What We Can Learn From Animals; Jeffrey Masson


Jeffrey Masson is an author of over twenty-nine books, (wowsers) nine of them on animal emotions, which I encourage you to check out. Jeff has a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard University and was Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto. He is a Council member of Voiceless and a huge inspiration to me. We share the love of salsa dancing, the Spanish language and his wife Leila is a vegan paediatrician, which means he is on the same page when regarding a healthy, cruelty-free lifestyle - something I am sure contributes to the energy and passion for life he exudes!

You used to teach sanskrit, a language that intrigues me after practising yoga for a longtime! Ahimsa is a value I hold close as I go through life. Can you talk about ahimsa, the meaning in sanskrit and how you view it is meant to be applied in a broader sense?

Ahimsa is my favourite word in sanskrit. I used to teach sanskrit the language but of course that involved teaching Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as well. Interestingly that word, Ahimsa is central to all three of these major religions and their philosophies. All three emphasise how there has to be compassion for all creatures. Hinduism has an old tradition of vegetarianism, Jaisnim is even stricter and Budism we are not sure but they were probably orginally vegetarians.

Certainly the idea is to never harm a living being. 'A' is the sanskrit word for not and 'himsa' means harm; so non-harm is what it means.

I can assure you from reading hundreds and hundreds of sanskrit texts, ahimsa always refers to the treatment of others, both other humans and animals. It is not referring to not harming yourself.

When writing, 'When Elephants Weep,' you had a moment when you could no longer deny the emotional lives of all animals. What did you discover with elephants and how did this relate to all animals?

It applies to every animal I study, but I think with elephants a lot of people are sensitive to the fact that they may have a greater capacity than humans for certain emotions, which I think is a huge field that is going to expand over the next twenty years, mainly, what animals feel more deeply than we do in certain areas. 

One candidate would be elephants in terms of mourning; that they feel the death of other elephants as much or even more than even humans do. When I realised how profoundly they are able to mourn the death of other elephants it shook me to my core because I thought if it is true of them, then it could be true of other animals. How can we then, so blindly, go about slaughtering animals and eating them when we are casting such suffering to them. When I started my research I wasn't vegetarian but by the time I finished I was!

masson books

Is there proof that animals have and experience emotions and why do we need to take this into consideration with how we treat them?

When I wrote that book almost twenty years ago, there was a lot of controversy over the "proof," but by today hardly any animal scientist would deny that animals have strong emotions; that they can feel and of course suffer. There is an international declaration of sentience; where sentience means the capacity to suffer, the capacity to feel and most of the scientists of the world signed on to this declaration. It is pretty much universally accepted.

I don't see how you can escape recognising that if animals have these same emotions that we have, that they care as deeply about their children and their friends, that they want to live and they don't want to suffer - if all of that is true, which very little people would deny - then how can we justify killing them in order to eat them.

It just doesn't make sense. It would be different if we were obligate carnivores, that is if we didn't have a choice, like the big cats in the wild because their whole body is attuned to carnivory, they have to eat meat to survive. We do not - we are not - obligate carnivores. We can choose to be carnivores or we can choose to be vegan, and it is now becoming clear that being vegan is good for your health, it is certainly better for the animals and now it is universally acknowledged it is better for the environment if we choose veganism.

Other animals cannot do this, they can't choose to be vegan but remember other animals that are obligate carnivores do not harm the environment in the way that we have because they are not compelled by greed the way humans are. We do not choose to have an occasional piece of meat the way our ancestors did as hunter gatherers; but many people in Australia, America, Argentina want to have meat three times a day and in order to do that you must plunder the planet. NO other animal has ever done that.

On the positive side, no other animal has had the choice to be a vegan, as we do and more and more people are making that decision. For the first time in history we undergoing an enormous paradigm shift in these last few years.

How can humans learn about good and evil from animals?

As I said before, it is possible some animals may feel emotions more profound than we do and it is also possible some animals are more moral than we are. This is a very difficult concept for any human to swallow because we don't like to think of ourselves as morally inferior to some other creature on this planet. But I think we are going to have to face up to that possibility soon as my own research indicates to me that just about any other animal on this planet is more moral than the human animal. I know that is shocking and of course there are exceptions, but as a species, we have done things that no other animal has done, namely, endangered the planet and caused the extinction of another species. Animals seem to have an inhibition against killing more than they need and we don't have that inhibition.

So if you call that a moral quandary and you look at other species, such as whales, we brought many whales to the verge of extinction and I don't think there are any instances of whales, even sperm whales, in the wild, killing a human being. Thats interesting - why not?  They could do so, and yet they don't do it. We kill them in enormous numbers and yet they don't return the favour. There is something that stops them.

Can you talk about your personal journey?

I only wish I knew then what I know now when I was a lot younger. I would have done many things different including been vegan from the beginning. Apart from what it does for the animals, even for my health, I hate to think I ingested poisonous substances, including junk food, in my body. I don't think we are meant to do that. I am on a journey with my wife now where we try live in a very healthy way, not just the eating but we also don't want toxic substances in my house, I don't want toxic people in my life, I don't want to be involved in toxic politics. There are so many ways we are trying to live a better existence.

I also feel it is important that everyone chooses some profession that does some good some good in the world, not just in order to make money. I feel they are all inter-related; human rights, environmental issues and animal rights.

Can you talk about the inconstancies between the love we share with our pet dogs and the mistreatment of farm animals?

It is a real puzzle for me. I almost never meet anyone, anybody anywhere, where people don't love and adore their cat or dog, and yet these same people don't give a second thought about putting a fork into a baby lamb or a chicken or a pig. And all of these animals are as capable as dogs and cats at being our friends and bonding with us and experiencing emotional lives. Yet they so easily eat a different kind of animal - how do they justify that to themselves? I think the only answer is they don't think about it.

Sometimes people like you and me make people uncomfortable because we ask the question.

Dogs are wonderful creatures but don't you think the other creatures may also suffer and feel joy and therefor deserve to have their desires - such as not wanting to die - taken into consideration?

I am constantly surprised by the power of denial, especially regarding how our food got to our plates. Can you talk how can we shift this in others without alienating them?

Some people want to close their eyes and not know. But once you see it, you can't un-see it and once you know it you can't un-know it.

The wonderful thing that is happening today is that there is so much information on the internet that if you are the least bit curious and you want to see what is the life of, lets say a chicken, you can find out today. It won't take you more than six clicks to find something really relevant including pictures, information, scientific research - you can know in a few minutes what that animals life is like and at that point you can't deny it anymore.

So I think that the only way we continue to do the things we do to these animals is if you stick your fingers in your ears and say you 'don't want to know'. But social media today makes it harder and harder to continue in our ignorance because no matter what you are doing or where you go, you are bound to see something sooner or later. Such as being confronted with a wonderful film such as Cowspiracy, Earthlings, Fork over Knives- any of those films - it is going to alter your world. So I think social media, talking to one another and the explosion of information and accessibility that will shift denial.

It is almost like our consciousness if going up every day inch by inch. I don't think it is going to disappear, it is not a fad because it is based on real facts.

What are three effective ways people can affect change for the better?

  • The most effective way to make change for the better is to make change for yourself, obviously. If you are going to recommend change to other people then first challenge yourself. So the first thing you do is make the change yourself
  • The second thing you can do, is to make some kind of deal with yourself that you are going to spend some time, everyday, doing something good for someone else. Something that is not selfish. A certain amount of alturism has to be built into your everyday life. Ask yourself at the end of the day, did I do anything useful or helpful today for someone else? 
  • Thirdly, every day learn something new that you didn't know yesterday.