One of the more common ideas in people’s heads is that fish, chickens, and other animals are stupid or unfeeling, so that even in the face of the most lurid description of these animals’ suffering, some people will still say, “So what?” They simply have no empathy for farmed animals, and if the person you’re talking with doesn’t empathize with the animals involved, no amount of describing the cruelty is going to move him or her to stop eating animals. So I have found that telling people about the varied personalities of farmed animals is a very effective tactic.
People really are interested in the fact that on cognitive functioning tests such as those that measure an animal’s ability to navigate mazes or learn from one another, chickens score better than dogs or cats, and that pigs play video games more effectively than some primates and learn from one another and interact with one another in ways that have previously been observed only in primates.
There is also very good recent scientific evidence that fish have memories and use tools, which used to be what anthropologists claimed distinguished humans from other primates. Dr. Sylvia Earle, arguably the foremost living marine biologist, says that she would no more eat a fish than she would eat a cocker spaniel. Here’s a person who would know, and she says that “fish are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they’re wounded.”
We’ve tried to make this easier for you because we’ve now posted online some of the best behavioral information about farmed animals that we’ve been able to dig up—we call this our “Hidden Lives” series, and we now have “The Hidden Lives of” fish, chickens, pigs, turkeys, cows, sheep and goats, ducks and geese, baboons, and rats and mice. Read more about the fascinating lives of farmed animals.
All of this shouldn’t matter, of course—it’s neither the degree of intelligence nor cognitive function, but rather the ability to suffer that is crucial. But for many people, it does matter; it helps them relate to animals—just as they relate better to you if you’re dressed more like they are. So being able to explain things about animal intelligence and capacities that will help people to see other animals as more like their dogs and cats and more like us is a very effective way to move people toward agreement with animal liberation and toward a vegan diet. Of course, you don’t want to bog your brain down with so many anecdotes that when you start talking, you can’t figure out what to say. Simply mastering a few key facts and anecdotes about farmed animals will be more than enough when you are explaining why chickens, pigs, fish, and cows are every bit as interesting, sensitive, and deserving of concern as any dog or cat.