I was excited to get to talk to author Saryta Rodriguez about her new book Until Every Animal is Free recently published by Vegan Publishers. Saryta is a compelling writer, and after reading her book I was left with a lot to think about and some questions which I took the opportunity to ask her in this interview. Our conversation ranged from fish sentience to atheism with a few detours into intersectionality and other interesting areas. Because we had so much to talk about, this interview is split into two parts.
I love hearing people’s vegan origin stories, so I appreciate that you begin your book with a description of your childhood and some of the motivations that inform your commitment to animal activism. What do you think was the most important or illustrative event that made you the activist you are today?
Honestly, I don’t have such an event to share, and this was perhaps the hardest chapter of the entire book for me to put together. Animal liberationists, like members of any other subset of our society, have a unique culture, and there are certain staples of this culture that I simply do not share. For instance, many celebrate “veganniversaries”— the anniversary of the day on which they decided to go vegan. I do not remember the exact day that I went vegan. I do not really have a “Why/how I went vegan” story, though I hope that chapter in my book sheds light on the circumstances and ideas that may have ultimately contributed to this mindset developing within me. But for me, it wasn’t a moment, an epiphany striking me like a lightning bolt; it was simply the accumulation of information coupled with my desire to be ethically consistent— to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. Once I had the facts, it didn’t seem possible for me to not “go vegan.”
Glad to hear I’m not the only one who can’t celebrate my ‘veganniversary’. Maybe the lack of a personal ‘epiphany’ is what makes me so hungry to hear about others’.
You are clearly highly motivated by the empathy you have for animals. At several points in your book you describe the ‘moral argument’ for veganism as though it were synonymous with the ‘emotional argument’. Do you see veganism as a philosophy contingent upon empathy?
I do think that empathy goes a long way in someone committing to vegan living, but no, I don’t ultimately think it’s necessary, or that going vegan is contingent upon empathy. “Selfish” or human-centric reasons for going vegan abound, such as the common need among all of us to have clean air and water. I can easily imagine someone who doesn’t care one iota about nonhumans still going vegan, for instance, so as to minimize their contribution to drought conditions here in California, or so as not to contribute to environmental devastation and misuse of resources involved in animal agriculture. The movie Cowspiracy* does a brilliant job, in my opinion, of exploring some of these reasons for going vegan, while it does ultimately end with an ethical message.
You spend a substantial portion of the book discussing animal sentience and particularly focus on fish in the chapter ‘Nirvana was being sarcastic: The Truth about Fish’. Can you give us a brief summary of your research on fish sentience and explain why you thought it was useful to explore the minds of animals which are often thought of as a fringe case for consciousness or sentience?
Sure, I’d be happy to. So the reason I felt fish in particular, and ocean life more generally, deserved to be featured independently of other animals is because of the word “pescatarian”*, and the existence of people who say things like, “I’m vegetarian, but sometimes I eat fish.” I feel that even among those who empathize with land animals, precious few people actually care about fish— even within animal liberation communities! There is this assumption that they’re like swimming carrots— that they don’t think or feel, but only move.
At one point in my book I discuss the common argument that it must be okay for us to eat meat because cavemen did it. I ask why this is considered a valid response given that it is never used in any other scenario. For instance, with respect to science, to education, to how we treat our friends and relatives, no one ever says, “We should do it this way, because that’s how cavemen did it.
So I sought to discover whether or not this was true, and the results were basically thus: while some are hesitant to call it pain and instead use more convoluted phrases like “discomfort” or “distress signal,” it has been confirmed that fish and most— if not all— shellfish are capable of experiencing pain— even if the mechanisms that sense and respond to this pain are different from yours or mine. They are also capable of learning, exhibiting fear, and participating in communities.
One of the most fascinating things I learned about fish, actually, is the complexity with which their communities can be structured. I knew they had a group of other fish with whom they swam and preferred to be around, perhaps for safety, but I didn’t know, for instance, that it was possible to be a high-profile or “popular” fish in your shoal. I did not know that a fish could have an anxiety attack upon being separated from their shoal. I did not know that there were commonly preyed-upon fish, such as several species of damselfish, who could actually cooperate in order to attack or even confuse or mislead a predator. They are capable of far more complex thinking and strategizing than I would ever have guessed before actively studying them.
I had hoped that by sharing this information with the world, I might convince some of those “pesky pescatarians” to develop the same regard for ocean life that they have already developed for land life.
Several times in the book you describe human beings as herbivores*, which is (unfortunately, in my view) common in vegan circles. Our current knowledge of human evolutionary history and biology seems to indicate that we are omnivorous**. Do you think humans are actually herbivores?
You know, I’m really glad you’ve asked me about that. You see, the initial drafts of the book included an entire chapter entitled, “SURPRISE! You’re an Herbivore!” Ultimately it was decided to remove this chapter because the rest of the book focused on ethics, and my publisher felt it would be odd to include a single chapter on health in the middle of a book about ethics.
