Exploring our complex relationship with the animal world

THE other day, buying vegan sausages in a Brighton supermarket, I notice they have been made in Cork. They are delicious.

Liz Marshall with a calf

Tasty, healthy, and best of all, cruelty free. And made in Ireland.

Yet the word vegan tends to variously irritate, alienate and frighten people. I prefer plant-based — it’s less loaded. Anyway, I went plant based a year ago, and I can honestly say it is the best thing I have done since giving up smoking — the relief of stepping outside the cruelty loop is the same relief I felt when I managed to quit smoking after 24 years. Enormous and ongoing.

And despite our meat-and-two-veg, milk-in-our-tea conditioning, it is easy. Plant-based foods have come a long way from the crumbling dust of meat substitutes and the chalky horrors of bad soya milk — these days plant-based food is all about flavour, texture, creaminess, yumminess. The more the demand, the more the availability, the better the quality. Almond milk, oat cream, coconut milk ice cream, dark chocolate, agave syrup — it hardly sounds like deprivation, does it? And skin that glows, energy that zings.

Going plant based in your forties, as I did, means rediscovering food via new cooking and flavours. It’s a reawakening of your tastebuds, as they experience new tastes — pomegranate syrup, white miso, vegan chorizo, ground almonds, polenta, the list is infinite (and no matter what people say about kale, it’s still horrible).

But apart from the endless inventiveness of plant-based cooking and baking, and its health benefits (have a look at The China Study by Cornell University professor of biochemistry Colin T Campbell, which conclusively links consuming animal protein with human cancers), going plant based is also better for the environment.

And so to the elephant in the room. Or rather the cow, pig, sheep, chicken. The principal reason so many of us are going plant based — to personally disengage from animal suffering.

A new film highlights how our relationship with animals needs to evolve, so that we reconsider how we regard some animals as family members and others as sandwich filling.

“Animals are hidden in the shadows of our highly mechanised world,” writes the maker of The Ghosts In Our Machine. “With the exception of our animal companions and a few wild and stray species within our urban environments, we experience animals daily only as the food, clothing, animal-tested goods and entertainment we make of them. This moral dilemma is often hidden from our view.”

Hence the title of the film, The Ghosts In Our Machine, which has its premiere in Dublin at the end of the month. It does not contain graphic images — it is a film for everyone, created to make the viewer think, rather than have nightmares.

We divide animals into three distinct categories. First, our pets — named, loved, part of the family, with a multi-million dollar industry catering to their every need, from specialised foods to expensive accessories to behavioural training, daily care, and veterinary health. The idea of eating or harming our pets is abhorrent. Then there’s wildlife — endangered, beloved, campaigned about, fundraised for, even a bit fetishised.

And then there are the rest. The ghosts. Award-winning Canadian film director and producer Liz Marshall’s film is about these animals, with its human subject and narrative voice provided by the photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. For anyone even slightly fond of animals — and that would include a huge number of us — it is essential viewing, beautiful, powerful, compelling and vivid.

The Ghosts In Our Machine is not a vegan propaganda film — Marshall is not going for shock tactics, or emotional coercion. That, she says, would be counterproductive. (Having said that, my partner Dani and his teenage son haven’t eaten meat since viewing it.)

Talking to Liz Marshall on the phone in Toronto, she is quick to say that this is not about hectoring, guilt inducing, or haranguing people to make personal changes.

“Although Dani is the targeted demographic,” she says. “Because the film touched his heart and mind.” She is keen to reach a wider demographic beyond bunny-lovers like myself.

The Ghosts In Our Machine was inspired in part by the Oscar-nominated film Black Fish, about the ethical questionability of keeping orcas in captivity in giant swimming pools to perform tricks for the paying public.

“People are starting to wake up,” says Marshall. “There is undeniable science that all animals are sentient beings. People are starting to realise this.”

Indeed the day I speak to Marshall, it is reported that scientists have conclusively proved that crustaceans — crayfish, lobsters, crabs — are sentient, feel pain, and can experience anxiety. That they are a bit more than shelled snacks.

People really are starting to wake up — in the same week, the EU banned all cosmetic testing on animals. “There are so many activists working on so many different levels to change so many things,” Marshall says. “To change the law, change global awareness, create policy change. Scientists, lawyers, researchers, political activists — the film is a tool of this movement.”

And photographer Jo-Anne McArthur is its vehicle. “I feel like I am photographing changes in history in terms of animals rights and where it is going,” she says in the film. “Leaving the animals [at the farms, fur farms, slaughter houses] is always the hardest thing, and leaving is the reason I’m haunted. Leaving them behind.”

To recover her strength to keep going, she spends time at an animal sanctuary.

Unsurprisingly, consumers magazines won’t publish her images. They are too powerful. You can fairly easily read about where your lunch or your shoe leather comes from, but to actually see it is a different matter — a photo can have a much stronger impact on the fur, animal testing and farming industries than, say, direct action.

For instance, if an animal testing laboratory is illegally damaged by an animal liberation activist, three things happen — the laboratory is covered by insurance, the activist has broken the law and is criminalised, and the general public tend not to be overly sympathetic, even if the activist’s motivation is genuinely ethical. But a photograph is another thing entirely, and can stop you in its tracks, and jolt you awake. At the start of the film we see a New York photographic agency explaining to Marshall that although they really admire her work, there is no room in commercial magazines for it. We don’t want to see the ghosts.

“This is an enormous issue,” says Liz Marshall. “Which is why the film places a human subject at its heart.” Marshall came to the subject of how we treat animals via her previous work concerning social and environmental justice — she saw how the lives of animals are interconnected with the lives of all of us. That they are not objects or property, but living feeling beings. “It is the next frontier of social justice,” she says. “It comes on the heels of the environmental movement, with traction and momentum happening daily.”

There is no single best approach — nor, says Marshall, any need for criticism. Just debate, and thinking. Consider, she says, the UN report that tells us how the animal agri-industry has far more of an environmental impact that transport, yet we worry about air miles far more than burgers. And that’s before you ever consider human health, empathy and ethics. Before you ever hug a bunny. Ten billion animals die every year for our dinner, not including the ones in the sea.

Dairy, says Jo-Anne McArthur in the film, is perhaps the cruellest, because although dairy cows live naturally for a couple of decades, within the industry they are butchered after three or four years, quite literally milked to death. We all know the expression to milk something dry — this is where it comes from. Cows are the most attached parents, yet the dairy industry causes appalling suffering — and that’s before you ever contemplate a burger. Or veal.

These facts are not presented to alienate anyone, or to cause guilt or anger, but to ponder. “Will the world go vegan tomorrow?” Marshall asks. “No it won’t. I’m pragmatic. But if more people consume less animals, then this is something we are working towards.”

Contextually, it’s the next logical step in the evolution of our own species. Many of humanity’s great minds — Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw — eschewed consuming animals. The rest of us may finally be starting to catch up. Perhaps one day we will look back at factory farming and animal cruelty with the same horror we reserve for slavery, child labour, and the oppression of minorities. Films like The Ghosts In Our Machine may help this process of evolution to speed up a bit.

* The Ghosts in Our Machine is screened at the Irish Institute, Pearse Centre, Pearse St, Dublin on July 26 at 6.30pm.

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