Furries and Animal Welfare

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.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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10 thoughts on “Furries and Animal Welfare

  1. I think it’s also worth noting that a vast majority of furries have picked carnivorous fursonas–wolves and foxes chief among them. If furries on average feel a stronger-than-usual connection to their fursona species, it seems to follow that those with carnivorous fursonas would, well, eat meat.

    Personally I find it necessary to eat meat for health reasons. Celiac disease + IBS + other food sensitivities limit my options quite a lot. Vegetarian diets tend to be high-carb, and the more carbs (esp. sugars) I eat, the worse I feel. Different bodies are different. I’d love to have a green, leafy diet more like my fursona’s (a sloth), but my human health is higher priority. :/

    1. Hi Tica, thanks for the comment. I’m surprised that celiac disease and IBS push you away from a vegetarian diet. I don’t really follow why a vegetarian diet tends to be high carb / high sugar, although I know that food options can vary wildly depending on where you live. If you don’t have access to grocery stores with a reasonable selection of nut and legume options, I can see that it might be difficult to get sufficient calories. And I know it’s common for people with IBS to be recommended a diet high in insoluble fibre. But then perhaps your food sensitivities are restricting your options.

      You have my sympathy. Food restrictions and associated medical conditions can be very challenging. I hope you’re managing it okay.

      On your comment about carnivores: it turns out that (furry) carnivores are no more likely to be vegetarian than (furry) herbivores. We tracked down that statistic in my previous digression into vegetarianism.

  2. There are probably a fair number of people that would agree with the main ideas that lead to vegetarianism but don’t follow through for less idealogical reasons.

    Perhaps just because it’s harder. It’s easy to say you support improving animal welfare when it’s just volunteering occasionally or donating some spare change but when it comes to making a change in the way they live their lives then they back out.

    Or perhaps there’s also pressure from families and societies to fit in. You’d be less likely to do something if there’s no support or actually push back against your choices.

  3. As I mentioned in a very similar previous article you wrote on this, part of the issue may be simply looking at it as vegetarian versus non-vegetarian. It is possible that some furries have drastically reduced meat consumption yet have not given up entirely and so do not call themselves vegetarians. Also some may be quite willing to pay more for meat/milk/eggs that comes from animals that treated better.

    I know that I have certainly cut down on my meat intake, and also pay a premium so that the meat I do eat comes from animals that have been treated better.

  4. By the way, I was one who pushed strongly for them to change the wording from human versus animal to human versus non-human animal since, biologically humans -are- animals.

    It seems to me that you think bridging that gap should then result in a feeling of unity with all animals, but even many vegetarians have no problem with swatting a mosquito. It is also not uncommon to see people who eat sea food but no other meat. There definitely still seems to be some sort of hierarchy even in the minds of many people who consider themselves vegetarians, so why wouldn’t there be a similar (possibly unconscious) distinction in the minds of carnivores.

    Tica mentioned that many furries have fursonas that are carnivorous and you mentioned that the rates of vegetarianism do not seem to be different between furries with carnivorous fursonas and those with herbivorous, but I think there is another distinction to be made. How furries choose an animal that, in their culture, is traditionally a food animal? As far as Americans go, I would say the vast majority do not choose cows, pigs, or chickens, and so there may be a distinction between food and non-food animals and a lack of feeling of kinship for the former.

    In addition, many humans in the U.S. that eat meat are separated from the animal and buy a packaged product–some of them do not even seem to think about the fact that they are consuming muscle when they are eating meat. One friend of mine became a vegetarian after identified all the muscles in a ham…he had never thought of them as muscles before (though what he thought they were, I do not know).

    1. Hi Keito, thanks for the comments, and you are quite right to point out that this article turned out very similar to the one we republished a few weeks back. This one started its life in a slightly more hectoring tone, and I softened it during editing.

      I wanted to respond to your mosquito comment. While I think I follow your general reasoning, in general an ethical vegetarian would have no problem swatting a mosquito. It come down to suffering, not death: the mosquito has a very limited capacity to suffer, and the swat is quick and humane. (You could also reasonably suggest that the annoyance caused by the mosquito is a source of greater suffering than the swat.)

      There are many vegetarians and religious sects that do place special value on life and death. But that’s not Peter Singer’s point of view, and it’s not the point of view of pretty much any ethical vegetarian.

  5. I would venture that furries–who are primarily residents of developed, industrialized, capitalist nations in the “West”–simply are not exposed to the arguments that relate vegetarianism to animal welfare or, if they are, are exposed to a sort of strict, moralistic vegetarianism (or veganism) that prohibits all consumption of meat (or animal products). In the latter case, all they have to do to deconstruct the vegetarian’s argument is make a credible case to themselves that there are instances is which eating meat is justifiable, from which it is a short jump to write off ethical vegetarianism as needlessly (even harmfully) puritanical.

    What I try to do when I explain my ethical vegetarianism (which came circuitously from my anthro interests–I wouldn’t have taken the animal ethics class that convinced me to be vegetarian had I not been attuned to nonhuman animals already) is explain the hidden practices, pains, and abuse that happens in the industrialized production of meat in America today, as well as cultural changes over time (for instance, that Americans now eat 50% more meat per capita per annum than 60 years ago!). With those who share my faith, I make ethical arguments based on our scripture, which (in my view) allow for meat-eating only when there is no alternative source of food/nutrition.

    1. Hi Khed, that’s an insightful point as usual. One of my motivations for writing this article was to add another voice to the moderate vegetarian majority. It’s an unfortunate outcome of normal social pressures that the most visible members of a minority are rarely good ambassadors. That goes for vegetarians, religions of all stripes, furries, and pretty much anything you care to name. I recently had a close, intelligent friend of mine mention that he disliked feminism, which on discussion was entirely due to his exposure to extremists, and nothing at all to do with whether he agreed with the premise that women deserve equality (and the things you discover once you accept that premise).

      That’s an interesting comment about the LDS, and something I didn’t know. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned to you, I recently discovered that my parents formally converted to Mormonism before I was born, and apparently had a rapid change of heart and never mentioned it to anyone. So given that I’m technically Mormon, maybe I’m a better one that I thought :P… although it’s probably fair to say that certain other behaviours of mine are less adherent to the scripture.

  6. I would think that Furs better than most people, understand the distinction between sapient and non-sapient beings. Furries don’t play animal characters…they play ANTHRO-animal characters and moreover a sizable majority play predator species that A) eat meat and B) are NOT eaten in most Western cultures.

    A better study would look at those furries why play food animals such as cows, chickens and pigs, and see if they are vegetarian or not.

    1. Hi Sturmovik. It’s a good point, and before writing this article I did take a look at the data to see if any furry species were more or less likely to be vegetarian.

      Curiously enough, carnivore/omnivore species are slightly more likely to be vegetarian than herbivore species. But the differences are small, and of the three species you mention, two (chickens & pigs) are very very rare choices. There are a few cows but they don’t aren’t any more likely to be vegetarian than the rest of us.

      Much as Nuka and I discussed in last week’s roundtable article, we haven’t been able to find many significant differences between species. This is just another example.

      In the end I decided that, in the absence of any particularly interesting discoveries, I wouldn’t mention it in the article itself.

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