Pig empathy case highlights age-old debate over eating meat

The ongoing trial of a Burlington, Ont., woman charged with mischief after giving water to pigs headed to a slaughterhouse might be a legal first, but the underlying arguments around whether animals are property or sentient beings who should not be subject to undue suffering.

People have argued for and against consuming animals for thousands of years

A butcher cuts into a rack of pork in the city centre of Bordeaux, on March 7, 2016, during the 24th 'tue cochon' (pig killing) event, based on a tradition marking the end of winter, during which a pig is slaughtered and prepared to eat. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Is a pig bound for slaughter a creature condemned to an unfair death, or is it simply property?

The answer to that question is central to determining the fate of a Toronto woman named Anita Krajnc. She faces charges of mischief for giving water to pigs on a truck headed for a Burlington, Ont., slaughterhouse.

While her lawyers have described her case as a legal first, the debate around whether animals should be treated as sentient beings and spared undue suffering is nothing new. The arguments for and against stretch back thousands of years and encompass the broader question of whether or not humans should eat meat at all.

The Bible

Consider this passage from the King James Bible: "When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as he hath promised thee, and thou shalt say, I will eat flesh, because thy soul longeth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, whatsoever thy soul lusteth after." (Deuteronomy 12:20)

On the other hand, Buddhism and Hinduism both discourage meat-eating. Those ancient religions share roots with another still practised today, Jainism.


"It is thought to be the oldest spiritual tradition in India, predating Hinduism," explains Rutgers University law professor Gary Francione, who has authored several books on animal rights. "And Jainism is based around the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. [It] takes the position that we cannot inflict suffering or death on any sentient being."

Canadian Ashley Fruno protests in Bangkok against eating meat with a sign that reads: 'All animals have the same parts. Go vegetarian.' (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

A prominent figure in the Jain tradition is Mahavira, often referred to as its founder. But most scholars agree that while he did much to advance it, the tradition itself predates his life in sixth century BC.

Pythagoras and the ancient Greeks

A continent away, at the same time, the man best known for his theorem a² + b² = c² was encouraging his disciples to follow a meatless diet. Pythagoras's vegetarianism stemmed from his belief in the "transmigration of the soul."

As Colin Spencer, author of The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism, explains: "He felt that the human, or the spirit, was within all living things. Therefore, to kill anything alive would be a crime ... if you killed a cow, you might be killing your grandmother."

If you killed a cow, you might be killing your grandmother.- Colin Spencer, author of The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism

Nothing that Pythagoras ever wrote has survived. But his influence — including his vegetarianism — is reflected in the writing of many Greek philosophers and poets who came later, like Ovid and Plutarch. Plutarch wrote a treatise called The Eating of Flesh, which begins: "You ask of me, then, for what reason it was that Pythagoras abstained from eating of flesh. I, for my part, do much wonder in what humour, with what soul or reason, the first man with his mouth touched slaughter, and reached to his lips the flesh of a dead animal."

So profound was Pythagoras's influence on vegetarianism that for centuries his name would be synonymous with a meat-free diet.

The Romantics and Frankenstein's monster

"Before 1847, English-speaking people who did not eat animals called themselves 'Pythagoreans'," says Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.

"And the Pythagorean tradition among English writers and English activists — especially at the end of the 18th century, tied with the French Revolution — was really important. They saw vegetarianism as being a part of the grand social change that would eliminate slavery, the class system, other forms of human oppression."

One such writer was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein. What most readers fail to appreciate, says Adams, is that Frankenstein's monster is vegetarian.

Frankenstein's monster was a vegetarian, says Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat.

"She creates a monster whose vegetarianism is very related to all of these beliefs of Romantic England ... of the Pythagorean individual, who lives on nuts and berries. The monster says 'I'm not going to slay the kid, or destroy the lamb. My fruit is not that of man.' So his vision is for a vegetarian, pacifist world."

The late 19th century is sometimes referred to as the golden age of vegetarianism. Many of the concepts of modern-day animal rights began to take shape during the Victorian era.

Meat in the modern world

Today, the debate over meat rages on. The effects of animal agriculture on climate change has intensified environmental concerns. Health officials are increasingly touting the benefits of a diet that includes little to no animal products. And concern among consumers for how animals are raised for food is growing.

Toronto Pig Save volunteers give water to pigs headed for slaughter in Burlington, Ont., on a hot day. One of them, Anita Krajnc, now faces criminal mischief charges. (Anita Krajnc/Facebook)

Still, as an expert witness at Krajnc's trial testified, we are eating more meat than ever. And some modern-day philosophers like Roger Scruton, author of Animal Rights and Wrongs, see no reason to stop.

"Duty requires us to eat our friends because if we didn't, they wouldn't be there," he says. "If we rear them properly so that they become our friends, then we have given to them the only thing that an animal really appreciates — [a] life of ease and pleasure and freedom. And we wouldn't have done this if we didn't look forward to the day when we consume them."

Listen to Kevin Ball's documentary, "The Matter of Meat."


Kevin Ball is a radio producer and the director of CBC Radio's As it Happens. When he's not making radio, he enjoys just making noise with loud things like bagpipes and motorbikes.