Why Changing Our Relationship with Animals and the Planet Is Key to a Healthy, Sustainable Future

In honor of Animal Rights Awareness Week, renowned activists speak out on creating a culture of care and compassion for all living things.

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Since the global COVID-19 pandemic hit over 15 months ago, many cracks, flaws and inequities in our country and across the globe have been exacerbated and starkly revealed—from racial and gender inequity to income inequality to structural problems in caregiving and healthcare to environmental concerns, the list goes on. The question is: now that we are more fully awake to the many problems we face, how can we do better? 

As we reevaluate and rebuild our lives and systems to be more equitable and sustainable, one area that needs our attention is how we treat animals and the environment.

Although scientists are still trying to pinpoint the exact origin of the virus, the generally accepted theory is that the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced to the exploitation of animals, with animal wet markets in China a suspected origin of the Coronavirus. There has also been renewed interest in the theory that COVID somehow leaked from a Wuhan lab. Yet, even if that turns out to be true, the reality is that the virus still jumped from animals to humans, just like so many other past pandemics, including Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola, the Plague and HIV/AIDS, are tied to wet markets or animal agriculture in some way. These inhumane systems need to be addressed or eliminated or a pandemic like COVID-19 will happen again, which is why many lawmakers are calling for closures of global wet markets

There are many other environmental lessons to be learned from the pandemic. For example, we observed the link of people who live in polluted cities, particularly low income and minorities, being more at risk of death or serious health complications from Coronavirus. On the hopeful side, we also saw our natural world begin to heal and rebound during humanity’s retreat, as the air pollution across the globe abated in polluted cities and wildlife re-emerged. At the same time, in 2020 we experienced the increasingly alarming signs of climate change with the devastating wildfires in the West and extreme hurricanes on the coasts. 

Will humanity deeply learn and incorporate these lessons and put in place a better way of living with nature moving forward? That is the question and opportunity before us. 

For Animal Rights Awareness Week, I wanted to highlight what we can learn about how our dysfunctional relationship with animals and the environment may have not only contributed to the pandemic, but also to many other problems and issues it continues to cause—from climate change to health issues to the suffering, exploitation and extinction of animals and other sentient beings who share this Earth with us. Ultimately it is about creating a culture of care and compassion that acknowledges our interdependence with each other, other wildlife and the delicate ecosystem that makes up this planet—the reality that we are one family here on our only home, planet Earth.

I reached out to activists and thought leaders to get their insights and expertise on what lessons can be learned from the pandemic, how the animal rights movement intersects with other social justice movements, how a plant-based diet could play into it all, what actions we can take, and how we can begin to rebuild the world to operate in more equal, just, harmonious and sustainable ways. Here is what they had to say:

What lessons can be learned in the wake of this pandemic? What is Mother Nature trying to tell us?

It is remarkable how quickly and drastically our lives changed in this global pandemic, and although it has been frightening and disruptive, I hope it teaches us that major changes are both necessary and possible. For years, experts have warned about the climate crisis and the deleterious consequences stemming from our abuse of other animals and the Earth, but these concerns have been largely ignored. Instead, we’ve continued destroying ecosystems and natural habitats, while subjecting animals to brutal exploitation, including billions who live their entire lives confined in factory farms. But COVID-19 demonstrates that our behavior has consequences, and that abusing other animals can ultimately harm us. The global response in this pandemic demonstrates our impressive capacity to make changes, and I hope this leads us to begin living in a more responsible and humane way, which will mitigate risks of similar diseases in the future.
—Gene Baur | Founder of Farm Sanctuary, author of Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day

Good lord, is Mother Nature pleading with us to get our act together! Not only are the effects of escalating climate change impacting billions around the world in the form of floods, droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels and so much more, but when you combine the uncertainty of the weather with a global pandemic, she’s giving us one last warning shot. Scientists say we’ve got this decade to change our behavior.
—Kathy Stevens | Founder and executive director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, author of Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp

Mother Nature is showing us clearly that animals bite back and that there’s a high price to pay when humans treat her citizens as if they were commodities rather than living, feeling beings.
—Ingrid Newkirk | President and founder of PETA, author of Making Kind Choices

What’s been on my mind is how tragic it is that basically we brought all this on ourselves because we have absolutely disrespected animals and the environment. When it comes to the pandemic, we destroy habitats. We push animals into closer contact with people in some cases. This can create a situation where a pathogen can jump from an animal to a person and may create a new disease. Then we hunt them, kill them, eat them. We traffic them. We send them to be eaten or as medicine or sold as pets to the wildlife markets in Asia, we sell them in the bushmeat markets in Africa. We imprison billions of animals for us to consume in these intensive agricultural animal farms, known as concentration camps for animals. And in all of these situations, we create this perfect environment for a virus, in this case COVID-19, from a wildlife market in Asia to jump from an animal to a person.

