Article - Spring 2023

The Pain Principle

What if the animal rights movement abandoned its focus on suffering and appealed to a different set of human emotions?

By Matthew Denton-Edmundson | April 6, 2023
Spanish bulls, such as this animal from the Lo Alvaro farm near Seville, are raised on expansive pastures and have very little contact with humans. (Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images)
Spanish bulls, such as this animal from the Lo Alvaro farm near Seville, are raised on expansive pastures and have very little contact with humans. (Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images)

Before arriving in Pamplona, in the Basque region of northern Spain, I had imagined the San Fermín festival as Ernest Hemingway describes it in The Sun Also Rises—as a picturesque Spanish town’s quaint celebration of its annual bullfight. In the novel, Jake Barnes introduces us to tavern keepers, local aficionados, and bullfighters, taking endless pleasure in revealing the intimate details of what was, in the 1920s, a little-known regional tradition. I understood, of course, that in the decades since, the festival has evolved into a wildly popular tourist attraction, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw this past summer, when more than a million people from all over the world descended on Pamplona for the fiesta, the running of the bulls, and the corrida (the bullfight). The narrow cobblestone streets were packed. Almost everyone was dressed in the traditional garb of San Fermín festivalgoers: white shirt and red bandana. Moving with the crowd on the third afternoon of the fiesta, I felt like I was inside an unhinged version of Where’s Waldo. A marching band plowed its way past me, the tuba player spinning with his unwieldy instrument. The restaurants sold overpriced pintxos (the Basque version of tapas), and the storefronts hawked T-shirts and plush bull toys, some of them stuck with miniature spears. In the Plaza de Toros, somebody had placed a red fedora and a string of Mardi Gras beads on the statue of Hemingway.

When I bought my ticket to the corrida from a round-faced Basque scalper, I had my hesitations. For the first 22 years of my life, I had been a staunch vegetarian. When I was 12, my father (who was not a vegetarian) gave me a copy of Animal Liberation, the seminal work by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, and for a time, the book was my bible. More recently, I’ve started eating meat occasionally, opting for cuts that are, I make sure to learn, “responsibly raised” by local farmers. I told myself that I was attending the bullfight as a journalist—I’d chosen not to wear the white shirt and red bandana—but I was far from sure I’d be able to stomach sitting in a cheering crowd while a bull was tortured to death.

The corrida began with the matadors and their teams paying their respects to the crowd and the presiding dignitaries. The fighters dressed in colorful traditional costumes, looking a bit like rhinestone cowboys, in their slim-fitting suits that sparkled glamorously in the afternoon sun. The head matador, or torero, was the most extravagantly dressed, his green suit laced with gold. My seat was about halfway down the stands, in the shady half of the arena, where the serious aficionados tend to sit. On the other side, in the unrelenting sun, the peñas—local social clubs—were already going wild, singing, waving flags, sharing wine, and now and then whipping pastries at one another.

Without more fanfare, the first bull charged out through a trap door. He was much larger and stronger than any bull you’ve seen in a roadside pasture. I had expected him to behave aggressively from the moment of his entrance, but this was not the case. At first, he seemed mostly confused, running from one side of the arena to the other, testing the boundaries of the enclosure. I would later learn that before they are brought to the corrida, the animals are kept together in large pastures away from human beings. Until this moment, the bull had probably never seen more than a few people. Now, here were 20,000. The noise was deafening.

After a few moments, four mounted men—the picadors—cantered into the arena. The bull started toward one of the horses at a jog. He lowered his head as he neared the horse, its rider using a long spear to stab him in his prominent neck muscles. The bull still managed to make contact with the horse’s flank, which was protected with quilted armor. The crowd booed the picador ferociously, apparently for his failure to keep the bull away from his mount. In the early 20th century, before armor was required, more horses than bulls died in the arena. Today, they often suffer broken ribs, bruised organs, and internal bleeding, injuries that sometimes prove fatal.

By this point, less than two minutes into the fight, I found myself in a strange state, both disgusted and transfixed. Blood covered both of the bull’s flanks. The picadors were soon replaced by banderilleros, men holding the short, colorfully decorated lances known as banderillas. They ran straight and fast at the bull, who also began to charge, and with acrobatic flourish sank the barbed tips of the lances beneath the animal’s skin, so that the lances hung against his flank and neck. After these wounds were inflicted, the bull held his head much lower than he had when he first entered the arena. This is the object of a corrida. In order for the torero to kill the bull without running too great a risk of being gored, the animal must not be holding his head high.

