Confessions of an embarrassed omnivore

Source: The Sunday Times  29 Jan 2012

Written by Lee Wei Ling

A few months ago, a colleague of mine urged me to attend an event at Speakers’ Corner to protest against the cruelty of exhibiting dolphins at Resorts World Sentosa.

I have read extensively about dolphins in captivity, and have no doubt that that is cruel. But dolphins are also ‘celebrity’ animals. At every moment of the day, there are countless ‘non-celebrity’ animals around the world being subjected to cruel treatment without anybody protesting. What makes dolphins more worthy of our sympathy than cows, sheep or chickens (animals we eat) or crocodiles and minks (animals we skin)?

In 1995, when I was learning to use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to study which part of our brain controls which part of our body, and how we generate thoughts, I visited Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. There, I met a psychologist who was a Jew – and, to my surprise, a vegetarian as well.

At meals, he avoided beef, chicken, pork and fish, but strangely enough, not scallops. I knew observant Jews did not eat scallops, for they were not considered kosher. I asked him why, though he was a vegetarian, he ate scallops. He did not give me a satisfactory answer.

So I named a number of animals, asking him in turn what he would eat and what he would not. It was soon obvious that he would eat animals he had no empathy for. It is certainly difficult to feel empathy for scallops, so he had no qualms eating them.

A free-living scallop, though, swims by rapidly opening and closing its shell – a method of locomotion that is also a defensive technique, protecting it from threatening predators. That suggests scallops are capable of feeling distress. And yet the Jewish psychologist felt no empathy for them. Unlike dolphins, scallops are not cute.

Most Singaporeans eat meat. But how many among us are aware of the cruel conditions in which the animals destined for our consumption are reared or slaughtered?

Hens reared for their eggs are usually kept in very cramped battery cages and are beak trimmed, all of which makes their life an awful misery.

There are rules as to how animals are to be slaughtered in all First World countries. The aim is to kill the animal in such a way as to cause minimal suffering. This is often done by electrical stunning, after which the animal is bled. But stunning does not always eliminate suffering for the animal.

To begin with, the stunning may not have been properly performed, in which case the animal would still feel pain as it is cut up.

Also, the other animals waiting to be slaughtered become terrified, for they can smell the ‘fear pheromone’ secreted by the agitated and frightened animals as they are killed.

Interestingly, when it comes to laboratory animals like rodents, it is mandatory to euthanise them in separate rooms so as to minimise the distress other animals nearby might feel.

Many people protest against the cruelty laboratory animals are subjected to in the interest of medical science. But don’t the abattoir and the meat trade inflict greater cruelty on animals?

In 2008-09, Resorts World Sentosa purchased 27 wild-caught dolphins from the Solomon Islands. In 2010, two of the dolphins died.

It is undoubtedly cruel to keep dolphins in captivity. But to return captive dolphins to the wild, without first training them in survival tactics, would expose them to dangers.

Dolphins kept in captivity for some time would no longer know how to fend for themselves in the wild. They can be attacked by sharks, or become entangled in the massive amount of rubbish that humans dump in the ocean.

Now that the 25 dolphins at Resorts World Sentosa have been in captivity for so long, releasing them into the wild would not be a good idea. If the dolphins can bring Singapore tourist dollars, I am not entirely sure we should release them.

Recently, sharks have also received much sympathy, with the consumption of shark’s fins in particular being condemned by some. Animal welfare groups oppose finning on moral grounds and also because it is a major cause of the rapid decline of the global shark population, they argue. I object to finning because of the suffering experienced by sharks whose fins have been removed.

I confess I might appear hypocritical; condemning cruelty to animals and yet still eating meat. It is possible but difficult to have a balanced diet as a vegan – which means not just omitting meat but also all animal products, including eggs and milk, from one’s diet.

I have tried a diet free of meat and eggs, with milk and soya products as my source of protein. I can manage such a diet for a few days but I do not find it particularly palatable.

So I remain an embarrassed omnivore who tries to minimise unnecessary suffering to animals where possible. And I dream of a future when we can grow meat and even body organs in cell culture so that our dietary as well as medical needs can be met without subjecting any sentient organisms to pain.