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We Should Extend Kindness to Our Animal Friends

11/13/2013 09:08 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Today, November 13, is World Kindness Day. Introduced in 1998, World Kindness Day seeks to highlight the common thread of kindness that binds us. Its ultimate goal is to encourage us to look beyond boundaries of human constructs, such as race, religion or gender.

This day speaks to the best of human behaviour, those acts of pure altruism on behalf of those in need. Evolutionary anthropology describes the most selfless acts as those performed for members outside our genetic kin, clan or community. Accordingly, kindness toward species outside our own constitutes the highest form of altruism.

These are acts almost all of us have performed at one point or another: rushing to the aid of a dog who has been struck by a car, helping a bird who has hit our window, or maybe even taking pains to relocate a wayward mouse without harm.

We would never knowingly not help an animal in distress, let alone be the cause of that animal's suffering.

Yet every time we buy meat, dairy or eggs, we are paying someone to inflict suffering on our behalf. Roughly 700-million animals are hidden away from view on Canada's factory farms, from which the vast majority of our meat, dairy and eggs originate.

In her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, introduces the concept of "carnism": a belief system by which we love and treat some animals well, but not others.

According to Dr. Joy, we perform a complex psychological ballet each time we eat animal-based foods. I certainly know I did. I'd justify eating animal products by many means: I'd tell myself it was "normal, natural and necessary" (Joy's "3 Ns of Justification"); I'd delude myself into thinking I was eating "chicken," not a chicken, thereby objectifying and "deindividualizing" the animal; and I would dichotomize animals by rationalizing that it wasn't like I was eating a dog.

I managed to do this at each sitting for only so long, until the image of the animal, as an individual, would bleed through. It was a running joke in the school lunch room that if you ate with me, you'd never go hungry.

But of course, we now know that the "3 Ns" do not apply to eating animals. Through extensive, long-term research and studies (most notably, The China Study) we have learned that meat, dairy and eggs are not necessary to our survival. In fact, we can dramatically reduce our risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes by ditching all three.

We are also discovering more and more about the extraordinary capacities of farmed animals. For example, did you know that chickens can recognize up to 100 other chickens based on their unique facial features? From an evolutionary perspective, such an ability would only develop if it proved advantageous -- if each individual in the group had his or her own unique role to play in the chickens' society, for instance.

This growing body of knowledge has led to a rewrite of animal protection laws in some countries. For example, Switzerland's constitution now recognizes the dignity of animals. Similarly, an amendment called The Treaty of Amsterdam was added to the founding document of the European Union to recognize that animals are beings capable of feelings and consciousness.

With new undercover footage released almost monthly, we are bearing witness to the daily and routine practices in factory farms and slaughterhouses on an unprecedented scale, and what we are seeing is deeply disturbing.

These factors have coalesced to create a new ethical era. Our apathy is turning to empathy, and we're demanding change. Case in point, within two weeks of the release of our latest undercover investigation, which exposed the routine confinement of egg-laying hens in barren battery cages for their entire lives, over 75,000 people had signed a petition calling for a ban on the use of the inherently cruel cages.

Kindness is a fundamental part of the human condition; it bridges the divides of race, religion, politics, gender and species. As Bradley Millar said, "Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar."

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