Animal rights and liberation: A Christian and Animal lover/ Scientist’s opinion

By Yonela Z. Njisane

As my academic mentor always says, it’s important that we tolerate each other, otherwise the wars and destructions in the world will never end. It’s good that you know who you are as a person and stick to it; it’s also good to realise that we are all different and our beliefs and morals differ.

While I was busy with various meat sample analyses in the lab the other day, I recalled a shocking comment I once heard about us (meat scientists and those who eat meat). Apparently, we tend to cover up our cruel actions by saying we are eating “meat” instead of calling it what it actually is, “Body parts”… My first reaction to this statement was laughter

Putting meat samples in the water-bath in prep for tenderness analysis
Putting meat samples in the water-bath in prep for tenderness analysis

with disbelief. I found it quite funny…

But, I attended a seminar on “critical animal studies” earlier this year and I later found this video on YouTube, which basically covers the main points the vegans and/or activists raised in the seminar that day. It turns out; this animal activism is a worldwide movement. One of the speakers that day said there should be no hierarchy placing some lives above others; everyone and everything is equal on this planet. This made me think, rather than laugh.

And then I realised:

As a Christian, I don’t think I should even be debating this issue. It is obviously a matter way outside my league. The Bible clearly states in the book of Genesis 1:28 that from the beginning God granted humans dominion over all creatures on earth. I know that even back then, the Israelites followed this idea, and so did early Christians. So there is a certain rank order, which I was even taught in primary school.

My background taught me:

Growing up, I knew that livestock and poultry are food animals. As strongly as I feel about animals, I never had problems with that fact. There was a time I was even eager to learn how to slaughter a chicken, mostly to impress, and I did it. I’m still capable of doing it, I just choose not to.

My animal science journey exposed me:

Harvesting the sub-samples for the Instron machine (tenderness determination)
Harvesting the sub-samples for the Instron machine (tenderness determination)

Through my studies and career, it’s only recently that I grew fond of other domesticated animal species apart from dogs and cats. I almost missed out on how cute they are in nature; I just never looked at them that way. But still, that doesn’t change the fact that they are food animals.

My point of view through knowledge and education:

Of course, that does not mean we have a right to abuse and ill-treat these animals. Our responsibility is to ensure their good well-being from birth till the end. We are their shepherds and a shepherd looks after his own. The Bible does not just say humans are the bosses, but that we are stewards of the earth – everything on this earth still belongs to God – we are just managing the planet for Him. So, we may be placed at the top, but we have been given a large responsibility with this rank; it’s not just a case of ruling and doing as we please.

Maybe I am saying all this because I love meat so much (chicken and pork) or maybe it’s because I am a fan of eggs and milk. I don’t know. We were born omnivores after all.

The famous Instron machine, in the process of tenderness analysis... meat or body parts?
The famous Instron machine, in the process of tenderness analysis… meat or body parts?

But does this really mean that I don’t love animals? Does this mean a farmer does not love his flock/herd? Does it mean that, because I am an animal scientist working on animal production, as they put it, a murderer? Is it ok to label the scientists working with animals murders? Aren’t we being hypocrites in all this?

Despite it all, I vow to love all animals (ok, most animals) the best way I know how, till death do us part.
Despite it all, I vow to love all animals (ok, most animals) the best way I know how, till death do us part.

For me, it boils down to some important thoughts:

  • Some of the medication we use, how did its approval come about? Or should we stop taking medication for conditions like Alzheimer’s and other diseases that still require the use of live animals to test different cures?
  • The leaves and vegetation we eat; how do we know it’s not needed by some hungry animal, or that its harvesting didn’t cause hundreds of tiny deaths?
  • What if these plants also have feelings, as some people believe? Are we going to say they are crazy?
  • How do we think a cow feels when she loses her new-born calf in the freezing weather outside while we are locked inside our houses by the fire place?

Think about it…

The truth is:

No one is perfect, and somehow you are missing the point if you try forcing your beliefs onto other people. We all have a way, a system, and morals we were brought up by. The world has plenty of grey areas, and the more we learn about this beautiful planet, the more we realise that there are two sides (or 10!) to every issue. I think we are building a better world if we remember:

“Religion is like a pair of shoes…..Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.” (George Carlin) (More quotes on tolerance)

How it all began…

By Yonela Z. Njisane

30 April 2015
Who would have thought (besides God) that I would be here now? Certainly not I  – my  supervisor can attest to that! Or not… I guess he always knew I had it in me. Growing up in one of the small towns of South Africa, I never knew anything about academics or scientific research until a much later stage in my life. It’s possible that I only became fully aware that there was such a career path in the middle of my master’s degree. Imagine that!

Yonela-1While I was busy trying to get through my undergraduate degree, with plans to immediately get a job and elevate my family, someone was watching, noticing my potential and trying to recruit me for further studies. I never made it easy for Prof Voster Muchenje to convince me – it took a number of phone calls and him sweet-talking me about how it would be a waste of intelligence and capacity if I were to choose otherwise. Of course I was flattered! Getting a bursary (Red Meat Research and Development Trust) was enough sign that I should return for my Masters. This bursary meant that my parents did not have to take care of me any further. When I qualified for another bursary to pursue my PhD I really should have known that this is my path, that I belong here.

Yonela-2However, I was haunted for weeks afterwards, and my fear of failure had a powerful grip on me. “Who am I to get this far?” My imposter syndrome was powerful enough that I even declined the PhD offer! Then one day it clicked; there was nothing waiting for me anywhere else. If I let fear get the best of me, I was going to miss out on an exciting opportunity, and would have wasted my efforts until now. I went back in February 2013 and, thankfully, could still take up the position.

So, here I am now, in the third year of my PhD degree in Agriculture-Animal Science studying cattle behaviour in relation to animal welfare and beef quality (a global hot topic). Even though this decision opened a lot of opportunities for me, it has not been all sugary sweet. Being at a resource-limited university, in a small rural town, one faces a lot of challenges regarding research. However, the need to progress and making something of my life has taught me not to concentrate on the limitations I face, but rather to look at them as stepping stones to seeking solutions, instead of complaining.

Hmmm, I did say “No whining” right? Yup! So let’s talk about this interesting project of mine that is so dear to my heart (I am an Animal person, and don’t worry about me being involved in their slaughter – It’s nothing personal). I am still in the early stages of the actual experimental trial. With the assistance of three of my colleagues, I have been spending 15 hours a day out in the paddocks with a group of 40 steers (castrated bulls)… There is nothing that beats escaping the office: no emails, no visitors, no meetings, sometimes no phone network (I know what you’re thinking “Damn! No social networks too”- haha! It’s hard for youngsters), and zero office work (Shhh! don’t tell my mentor I said that).

Yonela-3Of course, there is also sunburn (temperatures close to 40°C), huge floppy hats, and statistical analyses… It’s worth it, though, I promise. Watch this space; maybe I can also lure you into the world of PhDs, cattle, and making it big in the challenging world of academia.