Ryan at The Veg Blog posted a link to a set of award winning photographs from an Italian slaughterhouse a few days ago. Many of the images are gruesome and painful to look at, but for me, as for him, the second photograph showing three lambs looking through a doorway at three skinned sheep made the strongest impression. I thought of how lambs symbolize innocence, and how the photo captured the death of innocence, literally in the dead bodies of the hanging sheep and figuratively in the eyes of the watching lambs. That’s what it meant to me. But what did it mean to the lambs? Did they understand what they were seeing, did they fear their imminent death, or did they turn from the doorway and look for something to eat?

That question was on my mind this morning when our cat bit my brother on the wrist, so hard he felt teeth scraping bone. His arm swelled up like a balloon and when he called the hospital they said to come into the emergency room immediately or he could be dead in two hours. Now he’s on antibiotics for ten days and his right arm is out of commission for at least that long, tough luck for a carpenter.

We’ve had that cat for five years, ever since he came yowling into our yard as a little picked-on stray. Now that he’s big and tough, he goes around beating up on other strays. Breaking up a fight was how my brother got in the way of his fangs in the first place. He’s since been banished from the house, and, though I at first imagined some look of repentance on his part, I now see him sprawled in the sun behind the tires of my brother’s truck, oblivious to the pain he caused and the danger he’s putting himself in.

My brother remarked that it’s easy to romanticize your relationship with an animal until he turns on you and you realize you can’t reason with him, you can’t tell him that what he did hurt not only your arm, but also your feelings. You can’t make him promise never to do it again, because he doesn’t understand what he’s done.

So what do animals understand? Anyone who spends time with an animal can easily see that they experience pain, confusion and fear and that these experiences matter to them. In other words, they not only possess complicated nervous systems that register pain, but they also interpret that pain as something unwanted and take steps to avoid it. However, though an animal may panic being shoved through a chute into a slaughtering line, there’s no evidence to suggest that he is self-aware enough to fear the end of his existence.

Our defense of animals can’t be based on their abilities, their intellects or their capacity for empathy. It must, rather, be based on ours. There are no human beings in the photo of the lambs, but their influence is obvious. The building where the slaughter takes place, the machines the skinned sheep are hanging from, the precision with which their skins were stripped from their bodies, all of these show calculated intelligence. Why is it wrong for a person to kill and skin a sheep, but not for a wolf to kill and maul it? Precisely because I can ask that question, precisely because someone took that photo in an attempt to convey his experience, and precisely because I’m now looking at that photo and those lambs and those skinned sheep and wondering whether those lambs fear their own death, just like I fear my death.

We have the ability to reflect not only on our suffering, but also on the suffering of others. This ability is what separates us from animals, and this ability is also what obligates us to them. We have a duty to treat them with respect, even care. If we neglect to wake up to our own suffering and the suffering other living beings experience at our hands, we are living in animal consciousness. And as much as I love animals, I have no wish to be one of them.