Lots of people describe themselves as “animal lovers.” Too often, that means only that they can say either “oh, how cute!” or “oh, ain’t it awful!” with feeling. How cute is the dear little kitten or puppy; how cute is the dog who shakes hands on command. Ain’t it awful about poor animals in shelters, ain’t it awful about abused pets, ain’t it awful what Michael Vick did. And so on, ad nauseam.
In the preface to his landmark 1975 book, “Animal Liberation,” Peter Singer tells about two such animal lovers he had met before its publication.
The Singers had tea with a couple of women who had heard he planned to write about animals. As a self-described “animal lover,” one of the women waxed rhapsodic about her pets and related subjects. Then, while she ate a ham sandwich, she asked the Singers about their pets. Both women were surprised to learn they had none.
They were more surprised to learn how the Singers were interested in animals: not as pets, but as independent sentient beings who should not be exploited by humans (as was the pig whose flesh was now in the sandwiches before them).
The Singers explained that they weren’t particularly interested in animals as pets and they didn’t “love” animals. But they did care about “the prevention of suffering and misery”; they were “opposed to arbitrary discrimination”; they thought it “wrong to inflict needless suffering on another being, even if that being were not a member of our own species”; and finally, they wanted to change how animals “were ruthlessly and cruelly exploited by humans.”
His book is not about pets, Singer says after telling that story. It would probably be uncomfortable reading for those who think “love for animals involves no more than stroking a cat or feeding birds in the garden.”
“Animal lovers” – it is to laugh.