West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma pled guilty to violating the Animal Welfare Act by kicking and slapping his cat and causing the cat “unnecessary suffering.” His brother, Yoan Zouma, who plays for Dagenham and Redbridge, filmed the incident and was accused of abetting, counselling or procuring Kurt to violate the law. Kurt was sentenced to do 180 hours of community service and prohibited from keeping any cats for five years. Yoan was sentenced to 140 hours of community service and also prohibited from keeping cats for five years. Court costs of £9,000 were also assessed. This is all in addition to the £250,000 fine imposed on Kurt by West Ham.
The Animal Welfare Act prohibits the infliction of “unnecessary suffering.” This clearly includes at least suffering imposed for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. The Zoumas violated the law because there was no justification for kicking and slapping the cat. They imposed gratuitous harm on the cat.
What the Zouma brothers did was clearly and unequivocally morally and legally wrong. But their prosecution raises a simple and direct question: how are they any different from the rest of us? Why aren’t we all being sentenced to community service along with the Zoumas?
Every year, we kill about 80 billion land animals for food. About one billion animals are killed in the United Kingdom. The number of fish slaughtered annually is estimated to be between one and almost three trillion. That is a great deal of suffering and death.
What is our justification for this?
There certainly may be times when there is no choice and we must kill animals in order to survive. But that circumstance accounts for a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the staggering number of animals we slaughter every year. For the most part, we eat animals because we think they taste good and animal foods are conveniently available. We derive pleasure from consuming animals; there is no necessity. The NHS — and just about every other governmental or professional body in other countries, such as the American Dietetic Association in the U.S. — maintains that we can live a healthy life without consuming animal products. Indeed, an increasing number of mainstream health care professionals are telling us that eating animal products is detrimental to human health. In any event, eating animal products is certainly not necessary for human health.
Moreover, animal agriculture is a leading cause of global warming. Researchers at Oxford have argued that avoiding meat and dairy is the single most effective step we can take to reduce our impact on the earth.
In short, we impose suffering and death on animals because we find it pleasurable to consume the products that we get from them. Animal foods are convenient. The suffering and death we impose on animals we use for food is all gratuitous — just as was the suffering that the Zoumas imposed on the cat. I submit that there is no morally relevant difference between the Zoumas, who have been adjudicated as criminals for engaging in an act that we all regard as morally odious, and the rest of us. Indeed, those of us who consume animals may be worse in that we are responsible for their deaths as well as for their suffering. The Zoumas did not kill the cat.
We are all Kurt Zouma and Yoan Zouma.
The response that our use of animals for food is different from kicking the cat because there are animal welfare laws that regulate the former and prohibit “unnecessary” suffering fails for several reasons. First, animals are chattel property. It costs money to protect their interests and, for the most part, we spend that money only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. The result is that animal welfare standards have historically been and continue to be very low. The concepts of “humane” treatment and slaughter are fantasies. The most “humanely” treated animals suffer a great deal.
But there is another sense in which this response misses the point. No one is arguing that the problem with what the Zoumas did was that they failed to take care to act in a more “humane” fashion. Because what they did involved no necessity or compulsion, all of the suffering they imposed on the cat was morally and legally wrong. Sure, it would have been “better” if Kurt Zouma had more gently kicked and slapped the cat. But his acts, even if more “humane,” still would have been wrong.
Similarly, it is “better” that we impose less suffering on animals used for food than more suffering. But if there is no necessity to eat animals, then all of that suffering is unnecessary — and wrong.
Another response is that Kurt Zouma performed the cruel acts himself. Most of us just buy “food” at the store. I would submit that there is no morally relevant distinction between buying an animal corpse at the store and killing the animal yourself, just as there is no difference between unjustifiably killing someone yourself and paying someone to kill the victim. The law treats both situations as involving murder. And, at the very least, we are analogous to Yoan Zouma in that we have abetted, counselled, or procured the killing.
In 2007, an American football player named Michael Vick was prosecuted for offences in connection with operating a dog fighting ring in Virginia. The outcry against what he did was deep and long lasting. He continues to be excoriated. In 2010, a bank worker from Coventry, Mary Bale, was prosecuted for tossing a cat into a wheelie bin where the cat remained for several hours. She, too, was vilified and accused of being “worse than Hitler” and deserving of the death penalty (which does not exist in the U.K. as a penalty for the murder of humans). There have been many other similar cases as well. These cases illustrate that, at least where dogs and cats are concerned, we understand — and feel strongly — that the prohibition against imposing unnecessary suffering means what is says. But there is no morally or legally coherent distinction between the animals we love and those into whom we stick a fork.
Ironically, the RSPCA prosecuted Bale and the Zoumas. The RSPCA promotes the consumption of animal foods through its RSPCA Assured. So the RSPCA promotes the imposition of animal suffering for no good reason but prosecutes people who impose suffering for no good reason.
I have been asking for some years now why those of us who continue to consume animals for the transparently frivolous reason of palate pleasure are any different from those who exploit animals for other reasons of pleasure.
I have never gotten a coherent response.
If Kurt and Yoan Zouma are guilty, so are those of us who continue to use and kill animals for transparently frivolous purposes. And that’s almost all of us. Maybe we need to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we are all obligated at the very least not to inflict any unnecessary suffering on animals — even when we like the taste. Maybe we need to acknowledge a very inconvenient truth; if animals matter morally, veganism is a moral imperative.
This essay was originally published on Medium.com.