Speciesism: The Elephant in the Room by Stef Smith

In many ways the thinking behind my play Human Animals started when I was fifteen years old. I was sitting in the middle of a Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies class in rural Scotland. We were discussing Buddhism’s relationship to animal rights and although I was raised atheist I couldn’t quite get over the image of eating a baby lamb – regardless of how delicious it was with mint sauce. So, I boldly went home and told my Mum – I’m going to be a vegetarian. With my new found ethics, enthusiasm and a little thing called the internet having just been installed in my house, I discovered the word Speciesism.

The term was popularised in the 1970’s by Peter Singer and is described in the Oxford dictionary as ‘the discrimination against or exploitation of a certain animal species by humans, based on the assumption of human superiority’. That is to say rather flippantly here in the UK, lobster linguine is much more socially acceptable than Labrador lasagna. While life might be simpler for a lobster, they don’t have to worry about property prices or promotions, my fifteen-year-old self began to question that just because a life is simpler and smaller does that make it lesser?

I was vegan for a while after University. It made me a better cook, I lost weight, I felt great but I broke for a brie and cranberry bite one Christmas and have never been as strict since. Constant traveling for work has made it hard to maintain a healthy vegan lifestyle or at least that’s the excuse I allow myself. To this day, my guilt for eating diary and eggs can easily overwhelm me but luckily, like many humans, I’ve learnt to suppress knowledge that is too painful to hold.

As I began to travel for work, my trips from Glasgow to London became more regular. I still remember the first urban fox I saw in London. A thin and tough little scruff of fur and fearlessness. We clocked each other, shared a silence and both continued into the night. I was in awe of my encounter of the wild kind. I had honestly never seen a fox outwith the confines and context of a zoo. However, my London friend was quick to dismiss the malnourished mammal as a nuisance. It was just a few years later that a fox climbed into a baby’s cot and bit the child’s finger and only a fortnight ago a fox boarded a bus in South London, causing an evacuation of the transportation. It seems like nature can really get in our way, but what if we switch the statement and it’s really us getting in nature’s way.

Last year I read Elizabeth Kolburt’s enlightening book The Sixth Extinction. It examines the fact that we are in the middle of another mass extinction. There have been five before but alarmingly this is the first directly caused by human activity and it seems to be quicker than all the others. Scientists have suggested that fifty percent of all animal and plant life will be extinct by 2100. A statement that seems too huge to comprehend. Chances are that if the world lost a few species of frog, flies and fish, only conservationists and scientists would look up from their fair trade coffees. But if dolphins and dogs were to be placed on the endangered list, we would all possibly mind a little more – an example of Speciesism at work.

The exploration of Speciesism is increasingly creeping into popular culture. Documentaries like The Cove, Black Fish and Cowspiracy are doing wonders to shed light on the (mis)treatment and (mis)understanding of animals. Meanwhile re-wilding wolves, bioengineered meat and better legislation to protect non-human animals might mean that they are safer and living longer lives than ever before. Yet most of us – including myself – find it hard to take responsibility for the true impact humanity has on nature.

It is all a very complicated affair especially when scientists are discovering that our brains might be hardwired to ignore global warming. Not to mention that one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas is livestock bread for consumption. I would argue that humanity has never been very good at looking itself in the mirror. On day one of rehearsal, I was quick to note, while I can happily preach about animal rights, later I would probably throw the cardboard cup of my coffee into the bin because I was thoughtless, lazy and far too excited about being at the Royal Court to recycle. After all, it could be argued hypocrisy is an entirely human trait.

In what feels like an increasingly complex and volatile world the plight of urban foxes might seem rather, well, unimportant. Yet I would argue to question our relationship with animals and the environment is to question human nature. While one of the themes that has inspired Human Animals is speciesism, I would hope that at it’s heart the play is also about people and how their relationships form and fracture due to fear and fury. While writing the play I often thought about how in times of confinement or chaos parrots will pull out their feathers, polar bears pound their heads off the ground and pigs can panic and pace in their pens. Meanwhile in comparable situations humans cry uncontrollably, cut themselves until they bleed and self sooth with Sauvignon Blanc. Yet, we have made it very easy to distance ourselves from our connection to animals or at best we anthropomorphise so they seem more like us. We see difference when it’s useful and similarities when it’s not – often the difference between a pigeon and a dove, is semantic rather than taxonomic.

I think of my furious but hopefully fifteen-year-old self, both of us have been and still are entirely overwhelmed by problems the world faces. I’m also not entirely sure my ideals have changed that much. To put it rather simply and with a slight sense of a saccharine I think her and I, simply want all animals including human animals to live in freedom from fear, to have safety to roam, in consenting companionship with nourishment of the body and mind. And who doesn’t want that?