This semester, for the first time in my life, I’m teaching a class on animal rights. At my university, all baccalaureate students are required to take a course on social justice. Faculty have developed challenging, creative classes around racism, poverty, health, immigration, and the environment. One or two have incorporated some material about nonhuman animals, but this is the first time one of the classes has focused completely on animal rights. We’re a month into the term, and so far, I’ve found the teaching challenging, exciting, emotional, rewarding—and not a little intimidating.
My students come from all sorts of backgrounds and with a variety of motivations. A tiny number were animal rights advocates before enrolling in the class. Some just want to fulfill the course requirement, and this class fit their schedules—nothing wrong with that. Most are in the course because they’re interested in animal rights on some level. They like animals, they care about the mistreatment of others, and they’re curious about the animal advocacy movement.
I am not trying to teach them they should become vegans or vegetarians. That they should abhor activities that engage the domination or killing of animals for entertainment. That they should never, ever go to a circus where captive elephants dance and terrified lions jump through fiery hoops. That they should be appalled at the treatment of animals in industry and science.
Instead, I’m giving them tons and tons of reading to do from every point of view on every animal-rights issue. I’m having them write their thoughts and their feelings. They’re all working with animals at various nonprofit agencies. In class, we talk. We share insights, beliefs, and experiences. And we have vegan snacks at every class meeting.
Every day, I think of my goals for this class. “What I want,” I told my husband. “Is for them to ask the right questions.” I want them to realize that there are questions. Not to pass through life unaware of or unconcerned about the suffering that supports human desires. Not to pull on a chic pair of boots or throw a slab of flesh into their grocery carts without thinking about the death of an animal who wanted to feel the sun on his back. How they answer those questions is up to them. But I want them to finish this course asking.
I should tell them this: Animal advocacy is a lonely life. You discover yourself in a tiny minority. You are often labelled an “extremist” or a “nut.” Your most progressive friends will treat your views with polite detachment, but will not share them. You will spend a lifetime wondering why more people don’t get it.
It happens when nonhuman animals become individuals to you. Suddenly, you see them as subjects of a life, as beings who feel pleasure and pain, who suffer and love, who fear death and want to live. The taking of an animal life stops being “natural” or “normal” or “part of the circle of life” and starts being the taking of a life.
I should warn them: Once your vision shifts, your life will never be the same. Go through that door and you can never go back.