Last year, over dinner with friends, the conversation turned to the Yulin Festival. Also known as the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, this infamous gathering—held every June in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi—features the torture and consumption of tens of thousands of dogs (and sometimes cats). In 2019, as an estimated 100,000 animals were killed for the festival, images of the carnage circulated widely on the internet. Disturbing footage of dogs shows scores of them in cramped cages and nets, others blow-torched while still alive, some terrified as they are submerged into boiling pots of water, and still others reduced to carcasses hung from festival stalls. “It makes me sick,” said my friend Sam, chewing on her steak.
Around thirty million dogs and ten million cats worldwide are slaughtered annually for human consumption, according to estimates by the Humane Society International. Although not currently part of any culture’s mainstream eating habits, the practice of consuming dogs and cats exists in many countries, including, but not limited to, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Switzerland, and Nigeria. In China, dog meat is considered by some to have medicinal properties, and in parts of Africa, cat meat is said to bring good luck. Cats are also served as a Christmas dinner specialty in some rural villages in Switzerland.
The consumption of dogs and cats was more common historically. Han Chinese living in the second imperial dynasty of China, considered a golden age in the country’s history, traditionally ate dogs. In the fourth century B.C., under King Goujian’s reign, families who gave birth to a boy were rewarded with dogs meant for consumption. A wall painting in the Goguryeo tombs complex in North Korea dating back to the fourth century A.D. depicts a slaughtered dog in a food storehouse. Major factors that contributed to the desire to consume dog meat in feudal China included the rarity of meat in Chinese diets, the belief that dog meat helped to maintain stamina for farming during the scorching summer months, and the supposed abilities of dog meat to cure medical conditions like depression and impotence. A lack of perception of dogs as companion animals further normalized their consumption.
Modern-day justifications for dog and cat consumption in China often mirror those used elsewhere to rationalize the consumption of other types of meat. According to a 2012 survey conducted in 19 Chinese cities by the Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia Foundation, the major reasons that modern people give for eating dogs and cats include: “delicious taste,” “because colleagues eat [them],” and “to strengthen the body.” A majority of the 3,221 survey respondents agreed with seemingly-conflicting statements like: “it is unacceptable to eat dogs and cats if they are abused or tortured during feeding and slaughtering” and “eating cat and dog meat is different from eating pork, beef, and mutton.” The Guardian reports that cultures that have historically eaten the meat of dogs and cats are increasingly questioning the practice, due primarily to rises in pet ownership in those cultures and unwanted judgments by Western society. Shenzhen recently became the first city in mainland China to ban the eating of dogs and cats. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs also for the first time explicitly stated that dogs and cats are not livestock.
In Western societies, animal companions such as dogs and cats are widely seen as family members rather than food. The consumption of dogs and cats was not nationally outlawed in the U.S. until 2018, although the thought of eating them—or other animals often viewed as pets, like horses and rabbits—is typically met with horror. Imagine public outrage if KFC decided to add a “pup cup” to its menus; most people would likely assume that KFC had added a new menu item for their pooches, rather than one made out of them. Yet, strikingly, the acceptability of consuming cows, pigs, chickens, goats, and other farmed animals is firmly ingrained in Western cultures. According to Andrew Rowan of Tufts University, “The only consistency in the way humans think about animals is inconsistency.”
How can individuals care about some animals and, at the same time, eat others? Australian psychologists Brock Bastian and Steve Loughnan coined the term “meat paradox” to describe the psychological conflict that humans face when they choose to eat some sentient beings while simultaneously believing that they oppose animal suffering. The animals who “qualify” for human empathy are typically limited to those species who make good pets. Grace Clement of Salisbury University points out that while humans feel directly responsible for the wellbeing of animals with whom we form close relationships, like our animal companions, “we have little to no relationship with other animals, which makes us feel like we have little to no moral obligations towards them.” Peter Singer, in his 1999 book Reflections, argues that the moral component of a human-animal companion relationship is not based on a human’s love toward a particular dog; instead, the morality underlying the relationship is based on the dog’s existence, and that the dog has interests of her own and can experience suffering. Singer opposes arbitrary species discrimination, so while he does not particularly care for dogs, cats, or horses, he posits that every animal deserves to be treated justly as an independent sentient being. The “pets or meat” question is riddled with contradictions because there is simply no morally coherent justification to treat certain animals as food and others like the babies of the family.
