VIEWPOINT: Killers or carers – Who do we think we are when it comes to other animals?

VIEWPOINT: Killers or carers – Who do we think we are when it comes to other animals?

Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart

We live in a culture that is deeply confused about other animals. Collectively, we may profess to be ‘animal lovers’ but in practice that love is reserved for a lucky few, including those we usually call ‘pets’, or is conditionally reserved for animals who perform for us on racetracks, in films or on TV. ‘Pets’ and nonhuman sporting or media celebrities are by no means safe from the consequences of getting mixed up with us humans, but we deliberately kill many, many more: Globally, it is estimated that over 150 billion nonhuman animals are slaughtered for human food every year.

This confusion between killing and caring is so habitual, that we often fail to recognize it, even when it’s right in front of our eyes. Our love for some animals even seems to excuse us from complicity in industrialized killing: In a current KFC TV advertising campaign, pairs of friends undertake the ‘KFC Friendship Bucket Test’: one has to answer a question about their friend, and match their written answer to be rewarded with a piece of a chicken’s body in their shared KFC bucket. Here’s how it pans out between one pair of women friends:

Woman 1: ‘What would you save from a fire?’
Woman 2: (holding a placard with the word ‘Animals’ written on it): laughs

The most striking thing about this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene is the lack of irony, which several comments under a youtube video of the advert point out. One comment points out that, ‘The irony is strong in this advert. Saving animals from a fire yet eating them at the same time (after they’ve been cooked on a fire!!!!)’ Imagine for a moment if we substitute the fried limbs of dogs or cats for those of chickens in the bucket. Suddenly the comforting care/killing conundrum becomes disturbingly visible for viewers, because the ‘animals’ we tend to think of as friends (in the UK at least), or non-human kin (Cudworth, 2011), are suddenly from the same species as those killed to reward human friendships.

This thought experiment became real in the ‘horsemeat’ scandal of 2013, in which the widely publicized detection of horses’ DNA in processed ‘meat’ products led to some consumers avoiding these products, at least temporarily. The ‘friend or food’ thought experiment was also taken onto the streets in a pretend dogmeat van by UK campaigning organization Animal Aid, precisely in order to stimulate reflection on the care/killing moral paradox.

Nevertheless, the consumption of nonhuman animals remains stubbornly resilient. The logical solution to being confronted by our own double standards when it comes to other animals is to become vegan. But, a typical alternative response is to shoot the messenger instead and keep on munching the limbs and torsos of the unlucky animals: In response to another comment that points out the irony of the KFC advert, one youtuber posted, ‘oh be quiet you killjoy’, while another ignored the debate to wistfully post, ‘Why does the chicken in this video look so heavenly?! In real life half of the chicken skin is missing.’

Research shows that vegans are regularly stigmatized as killjoys in the mass media (Cole and Morgan, 2011), in our personal life (Twine, 2014) and even in academic discourse (Cole, 2008). The ‘joy’ that vegans are killing is partly the sensory pleasure associated with eating other animals, and partly the ignorance-is-bliss complacency about the violence that underpins that pleasure.  So, the defensive response to vegan critiques isn’t confined to youtube or social media more generally (the ubiquity of these responses has led to several versions of a ‘defensive omnivore bingo’ card that exasperated vegans can amuse ourselves with).

Capitalism itself, adept as ever at defensively sanitizing the radical zeitgeist, can make a profitable joke out of an unreflexive keep-on-munching response: Fray Bentos, purveyors of pies partly filled with the flesh and internal organs of other animals, currently ‘sponsors compulsive viewing on ITV4’. One of the sponsor messages (that bookend advert breaks within and between ITV4 programmes) shows a couple at home in front of the TV. A man is simultaneously absorbed in eating a Fray Bentos pie straight from its metal can and watching the TV, while a woman, implicitly his partner, looks up from reading from a magazine and asks him, ‘How do you feel about going vegan?’ His answer: ‘Where’s that?’

The joke is telling not only of the ease with which our culture perpetuates the violent business as usual of animal-product consumption in the face of a compassionate alternative, but also of casual sexist tropes. The man, like a clichéd 1970s sitcom character, is engrossed in his manly pleasure of consuming flesh in front of the television while his partner pesters him about moral improvement; it’s his capacity to eat flesh and simultaneously ignore a woman that makes him a man within this trope. If we wanted to sum up the intersecting sexism and speciesism embedded in the scene, we might imagine him being described as ‘henpecked’. The scene ends with the woman looking resignedly exasperated, so she has no opportunity to educate her partner (or the audience) about veganism, but the discursive work has been done – vegan is another country that may as well be the land of Oz for all the purchase it has on the ethical identity of the imagined Fray Bentos consumer.  Insofar as the viewer identifies with the pie-eater, veganism is profoundly uninteresting; ethics cannot trump the pleasures of the flesh.

This lack of interest in vegan ethics is facilitated when exploited animals themselves are enrolled as complicit promotors of their own exploitation. There are numerous examples of ‘happy’ nonhumans suicidally advertising their own flesh or reproductive by-products, but to take one current example, McDonald’s are running a series of adverts that aim to dispel popular misconceptions about their products, one of which focuses on ‘Free Range Freshly Cracked Eggs’ used in their breakfast offerings. The advert includes a brief skit between two contented hens named Choops and Chloe, with CGI animated beaks and given human voices:

Choops: ‘Oh you’ve gotta love a real egg’
Chloe: ‘Oh yeah, no you, you, you ’ave yeah’

The advert glosses over uncomfortable truths about the commodification of a hen’s reproductive processes, such as the slaughtering of male chicks in their first few hours of life, or the termination of laying hens’ lives when they cease to be productive. This is made all the more tragic by the ‘middle-aged’ voicing of Choops and Chloe, implying a longevity that is generally denied to hens. Ironically, Choops and Chloe also ‘humanize’ the egg business, contrasting with the earlier scene in the advert, in which a fantasy-production line is depicted. Here, artificial ‘eggs’ are neatly sliced onto a conveyor belt from a sausage-shaped raw material, fed into the machine by a human worker wearing a comical egg-shaped safety helmet. Negative consumer suspicions of McDonalds’s products being ‘unnatural’ are skilfully defused, with hens themselves taking centre stage.