And of course this pandemic has caused suffering, loss of life, loss of jobs, economic chaos, all around the world. But at the same time, going on for some time now, is a worse crisis, and that’s climate change.
—Jane Goodall | World-renowned ethologist, environmentalist, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots

Epidemiologists call this the Era of Emerging Plagues. It’s a pretty simple takeaway lesson to prevent a pandemic. When you put a lot of animals together, like chickens, pigs, and cows, you create the perfect conditions for a pandemic. About three-quarters of all pandemics are created by people packing animals close together. [It] becomes a perfect storm for creating pandemics like bird flu, swine flu, and mad cow disease, which have killed millions of people around the world. When you add wildlife into the so-called wet markets, you add another several layers of potential disease by introducing animals whose diseases spill over and mutate to domestic animals. The more we gather and consume animals the more pandemics we will have. 

The answer is pretty simple: eliminate animal agriculture and you get rid of most pandemics. We need a meat-eater tax to cover the cost of pandemics, and we need to get rid of wet markets. 
—Louie Psihoyos | Founder and Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, Oscar-winning Director of The Cove, Racing Extinction, The Game Changers

I’m no expert, but I read the science. They’re telling us the further the climate crisis is allowed to continue, the more there are going to be pandemics. Why? Well, one thing is there are pathogens in the ice sheets in the Arctic and Greenland, that when those ice sheets melt, those pathogens are released and humankind has never been exposed to them. We have zero resistance to them and we don’t even know what they are. This current COVID-19 crisis, why did that happen? Because of expanding population and poverty and deforestation. Humans are going into parts of the wild lands and forests that we aren’t supposed to be in and that we were never in before, chopping down trees. Animals are coming out of the forest that we don’t usually have much contact with. And when people are poor, they kill the animals and eat them and sell them. And so these animals that carry viruses—they’re called vectors—are being put into marketplaces. It’s not just COVID-19; it’s how AIDS came, it’s how SARS came, it’s how MERS came. It’s how humans interrelate with their environment, making us vulnerable to pathogens that we have no resistance to. And because of air traffic and how much we move around, they become pandemics very quickly. So climate is very much related to COVID-19.
—Jane Fonda | Actress, activist, creator of Fire Drill Fridays, author of What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action

What changes need to be made to set us on a more sustainable course to live more holistically and interdependently with each other, our fellow animal inhabitants and the Earth?

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to live more mindfully and in mutually beneficial ways with other animals and the Earth. When we exploit and harm others, we ultimately also harm ourselves, and the most egregious embodiment of such an unhealthy relationship with other animals is in the food industry, where billions of animals are mass produced and slaughtered every year. Factory farming needs to be dismantled and replaced with a community-oriented, plant-based food system, which requires far less land and other resources than animal agriculture. This would improve our health and allow natural ecosystems and biodiversity to recover, while lowering the risk of the climate crisis, zoonotic diseases and other threats to our well-being.
—Gene Baur | Founder of Farm Sanctuary, author of Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day

An end to speciesism, to human supremacy and domination of all other animals—of which we are simply one—is what would need to happen. It’s beyond optimistic to imagine that people will return to living in a less industrialized society, in which factory farms, wildlife markets, and the capture and confinement of monkeys for experiments and snakes and lizards for leather belts will be relegated to the history books, but that’s what has to happen for the human race to survive.
—Ingrid Newkirk | President and founder of PETA, author of Making Kind Choices

This is really rather simple. Earth isn’t getting bigger to support a growing human population. The same Earth that years ago had to support only a tiny number of humans must somehow be able to support an estimated ten billion by mid-century, which means that we humans simply must have the smallest environmental footprint possible. There’s been consensus among the scientific community for at least fifteen years, if not longer, that the single biggest action each individual can take to help the planet and all its inhabitants is to embrace a plant-based diet. Given that a meat and dairy-centric diet requires 15 to 20 times more natural resources—land, water, energy—than a vegan diet, we must reject that lifestyle, and we must do so quickly. Climate scientists say that if we don’t make a massive shift toward sustainability in this decade, then we’ll have passed the tipping point.
—Kathy Stevens | Founder and executive director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, author of Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp

