admire, and their determination to live. But the fact that slaughtered animals routinely do struggle will be known to any farmer or advocate, it is just that this struggle is never so public as when an animal escapes.
Our goal as animal rights advocates must be to make it so that animals don’t literally have to transcend these barriers themselves, that we can do it for them with our activism. We must remind the public at all times that every animal sent for slaughter is an Emily, they would all rather be alive, and would fight for it like she did, if only they were given a chance. It is easy to feign indifference when we are talking about 60 billion land animals killed per year, but it is much harder when the subject is an Emily, or an Esther, or a Babe. It is our responsibility to encourage people to recognise what they already intuitively know to be the case, that animals do have personalities, emotions, hopes and fears, and that they too deserve the opportunity to live happy lives. We can find no finer examples of the fact that these character traits and emotions exist in animals than in the inspiring stories of those who escape. The fact that these stories have such an impact on our collective consciousness is evidence of the fact that we do care if animals live or die, even if we don’t always let ourselves remember it.