Moral Injury in Animal Advocates and Nonhuman Animals and the Commonality of Being Reduced to “Lesser Beings”

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
“Some people seemed unfazed when witnessing cruelty, but I could feel the pain of every living organism through my bones, as if it were my own.” – Elin Gundersen, “Understanding the Power of Compassion,” VEGAN VOICES: Essays by Inspiring Changemakers, ed. Joanne Kong.
Slaughtered Chickens with Worker and Girl
Beth Clifton’s collage depicts the contrition of Virgil Butler & Laura Alexander, who wrote: “We could no longer look at a piece of meat anymore without seeing the sad face of the suffering animal who had lived in it when the animal was still alive.”

Through the years, people have asked me how I can stand knowing what chickens and other farmed animals go through without going insane. One person, a psychotherapist, wrote to me recently about “living day and night with these horrors”: “When I read about them,” she said, “I am filled with so much grief that I feel suicidal. I would not say anything so tiresome as ‘I can’t read about it,’ because of course I could. I just wish I could find a way not to be so filled with despair when I do. It keeps me from being more active in animal rights because I can’t imagine living with those feelings of overwhelming, helpless fury.”

What led me to think particularly about what has become known as “moral injury” was an article, On Moral Injury, in the August 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Moral injury involves the guilt and shame one feels in witnessing and facilitating an atrocity – facilitating by actively contributing to it or simply by watching it and doing nothing to stop it, including the frustrated desire to end the atrocity and rescue the victims.

An example cited in Harper’s is photographers, reporters, and humanitarian workers in war zones who develop guilt over merely recording human suffering and not preventing it, even though it is not their job to intervene. Even if some do manage to save a few victims, the guilt and vicarious trauma remain, since they can’t save everyone no matter what. Kevin Carter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving child in Sudan, wrote before killing himself in 1994, “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”

The Harper’s article says nothing about the guilt of bearing witness or passively contributing to the suffering and death of nonhuman animals that so many of us feel, resulting in chronic depression that can become a kind of mental illness and even lead to suicide in some cases. Added to our vicarious immersion in the human-inflicted suffering and deaths of billions of helpless animals is our despairing sense that most people don’t care. The psychotherapist quoted above went on to say, “Working with all kinds of people who don’t give a thought to suffering animals, I’m hoping to wake them up to their feelings and consequently to their awareness of the feelings of other creatures, but it is probably delusional that they will get far.”

Ethical Conflict in Animal Advocacy Culture

Cultural conflict, professional and personal, appears in the animal advocacy community, especially where farmed animals and other institutionally abused animals are concerned. At best, only a fraction of these victims can be saved in rescue operations, and one’s personal agony over their unmitigated misery and the blasé attitude of society produces unappeasable anguish and justified anger, despair, and disgust.

In From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights: My Story in an Eggshell I describe my own moral injury linking the soul wound of vicarious suffering to the actual, physical suffering endured by animals whose own souls are injured by the brutal and bewildering treatment they receive:

“As a college student, I was obsessed with trying to imagine what it would feel like to be in a place that was utterly inimical to one’s sense of self, against one’s will – to be forced into the abyss of total imprisonment, moral abandonment, and bewildering cruelty – a concentration camp or a death camp where everyday suffering is overwhelmed by abnormal, human-induced suffering. For me, it is natural to try to imagine what it must be like for a nonhuman animal (like a chicken, or a turkey, or a sheep) to be forced into a human-contrived, inimical universe. For these individuals, the hell they experience is unnatural. There is nothing in the psyche of chickens to prepare them for having their beaks burned off at birth and being crammed inside a filthy building filled with toxic gases along with thousands of other suffering, terrified birds.

“How do these foraging creatures, with the leafy green world of the jungle embedded in their genes, experience entombment? How do turkeys – birds who evolved not only to run and fly, but to swim, roost high in the trees at night, and roam with their mothers for five months after they hatch – how do they experience being stuffed into buildings as contaminated as cesspools? How does a grazing animal feel when forcibly herded onto a huge ship, jammed in a filthy pen, and freighted from Australia to Saudi Arabia or Iraq. How is it for a sheep to float sea-sickeningly across the Persian Gulf on the way to slaughter?”

I’m sure that these animals experience, within themselves, not only the violation and humiliation of their bodies but the violation and humiliation of the very essence of who they are and were meant to be through their natural evolutionary development.

Cross-Species Humiliation

The author of an article published in Harper’s Magazine on the psychology of humiliation says, “I believe the exaggerated response to humiliation is unique to our species.” The exaggerated part maybe, but the sensation of humiliation itself, the sensation of being stripped of one’s dignity, degraded, despised, defiled and treated like a thing – this experience I do not regard as a uniquely human experience.

Clementien Koenegras, President of Karuna Society for Animals and Nature in Puttaparthi, India, wrote to me in 2021:

“I look at the production of billions of little chicken lives, forced into existence, their bodies and children owned by the producer. The suffering, abuse and cruelty they are subjected to results in an existential trauma that prevents any possibility of expressing who they are. Inside the mass-produced little bodies there is ‘nobody home’ – their conscious, emotional and spiritual existence has been disconnected from their physical bodies by trauma. They are not being rescued. Nobody is coming for them.”

Clementien Koenegras bottle feeding a bear cub
Clementien Koenegras. Photo courtesy of Animals 24-7

The Metaphysics of “Lesser Beings” – Clementien Koenegras

“‘Lesser Beings’ are life forms that have been traumatized to the point of being incapable of being the life forms they are meant to be. They have experienced an existential trauma that makes them ‘less of themselves.’ This condition has many consequences including for the life forms they are connected with.

“It is my understanding that no cure or welfare measure will solve the problem, if the root cause of how ‘lesser beings’ are created is not acknowledged and understood.”

Is “Anybody Home” in the Psyche of a Traumatized Animal?

I am drawn to this definition of “lesser beings” in part because the term “lesser beings” has traditionally been ascribed to animals deemed inferior to other animals in a schematic hierarchy from highest (humans) to lowest. An example in Christianity is the notion that animals don’t have “souls.” I am drawn to this definition because it intuits and proposes that other animals, like ourselves, can experience moral injury and soul wounds just as we do. Who a morally injured animal intrinsically is and was meant to be resides in the recesses of the psyche including the body, however overwhelmed the individual is by unnatural, unmitigated suffering.

Can a Wounded Soul Heal?

The Harper’s article “On Moral Injury” that prompted this essay ends with a quote by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein in praise of the “resilience” of the human species, which he says enables us to withstand “the evil and darkness” we project and will continue projecting into the world. “But our souls are scarred,” he says. Since human beings will continue committing atrocities as a matter of course, the issue for him is how to “heal our souls” in the face of this fact. Unlike Feinstein and various others quoted in the article, I do not see how morally, viscerally sensitive people can “heal” or be “healed” in the face of such knowledge including the relentless onslaught of the suffering we inflict on innocent, helpless individuals. Palliated perhaps, but healed?

I wonder whether Feinstein and Janine di Giovanni, the author of the Harper’s article, could empathize with those of us who suffer moral injury over the human-caused suffering of animals; I wonder if they could empathize with the traumatized animals themselves. Those of us who do animal rescue and sanctuary work know that traumatized nonhuman animals share with us a “resilience” that is almost heartbreaking to facilitate and contemplate. The only real way to “heal” ourselves is to help them recover who they truly are, and were meant to be, as best we can, through our advocacy and “managed” care for them and for ourselves.

A moral injury can empower us; it doesn’t have to be fatal.

– Karen Davis