I now found myself unpleasantly jittery—probably due to an overload of adrenaline as well as concern for both the bull and the men. Still, I couldn’t look away. The banderilleros retreated, and the torero entered the arena. He unfurled a red cape, behind which he held a long, thin blade. For a few moments, the bull watched the cloth and the man, seeming at once furious and perplexed. The crowd went quiet, and you could hear the heaviness of the bull’s breathing, made loud by the saliva and blood in his mouth and nose. Then, he charged, lowering his horns at the cape and the man hidden behind it, the decorated lances thwacking against his ribs. At the last possible moment, the torero stood tall and spun, allowing the tips of the horns to pass just under his arm as he swept the cape over the animal’s head.

In 1975, Peter Singer predicted that a new push for animal rights was on its way. The civil rights movement had fought for basic rights for Black people in the United States. More recently, women and LGBT people had begun to fight for equal treatment under the law. Singer thought that the energy of these movements might soon grow to include other oppressed beings—namely, exploited animals.

In Animal Liberation, Singer argues that racism and sexism and what he calls “speciesism” all rely on arbitrary distinctions. In most Western nations, a person who raises dogs mouth-to-tail in small enclosures would be quickly condemned and would probably face prosecution. And yet, Singer points out, industrial pig farmers do exactly this with equally intelligent, sensitive animals, and they often receive government subsidies for their trouble. Similarly arbitrary distinctions were essential to a slaveholding society, he goes on, and remain so in a society with entrenched systemic racism. It’s important to note that Singer doesn’t assert that slavery and animal captivity are moral equivalents. Instead, he argues that one can help us understand the other. We are biased against certain animals because it is convenient, profitable, or pleasurable for us to exploit them, just as it was convenient, profitable, and pleasurable for plantation owners to exploit the human beings they held in bondage. He contends that in a few short decades, when the next generation (or the next) looks back on our treatment of animals, the practice may well be viewed in much the same way that we now view slavery—as despicable and inexcusable, an expression of extreme cruelty and selfishness.

The protesters swarmed through the narrow streets toward the Plaza de Toros. They continued chanting in their bulky costumes. Diners turned to see what the commotion was about, and then went back to their meals.

Singer was wrong about at least one thing. No broad shift in our understanding of animal rights has taken place since the publication of Animal Liberation. There have been some small-scale developments. Vegetarianism and veganism are more common and more socially acceptable than ever before. More people are speaking out in support of at-risk “charismatic megafauna”— creatures like elephants and manatees. There is a growing awareness of the beef industry’s contribution to climate change. But in most ways, things are worse than ever for captive animals. Worldwide, we kill about three times more pigs in industrial slaughterhouses than we did in the 1970s. In the United States, animal welfare laws lag behind those of European countries, including Spain. Species everywhere are suffering from habitat destruction.

If Singer’s arguments held any sway in the culture at large, the recent outcries against entrenched racism, sexual harassment, and homophobia might well have led to another outcry—one against the abysmal treatment of industrially raised farm animals. Instead, fast-food chains that profit enormously from the suffering of animals make shows of embracing social justice, filling their TV ads with diverse casts, pledges of support to various causes, and rainbow banners—all in hopes of turning a bigger profit. Organizations such as PETA are disparaged by members of all political stripes. The “radical actions” of animal rights protesters are rarely covered or even acknowledged by the mainstream media. In academia, the arguments and papers of “animal studies” scholars are so extreme and filled with jargon that they seem to be begging for irrelevance.

How did things end up this way? During a time when so many people seem willing to speak out against injustice, why has the cause of animals remained so decidedly on the fringes?

There are a few obvious answers to this question. For one thing, an ever-growing number of problems today make claims on our attention. Can one be faulted for using one’s limited time and energy to speak out against racial injustice or climate change instead of animal rights? And then there’s the intractable difficulty of habit and convenience. In his essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace admits defeat in “working out any sort of personal ethical system in which [eating animals] is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.” And yet, he eats them anyway. Most of us do things every day without moral justification. Sure, Animal Liberation contains a well-reasoned moral argument. When has that ever changed anyone’s mind?

And yet, the day before the bullfight, I’d been to an event that suggested that the “movement” is suffering from deeper problems.

