- Society's attachment to eating animals may be a response to intergenerational trauma: trauma that is passed down through experiences, worldviews, and even epigenetics.
- This may help explain why people who have never killed animals to survive might be as attached to using animals for food as those who have.
- Empathy for the important values being expressed by these responses might be crucial to shifting people to support animal freedom.
While I do feel for the animals that are killed, I feel like hunting and eating meat are connected to us in like a very primal way… It adheres to the natural order of things, to consume meat products, and animal products… We don't cry when wolves eat rabbits… And I think that we are losing sight of our connection and our place in nature as like apex predators.
After interviewing hundreds of ordinary Americans about their views on using animals for food and noticing the themes represented in the quote above, I reread Hatchet, an iconic young adult novel in which a 13-year-old boy named Brian gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness and, against all odds, figures out how to survive. I was struck by how, despite my dedication to animal freedom, I found myself rooting for Brian as he killed and dismembered fishes, birds, and rabbits. For years, I’ve rolled my eyes when people bring up their ancestors or what’s natural to justify eating animals, but in reading Hatchet suddenly I was able to understand something important behind these justifications that had seemed so shallow to me before.
By imagining a sympathetic character holding those same objections, this essay will explore a strategy for an empathy-first persuasion approach. I’ll present a model for understanding society’s attachment to eating animals as a distant intergenerational trauma response, illustrated by quotes from interview participants in our animal rights messaging study. I’ll share how Brian, Hatchet’s fictional protagonist, helped me see this all more clearly. Most importantly, I’ll give you tools for how to respond when you come up against this in your own advocacy for animals.
At Pax Fauna, we believe in storytelling as a vehicle for change, and in Hatchet, we’re invited into Brian’s world. So let’s imagine what it would be like to understand Brian, and in doing so, understand the cultural forces supporting animal agriculture.
Brian’s Trauma is Our Trauma
I came to see Hatchet as representing something deeper than the exciting adventure book I experienced as a kid. Brian’s situation is an acute version of the situation our ancestors found themselves in for countless generations- often in mortal danger or a few wrong moves from starvation.
The concept of intergenerational trauma explains how ordinary people who’ve never had an experience like Brian’s could still have the same reaction to animal advocates. First observed in acute historical tragedies- the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide- intergenerational trauma is a phenomenon in which trauma symptoms appear in children and grandchildren of people who experienced trauma. Put simply, trauma is often passed around in society like an electrical signal in the brain- always moving but never gone. One person expresses their trauma in a way that harms another, which can be metabolized as its own trauma. It’s important to understand that intergenerational trauma is not only passed down through abuse or neglect but also by transmitting a worldview shaped by trauma, one that emphasizes fear and victimhood or stoicism and self-reliance6, or even through epigenetics, changes in how the bodies of younger generations express genes caused by experiences of their ancestors.
It would be great if our lives could be a Disney movie, you know? But it's not. You know, it's just not.
Acting Out Trauma Responses
Killing to Survive
Unfortunately, they still have to be killed. I don't like it. But in order for you to get the nutrients that you need, it's necessary. And I don't think there's really any way to get around it.
Brian was put into a situation where many animal advocates would agree that killing an animal is morally acceptable- it seemed that if he didn’t, he would die. As his eating became routine, I wondered what it would be like for him to return to society after having had the experience of killing and dismembering animals out of necessity.
If Brian was a target of our advocacy, my guess is that he would have a desperate need to be heard on his experience, his relationship with animals, and the depth of his connection with nature. If we tried to immediately appeal to how unnecessary it is for him now to eat animals, he’d be frustrated with us for not hearing him, and this need to be heard might be so great that it could present as hostility.
Stuck in the Past
Reading about Brian crash-landing a plane alone into the Canadian wilderness, I found myself viewing his situation in a much different light than I had as a child- by repeatedly coming so close to dying, and by doing so totally alone, Brian undoubtedly experienced a world-changing trauma. Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, one of the world’s leading experts on trauma, writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “trauma [is] experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.” That’s to say that, when coming face to face with reminders of the trauma such as the question of eating animals, Brian might exhibit some dysregulation of his nervous system- strong emotions that, to an outside observer, might seem completely irrational.
Animal advocates are familiar with this level of objection- people who become angry and argumentative upon learning that you eat differently than them. Trauma educator Sarah Peyton writes about another level of faulty thinking that can be formed through trauma. “[In the face of trauma,] we learn to make unconscious contracts with ourselves that are attempting to keep us safe, but often end up creating self-sabotage and preventing self-kindness.” That is, when, in a traumatic situation, we learn strategies to survive, those strategies often persist past the point that they’re useful. This applies, for Brian, both to the act of eating animals and the cognitive trick of objectifying them.
The part of Brian that holds trauma (the amygdala5, for you technically inclined) can’t tell time, and remains as if “frozen in time in the traumas [he] experienced.”4 as described by Schwartz and Morrisette, authors of No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. It wouldn’t know that Brian was safely returned to modern society- it’s still as awake as it was in the woods, watching for danger and prey. When Brian learned to objectify animals as a survival mechanism in the face of trauma, that could have persisted long after his rescue.