In this chapter, I outline research by anatomists, doctors and others which indicates strongly— in my mind, proves, but perhaps you’d disagree— that we are in fact herbivores. Since it was cut, I decided to make it available as a free PDF via the book’s website, UntilEveryAnimalisFree.Com. There, there is a tab labeled Bonus Chapter and Supplementary Essays. The bonus chapter is this health chapter, while the supplementary essays address issues that for whatever reason I was unable to address in the book—because certain folks weren’t available to provide their input, because I didn’t know of a particular person or organization while writing the book, or because a specific issue arose well after the book went into production and it was too late for me to make changes or additions.
Rather than sit here and try to regurgitate from memory all that I learned in researching that chapter, I think the best way for folks such as yourself to get a handle on our herbivorous design would be to check out SURPRISE! You’re an Herbivore!
I’m aware of the documented health benefits of reducing meat consumption. But, to get pedantic, even if it were proven that the optimal diet for human health is a vegan one, we would still be classified as omnivores since the word refers to our habits not our ‘design’*.
Either way, considering we know it is possible to sustain good health on a vegan diet, do you think the potential diet of our evolutionary ancestors is relevant to our modern moral choices?
I’m glad you asked— no. At one point in my book I discuss the common argument that it must be okay for us to eat meat because cavemen did it. I ask why this is considered a valid response given that it is never used in any other scenario. For instance, with respect to science, to education, to how we treat our friends and relatives, no one ever says, “We should do it this way, because that’s how cavemen did it.” The whole notion of “progress”— whether you believe we are achieving it or not, or as most of us think, that we are achieving it in some respects but not others— rests on the desire to improve upon what cavemen did. In all other areas of life, we seek to do things “better”— more efficiently, more healthfully, etc. — than our ancestors, and yet time and time again those who oppose veganism claim that the mere fact that cavemen weren’t vegan proves that we shouldn’t be.
I think it’s also worth noting that new data suggests “cavemen”, or at least Neanderthals, were not as carnivorous as we have been led to believe*. They ate whatever was available, and so a lot of that depended on their geographic region. Some ate fewer vegetables not because humans are “supposed” to eat meat exclusively but because vegetables and/or fruits were scarce where they were. Similarly, they did not eat meat because they “had” to (and, thus, we also “have” to) but because plant availability was so scarce that eating plants alone would not have yielded enough calories to sustain them. This problem persists to this day in some regions, and so increasing plant-based food availability in harsh climates remains an imperative for the Animal Liberation Movement.
You devote a chapter to discussing animal testing and I was interested and excited to read about some of the advances made in non-animal models such as the ‘organs-on-a-chip’*. I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that animal advocates should educate themselves on the advances in this arena so that, when faced with the question ‘if we can’t experiment on animals then how will we advance medical science?’ we have coherent and hopeful answers.
I think we also need a degree of humility when debating medical scientists who are motivated by a concern for human well being which I think statements like ‘(animal testing) cannot tell us anything of value’* undermine. Isn’t the moral case for not exploiting animals strong enough without having to deny the advances that animal testing has contributed to?*
Forgive me, perhaps I did not make this clear enough, but I never meant to assert that animal testing has never told us anything of value— rather, my point is that it can no longer tell us anything of value that these alternatives can’t also tell us. I relied on the research of scientists such as Dr. Aysha Ahktar, and much of what I say about the failure of animal testing to accurately tell us how humans will react in certain scenarios comes from her work. I imagine I will receive the same sorts of critiques about this as she has received, but at bottom, there just isn’t any reason to continue torturing animals for science— even if you believe that, once upon a time, such behavior was justified. (I personally don’t, but that’s a matter of ethics, not fact. Even if someone were to prove for a fact that animal testing was necessary, say, 100 years ago, that still does nothing to prove that it has any inherent value right now.)
This is something I’ve come to understand not only through research, but also via personal encounters with folks who actually worked in animal testing. Almira Tanner, an animal liberationist with Direct Action Everywhere- Vancouver, was once a vivisectionist and writes beautiful about the topic. * Michael Slusher, author of the upcoming book They All Had Eyes: Confessions of a Vivisectionist, spent years torturing small animals for a living. These people saw, up close and personal, what happens in these labs, and for what purpose, and they and many others like them had both the courage and the scientific know-how to leave with confidence — to walk away from this horrific system knowing that in doing so, they were not hindering scientific progress one iota.
I’d also like to note that institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities have all eschewed animal testing years ago. I can’t imagine any of these renowned institutions would voluntarily give up a practice that is necessary for scientific advancement. Former National Institute of Health Director Elias Zerhouni did not mince words on the subject of animal testing: “We all drank the Kool Aid on that one, myself included.”
For me, it really is that simple. In short, the proof is in the plant-based pudding. I know animal testing isn’t necessary because others have already eschewed it and continue to make scientific progress every day.