Jared Piazza of Lancaster University finds that when it comes to eating animals, humans often make emotional rather than rational decisions. Loughnan and his colleagues reveal that, across cultures, eating animals perceived as “mindful” is considered disgusting. To reduce feelings of guilt, meat-eaters often make unfounded claims that lack any scientific basis, such as: “dogs are smarter than pigs” or “fish can’t feel pain.” A Cambridge study finds that pigs are as smart as three-year-old humans, are extremely clean, can distinguish between various scents, and can even put their toys away after a play session. Claims disputing fish sentience are also disproven by recent studies—fish do indeed feel pain and stress. Cows have great memories, octopuses solve problems and remember solutions, and goats gaze at humans in the same pleading manner as dogs. Humans’ inability to verbally communicate with nonhuman animals to understand their emotions is not an indication that other animals lack sentience.
Psychological defenses of meat-eating attempt to bridge moral inconsistencies and are often used to justify the hypocrisy of eating one animal while cherishing another. Humans purporting to believe one thing but proceeding to act in completely different manners are experiencing “cognitive dissonance;” the sensation can be rather oppressive. Psychologist Leon Festinger, who coined the term, believes that people aim to reduce this dissonant feeling by actively avoiding information that may increase the disconnection between their actions and stated beliefs. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance perhaps explains why many meat-eaters become extremely defensive upon merely encountering others who choose to be vegan.
Social psychologist Melanie Joy uses the term “carnism” to refer to the culturally-ingrained belief system that teaches humans to perceive some animals as edible without feeling disgusted about eating them. Western culture, by linking masculinity with meat-eating, even characterizes meat consumption as somewhat of a sport for the most virile. Writer and activist Carol J. Adams states that “masculinity is always being construed by cues from other men,” proceeding to explain that men bond partly by developing shared expectations about what foods they should consume. As Dr. Brock Bastian and his team of University of Queensland researchers suggest, humans attempt to reconcile conflicting emotions around food by reassuring themselves that the animals that they consume are fundamentally different than their pets. In one 2010 study, participants were offered either beef or nuts and then asked about their moral concerns for animals. Those who ate the beef downplayed cows’ abilities to suffer, presumably to morally justify the eating of them. The phenomenon of myside bias causes humans to seek out evidence that coincides with what they already believe to be true; myside bias creates a preference for endorsing evidence that supplements or validates existing beliefs. Piazza, in his 2015 study, finds that humans, when presented with arguments for becoming vegetarian, endorse either all or none of them. Humans employ many rationalizing defense mechanisms in futile attempts to make sense of gross irrationality.
The use of denial is another psychological trick that meat-eaters rely upon—albeit unconsciously—to alter their perceptions of animals’ mental abilities. Denial is partly defined as “the refusal to acknowledge disturbing aspects of external reality.” Meat-eaters commonly employ denial as a coping strategy when faced with uncomfortable or inconvenient facts that directly clash with their ideas of themselves as ethical humans. The naming conventions of meat, which often serve to create distance between the gruesome realities of slaughter and consumers’ understandings of their own moralities, are manifestations of denial. Terms like “chicken nuggets,” “beef jerky,” and “pork chops” are used to euphemistically describe the products of animal slaughter. Acceptance of the prevailing animal-based food system depends on consumers continuing to deny the abundantly available evidence against animal farming; what isn’t acknowledged in some sense does not exist.
While engaging in psychological tricks may aid in easing humans’ guilt, animals nonetheless think, express, and feel a whole range of emotions and sensations—like love and joy, fear, and pain. Culture alone, rather than animals’ inherent moral worth, falsely dictates which species are “okay” to eat. My friend’s expressed disgust over others’ consumption of dogs and cats does not in any way justify the exploitation and slaughter of the cow on her plate.