Humans kill more than three billion animals every day. That’s more than two million per minute, a hundred million an hour, over a trillion every year. By the time you reach the end of this sentence, humans will have slaughtered over 100,000 animals. These animals did not die in fires in the Amazon or Australia; they died in our abattoirs, for reasons as meaningless as a slice of bacon, or a turkey sandwich, or a leather handbag.
The recent death of over a billion animals in the Amazon and Australia inspired universal sympathy. Numerous publications mourned the losses—this magazine called their deaths “heartbreaking,” and described Australia as a “living hell.” Celebrities donated millions of dollars to mitigate the losses in both Australia and the Amazon, and hundreds of thousands of people gave money to help rescue local wildlife. Humans have proven many times over that they can have enormous empathy for animals. Such empathy is warranted—the unnecessary death of a single creature is a tragedy; the death of a billion creatures is, therefore, an unthinkable calamity.
Many of these writers, celebrities, and donors are mourning animals killed by fires while eating the bodies of others. They cry over deceased koalas while roasting the corpses of pigs, cows, and chickens. Piers Morgan expressed horror at the sight of animals killed in Australia’s fires. Mere days later, he threw yet another public tantrum about veganism—Morgan cries for dead animals while also whining about those who refuse to kill them. (Morgan was upset by the prospect of “vegan tuna.”) The BBC published an article entirely dedicated to mourning the cows lost in the fires, even including trigger warnings before showing the cows’ bodies. Yet this same organization regularly publishes steak recipes; the cooking method is apparently the difference between a trigger warning and an endorsement. Anthony Albanese, leader of Australia’s Labor Party, tweeted a plea for the lizards, frogs, and worms affected by the fires, asking others to “focus on all creatures—big and small.” Then, just days later, he tweeted a photo of various steak cuts—I suppose “all creatures” doesn’t include the ones that he likes to eat.
Omnivores may be tempted to try to resolve this apparent moral confusion. But mourning a burnt cow whilst eating another one is an irreconcilable contradiction in values. Animal agriculture’s body count is orders of magnitude higher than that of the wildfires, and the suffering is far worse. Burning alive is a terrible fate, yet animals on farms are routinely confined, castrated, mutilated, branded, and slaughtered, all without anesthesia. To compare the suffering inherent to animal agriculture to that of these wildfires is to flatter industrial farming with the comparison.
Animal agriculture is the number one cause of habitat loss globally and a leading cause of climate change. In the Amazon, over 80 percent of rainforest destruction is in support of animal agriculture. Humans concerned about the planet’s environmental health cannot justify needlessly supporting an industry that wreaks wanton destruction worldwide.
Killing three billion animals every day is no more necessary than the animals’ deaths caused by the fires. According to the American Dietetic Association, Mayo Clinic, the National Health Service, and every other credible nutritional organization, humans can survive and thrive without eating dead animals and their secretions. A plant-based diet comes with myriad proven benefits, including lower risks of dying from heart disease and cancer. Animal products are about as necessary as cigarettes.
Not only do many more animals die on farms than have in the Amazon and Australia, but they also suffer more, and cause more habitat loss globally. The mass torture and killing of farm animals is worse than the deaths of animals in wildfires by every possible metric. We donate time and money to save the lives of some animals while funding the deaths of others. Animal ethics is the Bermuda Triangle of moral compasses.
Suffering is harder to recognize when one is a participant, but our participation makes recognizing it all the more important. The price to sponsor a koala from the Koala Hospital is $70 per year. Even if $70 were really enough to definitively rescue a koala’s life, donating thousands of dollars annually to wildlife rescues would still be required to even approach the impact of simply abstaining from eating animal products (which can actually save you money). Eating only plant-based foods can spare up to 16,000 animals in a lifetime.
Humans have displayed an inspiring degree of compassion for the animals suffering in the recent wildfires. We, as humans, can outgrow caring only for animals’ deaths in which we are not complicit, and extend compassion to all of Earth’s creatures. While it’s tragic that over a billion animals died in these wildfires, the world has responded fantastically and with such tenacity on the animals’ behalf. Humans need to respond with the same resolve on behalf of the three billion individuals tortured and killed daily for food. Another 6,250,000 animals died in fear and agony in the few minutes that it took you to read this article. Animal agriculture is a wildfire orders of magnitude larger than those of Australia and the Amazon, but it’s one that we are empowered to extinguish immediately.
Macken Murphy is a bimonthly columnist for Tenderly magazine, and the host of Species podcast.