I don’t do sanctuary work out of love. That statement unnerves and offends lots of other sanctuary folks, both supporters and workers. Many of them became vegan because they learned to love a farm animal. Many of them feel the safest, the most loved, around non-human animals. Many of them have devoted years of their lives to rescuing farm animals because they love them. So, I can understand why they might be unnerved. However, while I’ve always admired that love, and while I’ve felt that love, it’s not why I do this work.
My primary motivation is justice.
I learned at a very early age that love is an often capricious and dangerous thing. My father loved me. He truly, deeply, and sincerely loved me. He also sexually abused me for the first twelve years of my life. So you tell me what love is to a child in that situation, or what it becomes to the grown woman.
And that’s just one example. We can all think of others. Most of the men who beat their wives love them. Most of the people who eat animals love them. Most of the white folks who hate black folks love their biracial grandbabies. So on and so forth. It’s almost trite, how this works, and yet we still cling to the notion of love as a grand motivating force.
Why do we do it? I would argue that we have a cultural addiction to love. We need to be in love. We need to have loved ones. We are social animals and have determined that love is the glue that holds us together, despite the fact that it’s proven to be unreliable time and time again.
Whoa, you might say. What’s wrong with love? Well, before I answer that question, I will be clear: I love love. I love being in love. In fact, love is my most favoritist feeling. But it’s never, on its own, motivated me to treat my loved ones properly (not that I always have).
Ultimately, love is self-referential. I feel love; you feel love. Love is a FEELING, and in the end, it implies nothing about what I (or anyone else) will do with that feeling.
Justice, however, is impartial when applied properly. Ethics are often difficult to untangle and sometimes contextually tricky, but they do not let us down once they are in place, so long as we act accordingly.
The first time I went vegetarian (not vegan), I was 18 years old. My motivation? Seeing a deer in a zoo and making a true city-girl comment about how horrible it was that people hunt such adorable animals. My girlfriend at the time snapped back and said well, you eat cows, so what’s the difference? Slam! She was right! I gave up meat right then and there out of love for cute animals. After all, cows are cute too.
Of course that lasted all of about two months.
When I turned 30-something, though, I (and the animals I was exploiting) had the good fortune to meet Gary Yourofsky and hear what he had to say about the treatment of animals ranging from circus animals to farm animals. Through him and others, I learned about justice in the context of animal rights. Long a social justice worker on behalf of humans, the ethical mandate was clear. And when justice knocks on the door, people who care about justice answer. I went vegan and never turned back.
Last Sunday, we took in six cows and five chickens from Wisconsin. We opened the trailer doors and watched the cows walk up the long steep road to the sanctuary. As they passed, I caught the eye of one of the younger steer. He’s enormous, and black, with black eyes bigger than golf balls.
In that moment, I remembered when Pattrice and I found Victor Frankl, the chicken who started it all, by the side of the road. I didn’t think he was the cutest thing I’d ever seen; I didn’t love him right then and there; frankly, I didn’t love him for quite awhile. But it was the right thing to do. It was just. It was ethical. We’d moved to Maryland with a fuzzy notion of starting some sort of sanctuary, but had only been able to afford two acres. When we saw that white shape in the green brush, it was clear: we would have a sanctuary for chickens. So we picked him up and that was that.
Over the years that have followed, I’ve known and loved thousands of chickens. (I’ve also loved many ducks, cats, dogs, geese, and other non-human animals.) I’ve also disliked many others whose personalities have left something to be desired. But I have cared for them all to the best of my ability (and of course not on my own by any stretch). My love for someone else, or lack thereof, simply is not a motivator in whether or not I provide good care. My love, or lack thereof, is completely irrelevant when it comes to sanctuary work.
However, I loved that black cow. Watching him walk up the road, I was surprised by tears in my eyes and realized I loved him. Right away. And again, I was surprised. I don’t usually love anyone the first time I see them, regardless of species.
So, perhaps that’s a good thing. But regardless of whether it was good or bad, it was a noteworthy thing, in my life anyway, and prompted me to think about this love versus justice thing even more than I usually do (which is quite a lot, actually).
After all, we cannot forget:
Love enables chicken farmers to allow half a dozen chickens to live in their back yards while they send hundreds of thousands of others to an early, painful death.
Love enables people who feed and tend the reviled pigeons in New York City to cook the carcasses of turkeys in their ovens.
Love enables folks who spend countless hours of their lives saving dogs and cats to serve the flesh of other animals at their fund-raisers.
Love enables us to hate people in other places because they eat the animals we love, not thinking for a second that the tables are turned elsewhere.
Love clouds our ability to seek justice. We cannot see the hypocrisy of our actions because of love.
Whether or not I love anyone is beside the point. It’s the icing on the cake of justice. And so while February was made the month of love by corporate lobbyists who saw the earning potential in a fun, silly little holiday, I declare March to be the month of justice. What the hell; there’s no money in it, but if we all decide it is so, it will be so.