Those of us who love animals, and resolve to improve their lives, know that when disaster strikes and quality of life declines for humans, life becomes much worse for animals. This is particularly true for farmed animals. Look no further than North Carolina, where 3.4 million turkeys and chickens and 5,500 pigs perished on factory farms during Hurricane Florence in 2018. Later that year, Hurricane Michael, the first Category Five hurricane to hit the United States in nearly 30 years, devastated the lives of the many animals in its path, including those in factory farms, zoos, and shelters.
Emergency evacuation plans do not include farm animals, who are left to fend for themselves when waters rise, fires sweep, and winds rage. Farmed animals are considered commodities, and as such, their keepers have little to no concern for the fear and suffering that these animals experience while trying to stay alive during emergencies—before typically suffering traumatic ends. With complete disregard for what the animals impacted by Hurricane Florence had endured to survive, some farm owners threatened legal action against rescuers to retrieve their animals, just to recoup a modicum of economic value by sending the animals to slaughter.
Animal advocates and activists know that the suffering and death of animals is pervasive, extending far beyond occasional headlines. Uplifting stories, such as the one of the three cows who swam for several miles in open water to save themselves during Hurricane Dorian, belie the magnitude of animal suffering during disasters.
We who care for animals’ wellbeing arrive at the realization of animal suffering from many paths, and channel our energies in as many ways to create positive change for animals. For some of us, it’s our life’s work or life’s passion to educate others about the suffering of animals; we ardently support efforts and causes that strive to improve animals’ circumstances. Others may choose to live quietly with a compassionate heart, making lifestyle choices that directly mitigate animal suffering. By living their values, such advocates set powerful examples for family and friends.
Animal advocates often feel helpless to stop the suffering and needless slaughter of animals around the globe. These feelings of helplessness typically intensify during disasters. Disaster-related images of frightened, abandoned, or drowned and bloated animals are etched into our minds. Articles and images portraying animal suffering can trigger deep sadness, complicated grief, and PTSD symptoms. Dog lovers, after more than a decade, are still triggered by the image of “Snowball,” a small, white dog with a piercing cry, who was wrenched from a little boy’s arms to allow the child to board an evacuation bus after Hurricane Katrina. Farmed animal activists easily conjure disturbing images of rows of buildings, submerged in floodwaters after Hurricane Florence, filled with trapped and drowned chickens.
Global attention has only recently turned to the mental and emotional toll caused by the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 is mandating many social restrictions, and the longer that humans worldwide are required to isolate and avoid physical contact, the greater the toll on mental health. Reports of emotional problems, contributing to divorce, domestic abuse, anxiety, and depression are beginning to emerge in the media. Immediate and fundamental survival is paramount, but an additional challenge for some people is to survive the pandemic in situations that already threatened their personal safety and mental health.
As we collectively consider individual human challenges to immediate and long-term survival, it is vital to acknowledge that mental health for some people is adversely affected by the knowledge that animals suffer egregiously at the hands of humans—and not just during large-scale disasters. These people despair because they feel surrounded by so many others who accept animal cruelty, specieism, and exploitation as the normal way of life.
Australian psychologist Clare Mann, based on her research and clinical experience, coined the term “vystopia”—vegan dystopia—to describe the emotional state that these feelings cause. Mann realized that many of her vegan clients had similar symptoms including grief, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She asserts that these symptoms are directly related to their knowledge of animal suffering, which they feel powerless to alleviate. She explains that her clients’ feelings are the result of becoming aware of “the nature and extent of society’s systematized animal abuse.” Well-known animal activist and journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell refers to vystopia as “second-hand suffering,” and like second-hand smoke, vystopic states can be deeply detrimental to personal health. Alienation from friends and family is a major component of vystopia, as sufferers withdraw after too frequently enduring personal criticism, disrespect, dismissiveness, and ridicule. Mann writes extensively about vystopia, gives public talks, and helped to establish a private Facebook page as a safe space for vystopia sufferers to share resources.
Vystopic feelings are exacerbated by the pervasiveness of images of slaughter and maltreatment of farmed animals. Those of us seeking to improve animals’ lives frequently face these images as we work to inform others about the plights of animals; we share disturbing images to educate others about the hidden atrocities of the meat and dairy industries, the egregious maltreatment of horses, and the desecration of wildlife and their habitats, among other animal-related injustices. Facing these images, and the truths behind them, is difficult in the best of circumstances. Some activists ultimately discontinue their advocacy because of the inherent distress.
Certain images and articles related to the current pandemic, which others may experience without effect, can trigger emotional turmoil in people who suffer from vystopia. National media outlets inform readers that poachers are killing even more animals in areas of Botswana and South Africa that previously were considered “safe havens” due to high levels of tourist activity. Scientists racing to find a cure for COVID-19 are exploiting increasing numbers of laboratory animals, a deeply ironic approach considering that the transmission of virus was caused by humans’ exploitation of animals.
Fears of food scarcity initially led to increased demand and therefore increased production of animal products. People wanted more eggs; meat and milk were flying off the shelves. Factory farms, deemed essential, were permitted to remain open. Then COVID-19 spread like wildfire in the South Dakota plant of the largest meat-processing conglomerate in the world, Smithfield Foods, forcing an indefinite shutdown of that facility. Animal advocates realize that the 20,000 pigs typically slaughtered at the facility will not go to a sanctuary; their lives will be wasted. Contradictory and inconsistent demands for food have increased food waste as restaurants close and events are canceled, while many food banks are desperate for food. Meanwhile, in factory farms that continue to operate, baby chicks continue to be crushed in production equipment, calves continue to be separated from their mothers, and pigs and piglets continue to be slaughtered. Food production and animal testing mean animals needlessly sacrificed for human purposes.
When disaster strikes, as with COVID-19, animal suffering worsens. Animal rights advocates are profoundly affected by the direct connection between this pandemic and animal exploitation and cruelty. Helpless, we watch as the virus wreaks havoc worldwide, knowing that the increase in animals’ suffering will likely be ignored. We hope for change but know how intractable humans can be about issues related to animal welfare.
During this unprecedented disaster, following the usual recommendations to manage adversity is critical. Eat healthy foods, get proper rest, exercise, and take news breaks. Seek the counsel of a trained mental health professional if vystopic symptoms are a concern. People who love animals and work to improve their lives are encouraged to take extra steps to avoid particular, animal-related distress. Lifestream visits with happy and safe farm animals are available from places like Farm Sanctuary and VINE Sanctuary. The nonprofit organization In Defense of Animals maintains an Animal Activist Support Helpline and provides other resources designed specifically to combat activist distress. Author and animal advocate Dr. Melanie Joy offers this guide to improving relationships and communications among vegans, vegetarians, and carnists. Headspace, the meditation app, provides a free COVID-19 program that it calls “Weathering the Storm.” And, as an alternative to broadcast news, John Krasinski hosts “Some Good News” on a weekly basis.
Maintaining strong mental health is challenging during this pandemic; those of us dedicated to improving animals’ lives have an added layer of concerns, but we must each stay the course. Never has the cry of the voiceless been so loud. Animals need us now more than ever.
Elizabeth is a health journalist, author, and animal advocate. Her latest book explores the complex relationships between people and companion animals.