In the center of Pamplona’s Plaza Consistorial, journalists crowded around Yasmina Martín, one of the organizers of the annual protest against the San Fermín bullfights. In answer to the salvo of questions about her organization, AnimaNaturalis, Martín calmly delivered just what you’d expect. She said that the corrida is a form of torture. That bulls have a developed central nervous system. That they feel pain as intensely as any human. That traditions don’t have to be violent in order to be meaningful.

In short order, a few hundred curious onlookers had joined the journalists. Pamplona’s city hall made for a stately background, adorned with Baroque columns and steel railings and statues of Heracles and Themis, the Greek goddess of justice. A man in a dark button-up stepped past the microphones and started arguing a point with Martín. I caught the word tradicion, just as several dozen people in extravagant dinosaur costumes appeared from behind the building, singing and chanting and waving signs, many of which read, “Bullfights are prehistoric.”

The protesters swarmed through the narrow streets toward the Plaza de Toros and the bullfighting arena. They continued chanting, moving clumsily in their bulky costumes. Diners sitting in front of pintxos restaurants turned to see what the commotion was about, and then went back to their meals. The dinosaurs swarmed onward. La tauromaquia es prehistórica, they chanted.

The protest disbanded about half an hour later, and I found myself disheartened. It wasn’t just the few people in attendance relative to the crowd that had arrived in Pamplona for the festivities. After all, the “Sin Tauromaquia” march is one of the most covered animal rights protests in the world, and dozens of news outlets were there. But I couldn’t help feeling that the T. rex suits were silly, that the protesters had taken a serious issue and unintentionally made it ridiculous. Their slogans were hackneyed, their arguments predictable and uninspiring. The afternoon seemed to me emblematic of the absolute staleness of animal rights activism. And so, my question remained: Where did things go wrong?

When the bull finally fell into a slick of his own blood, the hilt of the torero’s blade buried between his shoulders, the crowd began swaying back and forth and belting out the mariachi number “El Rey”: Llorar y llorar, llorar y llorar (cry and cry, cry and cry).

Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon returns over and over to the idea of emotion in bullfighting. Bullfighting isn’t a sport, Hemingway insists. It’s a tragedy reminiscent of Greek theater. The point of it all is to stir up emotion—sometimes intense emotion—in the audience through, above all, an honest performance. That is, a performance in which the torero takes real risks with the bull, and does so with skill rather than cheap tricks or false bravado. Without having seen the real thing, I’d never have believed that bullfighting might meaningfully be compared to sculpture or theater, as Hemingway does. Now, I almost do.

Even so, I remain certain that the corrida is a form of animal torture. Despite arguments to the contrary, recent studies have shown that bulls suffer extreme physiological and psychological pain during the course of a fight—Yasmina Martín was right, of course. This confirms what must have always been apparent to anyone who knows anything about animals or the signs they give under duress. You can see the bull’s pain in the way he breathes heavily when he stands still after the banderillas are stuck under his skin, and by the way he hesitates slightly after slipping to his knees as he follows the torero’s cape in too sharp a turn. By the end of the fight, the bull is so exhausted and punctured that the matador has to goad him into even a cursory charge, jerking the cape almost under his nose. If adrenaline took the bull through the first minutes of the fight, it is now gone, and he is no doubt feeling his every wound.

And so, it’s difficult for me to admit the truth: when the crowd began singing, I felt intensely alive. I’m still at a loss to say where exactly that feeling came from, but the sensation somewhat resembled that morbid fascination inspired by a particularly gripping horror movie. Spaniards who enjoy the bullfights are fond of pointing out that Americans like to keep their violence toward animals hidden safely away, behind the bland walls of industrial slaughterhouses. They’re not wrong. The corrida was also an electrifying blow to my cultural sensibilities. I was disgusted and enthralled both by the violence and by the audience’s willingness to celebrate it with such gusto. And in the midst of my disgust, I wondered if there might be something worthy and hearty about the Spaniards’ comfort with death. Perhaps, I felt, they knew a thing or two about mortality that I’d missed during the course of my relatively sheltered life.

There was something else, too. As the bull stumbled, still upright but with his aorta punctured by the tip of the sword, the torero held his right hand out to the animal, as if ushering him from life to death. He seemed to be saying, We are all waiting for the end. Throughout the fight, I’d felt (alongside all those other feelings) a loitering sense of my own health and wholeness—the fact of being free from excruciating pain. When the torero made that gesture to the bull, this feeling intensified until it was almost pleasurable. That’s the only way I can describe it. My awareness of my own aliveness was sharpened by my proximity to the opposite—pain and death.

The Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona is no longer the quaint local spectacle that it was in Hemingway’s time. (Eric Nathan/Alamy)

When Martín spoke to the reporters about a bull’s nervous system and the bovine capacity for both mental suffering and physical pain, she was drawing on the work of my childhood hero, Singer, who puts these neurological functions at the center of his philosophy. Rather than erecting arbitrary lines between those species we feel comfortable exploiting and those we do not, Singer wants us to remember our own vested interest in avoiding sensations of pain, and to extend that consideration to members of other species.

This argument is part of a long tradition of animal rights activism. In ancient Greece, the philosopher and scientist Theophrastus railed against his teacher Aristotle’s callousness toward animals. Men and animals, he wrote, “do not differ, above all in sensations.” In 19th-century Britain, an Irish lawyer named Colonel Richard Martin prosecuted a street salesman for beating his donkey by bringing the animal to court as the sole witness, showing the judges her injuries and asking them to imagine sustaining similar ones. A few decades prior, the utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham had written, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” In the late 19th century, the feminist and doctor Anna Kingford argued vehemently against the practice of vivisection. “Pain is pain,” she wrote, “and injustice is injustice, whoever the victim.” Today, academics interested in “animal studies” tend to have complicated feelings about Singer. They critique his unbending allegiance to utilitarianism and his failure, in their view, to properly interrogate his own biases as a white man. But, as far as I know, nobody has meaningfully questioned his argument that the shared capacity for suffering is the best basis for changing the way we relate to animals.

The pain argument has long defined the animal rights movement, and continues to do so. And yet, during the bullfight, witnessing an animal in obvious pain, I felt something much more complicated than revulsion. Why didn’t the corrida inspire straightforward outrage at the suffering on show, even in somebody like myself, who (like many others) is disposed toward sympathy—if not always perfect compassion—for the plight of captive animals? This question, it seems to me, is closely related to the question of why the animal rights movement has not yet lived up to its potential.

The philosopher Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain puts forward an alternative understanding of pain, one that helps explain why sympathy and revulsion weren’t the only emotions I felt at the bullfight. The book isn’t all that well known outside academia, but it has helped reshape the way many scholars and historians understand torture—not only how torture affects victims, but also how it changes perpetrators and witnesses. It’s an impressionistic work, far from scientific, and at times frustratingly opaque. It mixes history and literature and philosophy, along with a healthy dash of Scarry’s boisterous imagination. And yet for all that, it is perhaps richer and more evocative than anything else written on the subject of suffering.

In 1986, Singer reviewed The Body in Pain in The New York Review of Books. “The book is cavalier in its disregard for the hard work of providing either factual evidence or serious philosophical argument for what it says,” he wrote. He objected to Scarry’s application of terms such as materialism and her freewheeling account of the history of torture. One senses in Singer’s quibbles and dismissals that his disagreement with Scarry ran deeper than he was admitting. If this was innovative work, he concluded, with uncharacteristic harshness, “I will do without innovation every time.”

When people are in extreme pain, they become less like themselves. Our preferences and peculiarities, habits of speech and gesture, even our most deeply held beliefs are likely to be forgotten in the face of torture.

I think Singer must have felt Scarry prodding at one of the central assumptions of Animal Liberation: that the shared capacity for pain might be the basis for a revised relationship between humans and animals. Among other things, she contends that pain tends to separate—rather than unite—those who experience it from those who don’t. “For the person whose pain it is,” she writes, “it is ‘effortlessly’ grasped (that is, even with the most heroic effort it cannot not be grasped); while for the person outside the sufferer’s body, what is ‘effortless’ is not grasping it.” Said somewhat more plainly: a bystander never actually feels a sufferer’s pain, no matter how earnest the attempt to do so. If you have been in proximity to someone in extreme pain, you know how disconcerting the experience can be—the pain, all-consuming within the sufferer’s body, is nothing within your own. You might begin to feel hopelessly alienated from the sufferer, despite any physical closeness. Scarry says that torture exaggerates this dynamic. Cries for help, she writes, which ought to occasion attention and assistance, can almost serve to discredit the pain.

This line of argument helps explain why undercover videos of animal abuse in feedlots and slaughterhouses—released by organizations such as PETA—haven’t exactly proved to be effective propaganda. The feelings these sights inspire in their audiences are complex. As I walked out of the bullring, the guard at the gate expressed surprise that I was leaving so soon. “It’s not for me,” I told him. But that wasn’t quite true. I wanted my feelings about the fight to be straightforward, and I felt a bit guilty that they weren’t—guilty that part of me had even enjoyed the experience. It would have been easier to forget the whole thing, just as I find it easier not to think too hard about a PETA-produced video of an industrial hog slaughterhouse that I saw years ago.

