Talking to children about animals: how society sends mixed messages about respect
Guest Essay by April-Tui Buckley
One of the key responsibilities of parents is to teach their children respect. We try and raise them to be kind and considerate children who grow into respectful and compassionate adults. We have many more considerations as a parent, but this is one I prioritise myself and I know most parents do. My own childhood was spent on a farm in New Zealand, not the most likely place to foster a vegan ideology, but believe it or not the seeds were sown there. I am also Maori and raised by a strong Maori woman. Respect for the land and its people were central to my upbringing. In our culture we are considered caretakers of the land, we govern it and care for it for future generations. By no means is the Maori culture vegan, but my culture also played its role in how I live as a vegan today.
I can’t say if I ever felt totally comfortable with what happened to the animals on our farms, but I can say my earliest memory is one of confusion. Why was I taught not to harm other people, to be gentle to the cats and dogs we referred to as pets, but then walk out the door of our home and watch as our father did unspeakable things to these animals? These animals we have spent the last few months or sometimes years, caring for. These animals that got my father up in the wee hours, walking the hills in the pouring rain just to save them. I had naively assumed he didn’t want them to suffer. That he saved these lambs out of empathy. But I was soon to learn that each and every animal on that farm, and all farms, were assets.
My father worked unbelievably long hours nurturing, caring for and tending to the needs of all of them, wrecking his body in the process. But this was not empathy, as I had believed. By the time I was in my early teens I understood very clearly this was a job, these animals were profit and nothing more. I wondered what it took to care for and spend time with the animals, as I did, and then be physically able to end their life. It was so far from how I felt about animals myself. I wondered still, what on earth the word respect truly meant, when everything I learnt living on a farm seemed to render the word meaningless. Why did they tell me to treat my cat gently or to stop hitting my sister? Why did they deserve respect, why could I not cause them harm, yet my Dad could slit the throat of any animal he wished to? Why was he allowed to take their babies? Why was he allowed to attach an electric dog collar to his supposedly much-loved working dog and electrocute him for turning the wrong direction? Why did my Maori mother teach me about racism, sexism and oppression, and how important it is for us to fight them, yet serve me meat, fish, dairy and eggs?
As I got older and braver, I began to question what I had been taught very openly. I was looking at photos of my fathers first kill, a pig when he was a teenager, I think around 13. I asked him that night what he felt when he killed his first animal. Literally, he did not understand the question.‘ I don’t know what you’re on about, I didn’t feel anything because it’s just a pig’. That is what he was taught and what he attempted to teach me. It is just an object. It does not have moral value and it does not have rights. It is not the same as your cat, your sister, or you. It is my job to kill it. This is the most confused fucked up message you can teach your children. Essentially we are teaching our children to love one and not the other, for no other reason than, I told you so. This is the way it is, I can’t explain why but just do what I do, even if it makes no sense.
We cannot expect children to grow into respectful, compassionate adults, if what we actually teach them is this confused and selective philosophy. Most young children feel love and respect for animals, even those of us growing up in an environment full of death and commodification (otherwise known as farming). What we are teaching our children is actually quite the opposite of respect. We are teaching them to ignore their instincts. We are teaching them moral inconsistency. A mixed up philosophy that has no true value. It is based on cultural traditions, convenience and, quite honestly, one of the very worst human traits: selfishness. We are teaching our children that the only thing that matters is yourself. That respect is not something you give every sentient being. That you ignore your natural instinct and follow society’s messed up, meaningless, totally arbitrary and self serving set of rules as to who is or who is not allowed to be free, who is or is not allowed to live their life on their terms.
What do we have as a result of this immoral and inconsistent set of beliefs? We have violence. We have violence everywhere. In our homes, on our streets, in our schools, in our supermarkets, absolutely everywhere. All violence comes from the same place. Without respect, you have violence. A world without violence will only be possible when we fully understand what that word, respect, truly means and give every sentient being equal access to it.
I am now a mother myself and what we teach our daughter is very clear. We are anti racist, we are feminist, we are against any and all oppression, including speciesism. We are vegan. This is what I learnt from the farm, this is what I learnt from my Maori culture. That might seem a very weird thing to say given that I just explained the confusing messages I was taught. But farming meant I lived next to animals. I heard their excruciating cries for help. I saw, up close and personal, the terror in their eyes. I saw the love they had for their babies. That they were afraid for their life, just like we are when we think we are in danger. Maori culture is steeped in respect for the land, the sea, the plants, the people- alive or dead. I believe I took lessons I learnt from my people and extended it to include animals. Because it really doesn’t make sense otherwise.