Humans, as a species, are reluctant to change. Because change means something new and new things are scary. And it goes back to our hunter days, in the dark, huddling around the campfires and all that, you know…. Anything new was a threat or a potential threat. And we still sort of have that instinct, you know, baked into our DNA.
When we challenge the moral validity of eating animals, it may sound to some like we are dismissing the entire legacy upon which we’ve built our lives. While we express compassion for animals, they hear disrespect towards the sacrifice others have made for us to be here. When people bring up their ancestors eating meat, indigenous people who hunt, or lions, they’re defending the validity of the very ground on which they stand. We can consider this particular form of defensiveness a deeply held trauma response formed long, long ago.
I'm questioning… why we're calling [plant-based eating] responsible when, for other cultures, part of their culture is to eat meat. So it's a taking away from their heritage calling this responsible when for them, this is the irresponsible choice of not following what their ancestors have grown up on.
The Path Out
Trauma needs empathy and warmth to heal. Van Der Kolk writes that “Recovery from trauma involves (re)connecting with our fellow human beings.” To understand what society might need to heal the trauma response of animal exploitation, let’s consider the empathy Brian might need before being convinced to support animal freedom.
Until we’ve empathized fully with the terror of living in fear of starvation, we can’t address the trauma of killing animals. Brian would still be defensive over his decision to kill animals until he’s fully heard about the desperation that led him there.
First of all, people have been killing animals since the beginning of time… I just kind of feel like it's just, that's the way it is. Someone's on top and someone's at the bottom.
Brian might also need to be acknowledged for his resilience. He doesn’t regret doing what he needed to do to survive. In fact, he’s proud of himself for the strength, determination, and intelligence he displayed by surviving in the bush with no preparation. He doesn’t want to abandon his resilience, and no one wants to abandon the resilience it took for their ancestors to survive. When people express an attachment to meat, fur, or other animal products as a cultural symbol of success and abundance, they may need acknowledgment, and even celebration, of their resilience.
What’s more, Brian feels a profound connection to nature, probably far greater than you or I do. He feels gratitude for the animals he killed and has peace with the fact that he killed them.
Saying [eating meat is] unnecessary would be unfair to, say, indigenous cultures, because they have a very spiritual reverence and respectful relationship with the animals that they take the lives of. And I think if we listen to indigenous wisdom, we could find a way to revolutionize our relationship with animals that we do kill.
Loss of the Natural World
The final piece Brian might need empathy on, in order to be able to hear an animal freedom message, is his grief at having left the woods behind. He felt connected to nature, and now he’s surrounded by people who don’t understand him and only want to talk about things that seem frivolous to him. In the woods, after a while, he felt in his element. His senses were elevated- he noticed every little detail. In the city, he’s bombarded by noise.
There is certainly parallel grief held in the collective consciousness. Deep down, many (or perhaps all) of us are mourning our severance with the natural world. We can recognize it whenever people reject modernity for its own sake, such as discomfort with cultured meat or B12 supplements. What would it sound like to empathize with that grief before asking for movement on animals?
Empathy for the Irrational
In a sequel, Brian’s Return, Brian has difficulty adjusting to modern life. He feels stressed, alienated, and when triggered, viciously attacks a classmate. It isn’t until he meets someone who listens to him with empathy that he’s able to find a pathway out of his distress.
As tempting as it may be to respond to arguments about respect for nature, culture, and legacy, with another argument, such as by declaring that it’s unnecessary to eat meat in the modern world or by introducing evidence that humans fare better on a vegan diet, we recommend connecting first with the values that the argument is coming from and connecting with those values the best you can. That might sound something like this:
I hear you bring up lions eating gazelles in nature, and I can respond to that, but first I want to make sure I understand where it’s coming from. Is it important to you to be connected to the natural world? Me too, very much, and I’d love to hear more about your sense of connection to nature… For humans to not think of ourselves as separate from nature? Yeah, I feel that too, like, I feel really sad when people talk about these pie-in-the-sky technological solutions to climate change because I don’t think we can just invent ourselves out of every problem. Is it kind of like that?
Connecting first on the shared values behind the argument, however frustrating, is a way to disarm the defensiveness born from trauma and hopefully, help someone give themselves permission to change their mind.
If my ancestors didn't hunt, I probably wouldn't be here today. Because I mean, that's what we had to do for survival. But I mean, I think some people would also say that, I mean, it's kind of unethical when we're in a point, you know, in the world where we don't have to do that. It's not like 1850, and I'm, you know, a pioneer in California, killing a bear for meat or something, and it just doesn't work like that anymore. Like, I can go to the store, I don't have to go and shoot an animal or, you know, catch a fish to eat.
In the author’s note following Brian’s Return, we learn that the author, Gary Paulsen, is a vegetarian. If Paulsen, a vegetarian who believes it’s wrong to kill animals, can write a story so sympathetic to the hunter in our history, surely we can all afford to employ a little empathy in our advocacy. In an interview on NPR, he said of a time in his life before he even published Hatchet, "And I'd quit trapping because I don't - I decided that it was not correct to kill animals. And I'm not going to get into a big controversial thing, but for me, it's not the right thing to do. I can't - I'm a vegetarian now."