Scarry has more to say on these fronts. Pain not only distances sufferers from those around them, it also distances sufferers from themselves. That is, when people are in extreme pain, they become less like themselves. Our preferences and peculiarities, habits of speech and gesture, even our most deeply held beliefs are likely to be forgotten, or even permanently obliterated, in the face of torture. That’s part of why torture is used by authoritarian regimes (and a few democratic ones, too). It’s not first and foremost a means of collecting information that would otherwise remain inaccessible. More important is its power to break the strength and idealism necessary for resistance.

Since animals feel pain, we might consider the probability that they also suffer some version of the process that Scarry describes. For example, wouldn’t the preferences that make a pig a pig (the desire to root or the ability to use more than 20 distinct vocalizations to communicate with members of its species) be degraded by suffering? The bull I saw that afternoon in the arena, ready to charge anything that moved, was not quite representative of its species. Bullfight aficionados talk about the picadors’ lances “focusing” the animal. Before this first pain is inflicted, the bull is often more intent on finding a way to escape the arena than on charging the toreros. As the fight goes on, the increasing damage to the bull’s body seems to resign him to his fate. Thinking back to the first corrida he attended, Hemingway writes that the bull became “an altogether different animal when the banderillas went in, and I resented the loss of the free wild quality he brought with him into the ring.”

The bull behaves as many cornered, Injured animals (IIing human beings) will behave, albeit with significantly more strength and gusto. He attacks his tormentors relentlessly. His apparent willingness to participate in the fight then becomes a means by which the audience justifies his torture. Look, he wants to fight. This process resembles one of the insidious mechanisms of institutions such as slavery. The more certain people are made to suffer, the easier it is to dehumanize them, to view them as stupid, unworthy of serious moral consideration, even deserving of exploitative treatment—as willing participants in their own subjugation.

The very thing that Singer believes will bring the masses over to his side can therefore have the opposite effect. When people read about or watch animals in pain, they witness these beings in a reduced state, a state that does not accurately represent the creatures’ normal habits and abilities. Most people who see a PETA-sponsored video will feel guilt of some kind. But they may also be left with a lingering sense that the animals they have seen aren’t worthy of much more than cursory moral consideration.

None of this is to say that it is impossible (or even all that rare) for humans to meaningfully identify with nonhuman creatures. Rather, it means that we don’t do it readily when we encounter them incapacitated by suffering. In this sense, the animal rights movement took a wrong turn with Theophrastus, the first to articulate the pain theory. Singer writes powerfully of the parallels among racism and sexism and “speciesism.” But—fixated on pain as the basis of his call to action—he fails to remember that the civil rights movement did not gain momentum because white people pitied the suffering of Black people. Rather, the voices of Black artists, musicians, thinkers, and protesters became too powerful to ignore. The same was true of the gay pride and the women’s liberation movements. History suggests that human beings are likelier to treat other humans with dignity when forced to consider their potential, rather than simply their suffering.

A few years ago, my wife and I were in the kitchen of our farmhouse in rural Virginia when an interview with the naturalist E. O. Wilson came on the radio show Science Friday. Every summer, we’d battled ants that lived under the stove and in the coping behind the counter, mostly by wiping them away with a sponge whenever they crossed the counter too boldly. So we both perked up when Wilson said that people often ask him what they should do about ants in their house. His practiced response? Watch your step, he says, give the ants a dab of whipped cream, and try to look at them as creatures from another planet. By the time Wilson was done talking, I was pretty sure that I’d be letting the ants make their forays without reaching for the sponge (though I’ve yet to go the whipped cream route). And yet, all he’d done was offer a series of observations about ants: that they communicate and coordinate with one another through chemical secretions; that some species of ants domesticate aphids to harvest their sugary secretions; that the total weight of all ants on Earth probably equals the weight of all human beings.

People need to see animals at their best before they will care about saving them from the worst. Instead of treating them as things to be pitied, we should try to think of them as if they came from another planet.

