Furries and Animal Welfare

01 Sep 2014 |

An apparent contradiction for your consideration:

  1. Furries care about animal welfare. Collectively we dedicate significant time, mental energy, and charitable donations to animal welfare causes (especially at conventions where total donations several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year). 83% of furries say they support animal rights (ref).
  2. Only around 4% of furries are vegetarian (ref 2009 Furry Survey), about the same as the general population.

A group with a larger-than-normal proportion of animal welfare advocates, like furry, might be expected to have a larger-than-normal proportion of ethical vegetarians. This is not to say that all advocates of animal welfare can be expected to be vegetarian on grounds of animal welfare, simply that such a choice is more likely. So why are there so few?

(This answer is partly due to furry's demographics. We are largely young and male, two groups that are less likely to be vegetarian than the general population. The difference isn't particularly large, but it's interesting: I wrote about it here.)

There are many reasons why furries might be more likely to be ethical vegetarians, at least on paper.

Research shows that humanizing animals leads to increased concern for animal welfare. Animal welfare advocacy groups know this (ref), and use it to help bolster their cause: furry mascots and cute animals abound.

As a convenient example, a furry friend of mine recently donated a couple of very hard-working, sweaty hours of time by suiting for the RSPCA. He stood outside a supermarket in his canine fursuit with a collection box, interacted with children and parents, and generally did his best to do a good deed. He was told that the money they collected that day was double what they might usually expect: the suiting did its job. (He eats meat and has never considered becoming vegetarian.)

85-rspca

It seems that it's not just humanization of animals that leads to increased concern for animal welfare. There is evidence that animalization of humans has a similar effect.

(This is based on early research by a furry with a PhD, and sometime [adjective][species] contributor, Dr. Courtney Plante (aka Nuka). His work is based on several reaction-time experiments conducted on willing furries at Oklacon, Furry Fiesta, and Anthrocon. In this work, Dr. Plante compared the speed and accuracy with which furries and therians made decisions about whether a word or picture flashing on a screen referred to “me”, “not me”, “non-human animal” or “human”. Based on the pattern of mistakes and the speed of responding, it was possible to quantify how closely linked the concepts of “me” and “non-human animal” were tied in participants’ minds, a form of automatic “self-dehumanization”. This work has yet to be published, but it is promising, showing that the extent to which furries “self-dehumanized” predicted their endorsement of animal rights activism and concern for animal welfare.)

It is believed that humanization of animals—anthropomorphism—and animalization of humans—zoomorphism—help shape our attitudes towards non-human animals by helping us consider them to be part of our group. Like a lot of social animals, humans tend to treat those who are perceived to be part of a shared group differently. This is the reason why it feels more important if a countryman (who is a stranger) is, say, killed in an accident, compared with a non-countryman (who is also a stranger).

I should add that we are all susceptible to differing opinions based (partly) on whether someone is an insider or outsider. It's not exactly logical to do so - it's just the product of the evolutionary drive to protect our own DNA. We are, after all, just animals.

It's probable that the furry propensity towards (1) anthropomorphics and (2) interest in animal welfare is linked. But that link doesn't seem to take the apparently logical next step and collectively push us in the general direction of vegetarianism.

Curiously, there is no evidence that the therian subset of furry—those that see themselves either spiritually or literally as a non-human animal—are more likely to be vegetarian. And self-identified furry zoophiles—those with a closer emotional bond with non-human animals—are only marginally more likely to be vegetarian (somewhere in the range of 6 to 8%, although note that we are dealing with small numbers so this value is subject to more uncertainty than usual.)

And yet there is no doubt that vegetarianism improves animal welfare. The reasoning is very simple:

If an animal is being raised for profit, there will sometimes be a conflict between what is best for its welfare, and what produces the highest profit. And, sometimes, the drive for profit will take priority.

If you are vegetarian, you will reduce demand for meat. Accordingly fewer animals will be raised for meat, and so fewer animals will suffer.

The harm being done to animals in the interests of profit can, and does, occur any time from birth to death. Examples include the suffering of intensively farmed cattle in the United States, battery hens in the United Kingdom, live sheep export in Australia, or a fish on a hook in Canada. Even lower creatures, like lobsters, suffer (as detailed in this terrific David Foster Wallace piece, Consider The Lobster).

I'll add that the harm being done to animals that are being raised for profit is a natural and unavoidable side-effect of capitalism. There is a drive to produce the same product for the lowest cost, and so people and companies try to do just that. Sometimes low costs lead directly to poorer animal welfare—which is why a battery chicken costs £1.50 from Tesco compared with the £15 organic one from my local farmer's market—and sometimes people cheat or look for loopholes—which is how horsemeat ends up in cheap "beef" burgers.

(The corollary is that animals raised for meat, but not profit, do not suffer at the hands of the profit motive. An ethical vegetarian may be happy to eat the chicken you raised in your backyard and named Alfred. But you should probably ask first.)

Ethical vegetarianism is a very simple and entirely uncontroversial use of logic. The counter-argument doesn't challenge the reasoning, it simply states that the conclusion is unacceptable: that refusing to consume animals raised for profit is inconvenient.

The argument for ethical vegetarianism has been around for a long time. However it was only as recently as 1975 that it gained mainstream understanding, in Peter Singer's classic Animal Liberation. Animal Liberation received a lot of publicity, positive and negative, and at the time was thought to be the first step in a seachange in human attitudes towards non-human animals.

But very little has changed since 1975. The proportion of people in Western countries calling themselves vegetarian hasn't really changed, and the number of meat-eaters worldwide has grown significantly (partly due to population growth; partly due to higher affluence in countries like India and China). Why? I don't know, and nor does Dr Singer. It may be that it's the same reason why furries are disinterested in animal welfare when it comes to food.

Perhaps you are one of the scant furry vegetarians. Or perhaps you tried it for a while and stopped. Or maybe you're thinking of making the change. Tell us your story in the comments below.