I agree that we are moving towards a kind of non-animal medical testing that will be more efficient and effective. I’m encouraged by work of charities such as the Dr Hadwen Trust (see our interview with Dr. Kay Miller, Head of Operations) in this area. Although I’m far from an expert, I suspect that there are medical advances still being made using animal testing today in areas where non-animal models are not yet available. I am comfortable saying that while animal testing has lead to some amazing breakthroughs and still may contribute to medical science, I object to it on moral grounds. I am always wary of ‘truths’ that conform to our agenda too well and ‘animal testing is wrong AND it doesn’t work anyway’ seems suspiciously convenient to me.
It does seem suspicious, but I agree that independent of whether one believes it yielded advances or may even still yield advances, it is ultimately unethical. I also have the utmost faith that in any remaining areas where a substitute has not yet been found, it will be, because enough people in the medical field and other related fields are committed to finding these very solutions.
As well as being an advocate for animals you are clearly very conscious of other social justice issues and in your book you suggest some of the ways you see these causes as being interlinked. I am not fully convinced by some of the arguments for intersectionality particularly those you raise around feminism. In the book, you say:
“Feminists purport to be fighting for equality among the sexes and condemn sexual exploitation of women in various forms - including rape. What some fail to realise is that every time they drink a glass of milk… they are financing and visually demonstrating their support of raping cows, goats and other non-human animals”
Feminists are concerned with the equal rights of women. To suggest that the word ‘women’ does or should encompass non-human females and then demand feminists go vegan to be consistent is tempting but seems unreasonable. Can you explain this example and intersectionality more broadly and demonstrate why you think it is important in the animal rights movement?
The thing is, while forms or branches of feminism abound, and don’t always agree on everything, one thread of thought that seems to be woven within the fabrics of all feminist theories is that women have the right to bodily autonomy. Feminists are outspoken against rape and “rape-culture”— which I understand to mean a culture in which rape is, while not outright promoted, nevertheless subtly excused or permitted via persistent messaging that women are lesser beings than men, that women may be “objectified” to suit the pleasures of men.
This is one primary reason I think feminists need to get behind veganism— so as to respect the autonomy of bovine women and protect them from rape
Similarly, bovine women —female cows— are objectified for the pleasures of those who consume dairy products. They are repeatedly impregnated so that they can lactate, and in factory farming facilities, the machine used to impregnate them is literally called a Rape Rack. That’s not an activist term— that’s the industry term! So there is an open confession on a daily basis in these facilities that what is happening to the cows is rape, by referring to the machine in this manner.
This is one primary reason I think feminists need to get behind veganism: so as to respect the autonomy of bovine women and protect them from rape.
The second reason is that once the bovine produces a child, that child is taken away from her within one-two days, never to be seen again. This is kidnapping, plain and simple. The YouTube video ‘The Real Price of Dairy’* makes this plain. Many feminists (though some more than others) campaign for the rights of women and children simultaneously. This kidnapping not only negatively affects the mother but also the resultant child, who, if female, will likely grow up to be raped on a daily basis herself and, if male, will be either raised for beef or fed while tied up for just a few weeks or months before he is murdered and sold as veal.
Finally, it strikes me as ethically inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that human men do not have the right to abuse or sexually assault human women and, on the other hand, support the “rights” of human men and women to commit these same offenses against cows and other lactating animals. The power structure in play is the same, and we cannot hope to effectively combat or dismantle one of these power structures while the other remains unchanged.
I am fully behind your project to encourage feminists to become vegan, and I see how drawing analogies between issues that concern feminists and issues that concern vegans is a useful way to get them thinking about animal issues. What I find unsettling about these sort of arguments is that advocates don’t say ‘what we do to female cows is like rape’ but ‘female cows are raped’. I think that’s a subtle but important distinction. What happens to female cows is uniquely horrific and morally objectionable, but I don’t think it is necessary to represent it as the same offence that feminists already abhore to get our point across.
You said it strikes you as ethically inconsistent to be concerned about the rights of human women and not the rights of female animals, I don’t see this as an inconsistency. If your ethics are centred around human rights, then non-humans are outwith your ethical boundaries. I think it is important to convince people to widen their sphere of concern rather than attempting to demonstrate that their existing sphere already contains animals.
Well, I think a lot of people agree with this — and not just with respect to animal rights. Women of color often feel excluded from the feminist community, for instance, because feminism doesn’t concern itself outright (or, some would say, at all) with race. We often hear that in the US, women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid for doing the same job* (just recently, some have reported it to be 78 cents). What we don’t hear is that the numbers for women of color are far worse* — for black women it’s 64 cents; for Hispanic women, such as myself, it’s 54 cents. This is why an intersectional approach, in my opinion, is necessary— by which I mean that we should not consider social justice issues in a vacuum but rather consistently examine their overlap in order to understand them fully and, thus, to successfully combat injustice.
For further reading regarding intersectionality between animal rights and feminism, I would highly recommend the article “5 Reasons For Why Animal Rights Are a Feminist Issue” by Aph Ko (written with the help of Syl Ko)*. The article is on a blog called Everyday Feminism, which I highly recommend anyone interested in modern feminist debates follow!
This article on The Scavenger* also does a good job of breaking down the issue, I think.
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