Taking the three adverts together, we can see a powerfully emotional mixture of animal-product consumption being associated with human friendship and bizarrely, with love for other animals (KFC); with overweening pleasure (Fray Bentos); and with a naturalized order of human-nonhuman animal relations in which the latter are willing participants (McDonalds). It is this affective core to the dominant, exploitative pattern of human-nonhuman animal relations that adds to its resilience (Cole and Stewart, 2014). When we critique these exploitative relations, we are therefore unavoidably attacking an affective order as well. As Richard Twine argues, and as the defensive omnivore youtuber described above testifies, we truly are vegan killjoys. However, we argue that an assault on the existing affective order is imperative. If we can open up a path to a post-exploitative affective order, we can give up our complicit role as killers and experience the deeper joy of peaceful coexistence with our fellow earthlings.

Cole, M. (2008) ‘Asceticism and hedonism in research discourses of veg*anism’, British Food Journal, 110 (7): 706-716.
Cole, M. & Morgan, K. (2011) ‘Vegaphobia: Derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers’, British Journal of Sociology, 61 (1): 134-153.
Cole, M. & Stewart, K. (2014) Our Children and Other Animals: The Cultural Construction of Human-Animal Interaction in Childhood, Ashgate.
Cudworth, E. (2011) ‘Walking the dog: Explorations and negotiations of species difference’, PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, no. 8: 14-22.
Twine, R. (2014) ‘Vegan Killjoys at the Table—Contesting Happiness and Negotiating Relationships with Food Practices’, Societies, 4(4): 623–639.


Matthew Cole is an Associate Lecturer and Honorary Associate in Sociology at The Open University. Kate Stewart is Principal Lecturer in Sociology at Nottingham Trent University.

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 20, 2016

    They Trust Us, We Betray Them

    As I write this, Ingwe is leaping vertically in pursuit of lepidopteran prey with an alacrity that belies her fourteen years. She – I can’t think of her as an “it” – is a so-called “rescue cat” although dragging her from the freedom of the trash-cans of central Birmingham to a life of domestic servitude in the suburbs would probably not constitute “rescue” in the eyes of the authors. In my own defense, the vet proclaims her to be in good condition and, having unfettered access to the outdoors, she is free to reject my exploitation at any time. What she doesn’t know is that I had her two predecessors killed when their quality of life had deteriorated to a degree I considered to be unacceptable. Since neither had any say in the matter, this might be classed as a “betrayal” but I remain to be persuaded that there is any necessary conflict between caring for an animal and dispatching it humanely in due course. Would I be prepared to do the work myself? I’m the geriatric on the right: .

    To answer the authors’ question – “who do we think we are when it comes to other animals” – directly: most of us “think” we are omnivores and that this is the result of several million years of hominid evolution. Dentition alone gives the game away. As the musical duo Flanders and Swann didn’t quite phrase it, “if The Great Juju didn’t intend us to eat animals, He wouldn’t have made them out of meat.” I took the rather amusing title for this comment from a report of a recent vegan advert, although I confess I’ve yet to see it in situ. I’m not suggesting that Matthew Cole or Kate Stewart would associate themselves with such infantile anthromorphism but it is an example of the kind of priggish self-righteousness that makes the veggie brigade not so much “killjoys” as a pain in the backside.

    It should be noted in passing that there are also hazards to such a mawkish campaign to encourage members of the public to adopt “unconventional” diets: e.g. . Experts know they have to take a variety of chemicals to mitigate dietary shortcomings but children in particular are at severe risk from dilettantes.

    What are the moral and philosophical implications of surrendering to our carnivorous instincts? Pairs of blackbirds nest at opposite ends of my garden, for example, with the elder patriarch now very grey in the feather. He can still scare off the cat and raise at least four fledglings a year. From the fact that I’m not up to my armpits in the beasts, I judge that the rate of attrition must be considerably higher than the fifty percent the authors report for domestic poultry. Moreover, I doubt their demises are particularly humane. In the midst of life, we are in death and there are no retirement homes, hospices, or Dignitas clinics in nature.

    With the exception of very large mammals, such as elephants and cetaceans, almost all creatures live much longer in captivity than in the wild, if not slaughtered, and it is clear that domestication as such is not particularly stressful. It is often argued that animals are kept in “unnatural” conditions but, then, so are we. Whatever the “call of the wild,” most of us would prefer not to revert hunter-gathering in the Serengeti. Or, I suppose, just “gathering,” in the case of the authors. Provided living conditions and slaughter are humane, the moral case for the practice is at least defensible.

    The philosophical case for animal husbandry is somewhat entertaining. As a child I gazed in fascination at a model of a DNA strand that could be made to untwist and separate. It was some years before the publication of The Selfish Gene but part of the caption stuck in my mind. “An organism is simply a DNA molecule’s way of making more DNA.” Wild boar became extinct in England around three hundred years ago and agriculture, including the need to provide nuts, berries, tree bark, and whatever else vegans find toothsome, means that there is very little habitat left for such beasts. But, thanks to farming, there is certainly an order of magnitude more porcine DNA here today than at any time since the last ice age. No wonder the swine on my packet of Black Country scratchings has a smirk on its snout!