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'Speciesism' details a philosophical view of the treatment of animals

TOMALES, CA - APRIL 24: Cows graze on grass at the Stemple Creek Ranch on April 24, 2014 in Tomales, California.
TOMALES, CA - APRIL 24: Cows graze on grass at the Stemple Creek Ranch on April 24, 2014 in Tomales, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The documentary Speciesism: The Movie premiered in Missouri at St. Louis’s Tivoli Theatre on Thursday, April 10, 2014. Director Mark Devries introduced his film and answered questions after the screening. Devries is currently on the road with his documentary, with upcoming screenings across the United States and Canada. In addition, the film is available by DVD purchase and online rental.

Speciesism examines the roles that animals have been made to play in a human-dominated planet, and explores why the treatment animals receive has come to be justified as standard practice. Filmmaker Devries visits factory farms, speaks with animals rights advocacy groups, philosophers, scientists, experts and scholars of ethics, lawyers, and doctors in search of the answer[s]. Eventually concluding that the dominant force behind this is “speciesism,” Devries confronts random passersby on the street who seem to confirm his suspicions when responding to his question: “Do you think that the suffering of humans is more important, ethically, than the suffering of other animals?”

Although the film focuses mainly on the suffering of non-human animals in this societal system, Devries also shines light on the dangers of factory farming for humans. Reporting on the practice of using sprayfields from “manure lagoons,” Devries also exposes the ways in which humans are harming each other. By using “manure lagoons,” factory farmers are actually spraying toxic animal waste into the fields and air, harming residents that live near the farms and polluting the water, causing sickness and death in people.

There are some points in the film that may make viewers uncomfortable, but this is not due to any brutal abuse footage, which is a relief. Beginning with the title of his film, Devries asks his audience repeatedly to look at how humans treat other species not just through an emotional or rational lens, but also through a philosophical lens. Reminding us that speciesism, just like racism or sexism, prefers one group at the expense of another or others, the filmmaker runs some questions and a rather loaded statement by a Simon Wiesenthal Center employee, not trying to offend but challenging the viewer to take “species” out of the equation when it comes to measuring suffering. “What’s the problem with making these comparisons between the Holocaust and animals?” Devries asks. “How do we pick species membership as the moral dividing line . . . ?” He continues: “A lot of [animal rights advocates] say, ‘Well, if we can make some sort of comparison . . .’ they say that the suffering of animals on factory farms today . . . billions of birds and pigs and so forth, who are suffering for their entire lives, physically and psychologically, and so forth . . . just as a basically factual matter, is more suffering than what took place in the Holocaust.”

These questions and statements do not sit well initially with the interviewee, especially when asked to compare the death of millions of innocent humans during the Holocaust against the deaths of animals. But as Devries compares the time suffered, the number of individuals affected, and the amount of suffering, he is asking people to put away, for a moment, the notion that a human life is more valuable than a non-human life, and ask: which of the total tolls is greater? It is perhaps a question that could be considered more, if for no other reason than gain some perspective.

This film also encourages its viewers to take action, the spirit of which this blog is dedicated to. Devries recommends adopting a vegan lifestyle, but change can also be achieved through activism, including signing petitions, working to improve the conditions that animals face on factory farms (including fighting against the Ag-Gag bills), supporting organizations that advocate against animal cruelty, and buying projects that are officially labeled “cruelty-free” (and whose “cruelty-free” label can be backed up by organizations like Certified Humane or other animal advocacy watchdogs and rights organizations) or produced on a local farm with a good reputation for humane treatment towards animals, among others.

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