In the Western world, we need to evolve out of the false notion that we need to consume animals to survive—that’s the real solution…. We need to start shifting humanity toward a more plant-based diet because the advantages impact everything we care about—our health, the environment and the economy. Eighty to eighty-five percent of our chronic diseases—heart disease, diabetes and cancer—can be avoided when you stop consuming cadavers. Animal agriculture is the biggest cause of habitat destruction, species extinction, freshwater pollution, and is a major source of greenhouse gasses. Humans and farm animals now account for 96% of the mammalian biomass on the planet. And poultry outweighs wild birds three to one. If you want to avoid pandemics, chronic disease, an economic catastrophe and have a livable future for your children, eat your veggies! If you want to change the world, change what’s on your plate.
—Louie Psihoyos | Founder and Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, Oscar-winning Director of The Cove, Racing Extinction, The Game Changers

It starts with awareness. I think people are not always aware of the connection between dairy and veal, for example, like “I would never eat veal, but, yeah, I eat dairy.” Well, those moms are kept pregnant and breastfeeding, and their babies are stripped away from them and taken to veal factories. It’s all connected. And being a mother myself, I can’t help feeling for those animals that are having their newborn babies ripped away from them to die soon.

For a long time, animals have been treated and considered as our property and commodities. I think that the perspective has been changing, and I hope it’s continuing to change. I think people are going to realize that for the same reason we can’t tell a woman what to do with her body, we can’t dictate that for an animal who should be able to be with their children.
—Emily Deschanel | Actress, television producer, animal rights activist, Board Chair of Farm Sanctuary 

In my opinion, we need to change the story because it’s the story that compels us to act a certain way. People keep telling themselves animals are here for us, there’s a cycle of life, a web of life—those are the stories we keep telling ourselves. And if we keep telling ourselves that and no one’s going to change the story, we’re going to keep acting that way. So I think it’s important to change the story. I think it’s also important to change laws, and I think it’s important to change the way we treat animals.

Even just the way we talk about animals. We should talk about them as residents, as neighbors, as members of our communities, as earthlings—use that language because it’s all those ways that we recognize that they are part of this world, not servants of ours. I think that will help change that narrative.
—Colleen Patrick-Goudreau | Animal advocate, podcaster, author of The Joyful Vegan 

In what ways do you think the animal rights movement intersects with other social justice movements?

When you strip away outward artifice and get down to the essence within each living being, life is quite simple. As we say at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, “In the ways that truly matter, we are all the same.” What does that mean? It means that regardless of nationality, race, social class, sexual identity, religion or species, we are all more alike than different: each of us is a unique being with a distinctly individual personality and a rich emotional life, and each of us wants to thrive. None of us wants to suffer. All of us value our lives. The beauty of an intersectional approach to social justice is that it recognizes and honors what we all share.
—Kathy Stevens | Founder and executive director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, author of Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp

Industrial animal agriculture is a system of oppression that exploits and harms the least powerful among us, starting with farm animals who are perhaps the most abused creatures on the planet, and also affecting disenfranchised human populations, including people who work in factory farms and slaughterhouses and those who live in neighborhoods without access to wholesome food. Impacts of our inequitable food system were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic when these vulnerable communities suffered greater threats from the disease. 

Power undermines our empathy, and that’s a very important part of our humanity. It’s no excuse, but it’s partly an explanation for some of the things that have been happening. And I think this fundamentally rests in our relationships with others. Are they based on mutuality or are they based on exploitation and oppression and an unhealthy power dynamic? So I think that’s where the intersection is. The animal rights movement seeks to end the oppression of all animals, including human animals, and to confront abuses of power, which negatively impact both human and nonhuman animals.
—Gene Baur | Founder of Farm Sanctuary, author of Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day

People in impoverished areas of the world that have been Westernized, including here in the U.S., are being fed a diet that’s heavy in meat and dairy products, and the poor are often obese, as well as plagued with health problems that do them no favors as they age, which results in higher mortality rates.
—Ingrid Newkirk | President and founder of PETA, author of Making Kind Choices 

For me, it all comes down to compassionate living and mindfulness. I think in every area of our lives right now, be it race, gender, sex, justice, everything—if we just paused and thought about how we treat each other before we act, either anonymously online or carelessly in person, then I think this world will be moving in a much better direction.
—Bellamy Young | Actress, singer, national spokesperson for the Humane Society of The United States’ campaign The Shelter Pet Project

I think there are absolutely parallels between the animal protection movement and other social justice movements. What was so transformational for me was seeing the culture of violence that we basically create to enable us to systematically do to animals what we do to them…. When you have the kind of culture of violence that you do in a slaughterhouse system, what’s layered on top is the unchecked nature of that. I became very aware of how desensitized the people are who work in slaughterhouses to the suffering of animals and desensitized to their own compassion. It’s unchecked violence. And because of the culture of violence we create, I believe very strongly that there is a direct link between that violence against animals and the violence we commit against one another, the way we’re able to “other” the animals, the way we “other” each other. And I do believe that we take that into our relationships with one another. 