Of course, not everyone is going to put away the boric acid traps after learning something new about an insect often considered a pest. But what about Craig Foster’s documentary film My Octopus Teacher ? If you have friends who have seen it, ask them if they still eat octopus, and you might be surprised by how many couldn’t anymore, or didn’t want to. I’m in this camp. The movie produced in me an unexpectedly—to borrow a phrase from Hemingway—intense degree of emotion. When the octopus emerges from her lair after the long labor of regrowing her arm, and when she wrangles with and then escapes the tiger shark, I experienced a sense of victory that rivaled the momentary aliveness I felt at the bullfight. And when she passed away at the end of the film, I felt I’d learned more about mortality than I had from reading Death in the Afternoon. For the first time in many years, I found myself tearing up in front of a screen.

The animal rights movement could be a movement founded on animal potential, and the powerful emotion that stories and facts about animals can inspire in human beings. The difficult work is already being done by scientists, videographers, and naturalists, who every day are discovering and documenting new ways that animals process and interact with the world. Increasingly, philosophers and journalists are also part of this puzzle. David M. Peña-Guzmán’s recent book on animal dreaming is exemplary, linking the philosophic puzzle of consciousness—and the question of whether animals have it—with new evidence of their capacity to dream. For example, he reexamines data from a 2000 study, published in the journal Science, that analyzed the neural activity of sleeping zebra finches. Research on birdsong, Peña-Guzmán writes,

has historically focused on what these animals do while awake to imitate and memorize their song, but [biologists Amish] Dave and [Daniel] Margoliash wondered whether sleep might also play a role in song acquisition. Could sleep help juvenile finches internalize the acoustic patterns they hear from their family members and commit them to long-term memory? Could these birds learn their song at least in part by rehearsing it in their minds while asleep?

Dave and Margoliash concluded that although zebra finches do rehearse songs while dreaming, they do so without effectively experiencing the sounds. Peña-Guzmán argues that this conclusion says more about the scientists’ implicit biases than about the actual behavior of the birds. He points to evidence that the researchers overlooked, suggesting that the finches could well “hear” songs that exist only in their sleeping minds. “They [hear] it silently,” he writes, “much like we hear the clamoring soundscapes of our own dreams—the voice of a lover, the rustling in the trees, the sound of a church bell in the distance.” For Peña-Guzmán, dreaming becomes a point of connection between humans and animals, a shared potential that closes the gap between species.

It’s important that the abysmal conditions in industrial farms and slaughterhouses continue to be well publicized. We can’t simply wish away the pain that is the day-to-day reality of too many animals. But because of human beings’ complex relationship with suffering, this information should be generously balanced by concrete evidence of animal potential. Rather than parading around in dinosaur costumes or harassing customers at neighborhood butcher shops, organizations such as PETA and AnimaNaturalis might devote a hefty portion of their resources to broadcasting and promoting the newest research on the behavioral and mental capabilities of animals. They also might work to encourage people to form relationships with a greater variety of animal species in sanctuaries and other places where humans can safely view wild animals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people go to Florida’s springs to interact with the manatees. They come away with a sense of the animals’ calm majesty. Some rank the experience as one of the most memorable of their lives. As a consequence, there has been, to date, overwhelming public support for projects aimed at rehabilitating the state’s coastal seagrass, the disappearance of which due to water pollution is causing an unprecedented decline in manatee populations. This kind of collective energy (though it may ultimately prove no match for human-caused ecological degradation) is at least a start, and it might serve as a model for other at-risk species. Rights organizations could also connect people with farms where animals that provide humans with nonmeat products are treated with dignity and lead fulfilling lives. People need to see animals at their best before they will care about saving them from the worst.

Instead of treating animals as things to be pitied, we should follow E. O. Wilson’s lead and try to think of them as if they came from another planet. Animals can show us new and radical ways of understanding and interacting with the world, if we give them the space to do so. When we advocate for their dignity and well-being, the question should not be, “Are they ever subject to pain?” but rather, “Do they have the space and habitat and social contact necessary to live up to their potential?”

Something I noticed during the corrida: few people brought their children to the fight. But the day before the festival, an enormous line had formed outside a lot where several local breeders were displaying their prized bulls. Parents pushed strollers and held their kids’ hands as they waited to see the animals. Inside a corral, many of the bulls stood with steers. I heard a boy ask his father about them, and the man explained that the steers were there to keep the bulls calm during transport to an unfamiliar place. It occurred to me then that the relationship between humans and other species isn’t going to change overnight. After all, we were gawking at a bull that would soon be killed in the arena. And yet, there also seemed something hopeful in the moment—emissaries of the next generation admiring the calm of an immensely strong and sensitive animal. l

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