So violence and the “othering of others,” to me, is a link with other social justice issues, certainly our exploitation of the female reproductive system. With dairy cows specifically, that to me is a direct parallel in terms of the females not having a say in what happens to their own reproductive system and organs and offspring and milk. I mean, that is so fundamental to being a female. We deny them everything: all aspects of their body, their homes, their habitats, their offspring. We deny them their lives. To me, those are all very clear parallels; they’re all linked. But underneath it is our ability to “other” one another in order to justify violence against one another.
—Colleen Patrick-Goudreau | Animal advocate, podcaster, author of The Joyful Vegan

One of the biggest social justice crimes is that we market unhealthy animal products to unsuspecting populations. With milk, over 68% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant and disturbingly the malabsorption is most prevalent with African Americans, American Indians, Asians and Hispanics/Latinos. In most schools in America, cow milk is the only milk choice. Milk from plants should be available in all schools everywhere.
—Louie Psihoyos | Founder and Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, Oscar-winning Director of The Cove, Racing Extinction, The Game Changers

With most social justice issues, it’s all about having compassion for other living beings, whether they be human or animals. So there’s that intersection. But also I personally find such a strong connection between feminism and animal rights because mother cows are just worked nonstop to get their milk and they are constantly pregnant, giving up their children, having to see their children ripped away from them and killed. And to support that isn’t to support feminism; the two go together. These mother cows are just abused their whole lives and they’re used as pregnancy machines. However you want to think about it, they are women as well. So I absolutely think that feminism and animal rights correlate.
—Harley Quinn Smith | Actress, musician, animal advocate

What was your personal journey toward veganism, and what would you say to someone considering making that change?

Like so many others, I became vegan over many years, eliminating one animal product after another largely for health reasons. But when I watched an undercover video filmed inside a slaughterhouse, I was done in an instant. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I can’t wait to torture animals at breakfast, lunch and dinner!” Nope! We’re just trying to feed ourselves. We are not intending to harm. But the impact of our choice to eat animals is systematic torture, deprivation and terror of tens of thousands of animals over the course of our lifetime—animals no different than your beloved dog or cat. Pull your head out of the sand, own that truth, and then embrace the exciting journey to align your lifestyle with your values. You’ll be healthier, both physically and emotionally, and our ailing planet will thank you!
—Kathy Stevens | Founder and executive director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, author of Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp

Not eating animals because of how they’re treated by the agriculture industry is one thing. It’s also important to point out the toll that these practices take on the environment: It takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef and only 33 gallons to grow a pound of carrots. That means that just one 16-ounce steak is using the amount of water you’d need for 6 months of showers! Not partaking in meat and dairy-eating means we can dial down our insane consumption of natural resources like fresh water, oil and coal, while also helping to heal the environment by denying support to toxic waste-producing food industries.

But people should also think about the amazing effects of eating more plants. I credit them 100 percent with improving my own health and wellness—I’ve ditched my asthma inhaler, stopped my weekly allergy shots, lost weight and found my skin and hair to be more radiant than ever. Not too bad for saving the animals and the planet!
—Alicia Silverstone | Actress, activist, author of The Kind Diet, founder of The Kind Life

I don’t see vegan as a justice issue the way I see animal protection as a justice issue. There’s animal protection and then there’s veganism, and I don’t think they’re the same thing. Vegan is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Vegan is not the goal. I don’t try to be as vegan as I can be, I try to be as compassionate as I can be, and being vegan happens to be the thing that helps me get there because I’m not hurting anybody to the best of my ability…. The reason I’m vegan is because it’s the best way I can manifest my compassion for the animals, and in doing so that makes me really joyful. It’s so important. I mean, there’s no better way to live—living according to what you believe in. 
—Colleen Patrick-Goudreau | Animal advocate, podcaster, author of The Joyful Vegan

I’ve been vegan for ten years now, and it’s crazy to me that I wasn’t before because I’ve always loved animals. To me, there is no difference between dogs and cows—they’re all animals, they’re all beings that feel pain. So once I had the realization that if I love one animal then I love all animals, I made the change.
—Colbie Callait | Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter, animal advocate

I grew up with animals, and at an early age I realized that any creature with two eyes, a central nervous system, and the desire to avoid pain should have it’s own life and rights. I’ve been a vegan for 32 years. I neither eat nor wear animals or animal products. Also the majority of my charitable giving is to animal welfare groups. And I’ve opened multiple vegan restaurants and have published a couple of vegan books. If we all became vegan we’d live longer, reduce climate change by 40%, end famine, and save a few trillion sentient beings.
—Moby | Musician, author, animal rights activist

What is your call to action? 

My advice is, always do something to help…. You know, I wasn’t an activist all my life. I didn’t really become an activist until I was in my early thirties, so I had a good few decades there of non activism, of hedonism, of “Who am I?” and “What is my life going to be?” and “Oh, my God,” and blah, blah, blah. It was pretty depressing. So I don’t ever, ever want to go back to that. When I became an activist, I started to know who I was. I started to feel okay about my place in the world. I knew how to move forward, and along the way, I saw so many other people change. So I know that we have such a capacity to change as human beings, and knowing that gives me energy and optimism.
—Jane Fonda | Actress, activist, creator of Fire Drill Fridays, author of What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action

We’ve all got to wake up and use our voice. I feel like when you have that “aha moment” about animals, that they are sentient beings and have emotions that are sometimes even more advanced than humans, it’s such a heartstring issue because your compassion cannot help but overwhelm you and the condition they’re in, in factory farms and countless other situations. So I always feel like this has a special place in my heart because the animals don’t have a voice, and we need to be their voice. That’s what really stirs me about it: that we need to be there for them because if we’re not, who speaks for them? 
—Carol Leifer | Comedian, writer, producer, actress 

Any little bit that we can do, whether it’s changing into a plant-based diet or not buying clothes or furniture—anything that is made by an animal product. It’s just little steps that we can all be making to make change. The goal is for all animals to be treated humanely. 
—Colbie Callait | Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter, animal advocate

The ocean keeps the planet and everything in it alive, full stop. The ocean is vital to life on Earth. We need to be really, really careful not to disrupt it any more than we already have, and to try to restore the damage that we’ve already inflicted…. What are we going to do about the exorbitant extraction of wildlife in the sea? We can start with one choice at a time: “I think I’m not going to eat fish anymore,” “I could not have popcorn shrimp—I’d rather the shrimp be alive in the ocean than dead on my plate.” There are so many things that you can do. Look in the mirror and think about [this]: you’ve been commissioned to figure out how you, one person, can make a difference. Take on the responsibility of giving it some thought. Think of one thing, ten things, a hundred things, whatever it is. And then get the information out there. What do you have that is your personal power?
—Sylvia Earle | Legendary oceanographer, founder of Mission Blue, author of The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

I think one of the reasons people hesitate in participating in animal rights is because they think that they have to do everything perfectly in order to do anything at all. But you don’t have to be perfect to make a difference. Just not wearing fur. You can do everything else, just not wearing fur helps. If you decide just to not eat beef, you can try everything else, but that helps. It’s not what we would call “PETA perfect,” but it helps. Making sure your own pets are watered, fed, cared for, getting enough sun, getting enough walks. And then branch out if you want to volunteer at an animal shelter. I know that it’s optimum to be vegan, and I know that it’s second best to be vegetarian. But the third and fourth and fifth and sixth best help, too. They help the world. So you don’t have to do everything to do something. Do one thing. Do one thing where your heart takes you, and that helps.
—Kathy Najimy | Actor, director, producer, activist 

All anyone needs to do is read a little about what’s going on behind the scenes wherever animals are being used. Or just watch a few videos at PETA.org. I challenge anyone to look at that footage and not be outraged and want to do something about it. There’s so much to do—just do something. The most important thing is to start.
—Bill Maher | Comedian, animal rights activist, host of HBO’s political talk show Real Time with Bill Maher

The most important message is: remember that every single day, every single one of us makes an impact on the planet…. Think about what you do every day and to make ethical, compassionate choices in what you eat, what you buy, what you wear. And just realize that it’s not you alone—together, collectively, we are making a difference. And there is a window of time, but we’ve got to get together and take action now.
—Jane Goodall | World-renowned ethologist, environmentalist, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots

Portions of the material in this piece were from my red carpet interviews from the Farm Sanctuary Gala; others originally appeared in my previously published articles, including: Interview With Dr. Jane Goodall: ‘We’ve Got To Get Together And Take Action Now’, Insights From Jane Fonda: Now Is The Time To ‘Lay The Groundwork For An Equitable, Renewable Future’ and my previous article, An Issue that Needs Our Immediate Attention.

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