The importance of bodily encounters in animal activism

Friday, 22 April, 2016

Dr Alex Lockwood is a member ofAcademic Advisory Group, and argues in his book The Pig in Thin Air that how we treat animals starts not with what we think about them, but what we’re able to feel in our own bodies.

Our bodies are central to how we live. That may seem obvious, but how often do we stop and think about it? We experience the world through our bodies. How we mobilise, act, and relate, or are impeded from doing so, are the central questions of our lives. They define the quality of our freedom and flourishing.

And not only ours. Many parts of society deny non-human animals control over their own bodies. This is often the thing that impels us to go vegan. And it is never only our “disembodied” intellectual evaluations that guide our actions, but always thoughts entangled with bodily emotions: joy, disgust, anger, fear.

For a long time Western societies considered the body to be inferior to the mind. This Kantian philosophy meant that the body, along with animals, nature, and women, were looked down upon as the poorer half of a hierarchy that ranked humans, particularly men, culture, and the mind, as superior. 

Those dualisms are being challenged. And none more so recently than the mind–body dualism. As neuroscience and other fields of study are proving, the body is not separate from the mind. Rather, suggests sociologist Lisa Blackman, if we understand our experiences as “brain–body–world entanglements” we come much closer to sensory reality, and to a corporeal way of being in relationships. This is important for us as vegans and as campaigners. If we want to achieve our goal of a vegan world, we have to address not only the “rational” thoughts people have about animals but also the embodied knowledges of who we feel ourselves to be. That is: How we feel about who we are dictates to a great extent what we do (to others).

To do this, we must pay attention to the role played by bodies in bringing about change in behaviour. This is not as easy as it sounds. The idea that we form our identities through embodied knowledge—how we feel and act shaping how we think—is still marginalised. Even if our actions are damaging—such as eating processed meats—they are often part of who people consider themselves to be. And when our social world approves of such behavior, giving it up is painful. 

But people do change, and campaigners are responding. A powerful form of activism I recently experienced is that of the bodily encounter. This takes many shapes, but central is that we come as close as we can to the bodies of non-human animals. One way to do this is through vigils held outside of slaughterhouses. Back in 2010 the Canadian activist Anita Kranjc created the Save Movement to do just this when she saw the trucks of pigs on their way to a downtown Toronto slaughterhouse. Those vigils, driven by compassion and bearing witness, have spread around the world, and reached the UK in February with the creation of Manchester Pig Save. 

We are so far removed these days from the bodies of the animals killed for food that it creates a space in which abuse and exploitation flourish. But when we meet and mourn, body-to-body, the individual non-humans on their way to slaughter, it changes us via the embodied experience. We are there offering what the philosopher Lori Gruen has called “entangled empathy” (a form of moral attention). Such moral attention is bodily attention. Then we can and do choose to stop killing them for food, clothes, or using them for entertainment. Such change is empowering.

This coming back to our bodies—to “think through the body” as Blackman asks us to—means that we begin to understand ourselves again as vulnerable beings. And that’s okay: we are flesh and blood too. 

When we have an expanded sense of our bodily selves, we are more able to see other beings this way. As vegans we can look at our actions from the body outwards, and from there reenergise ourselves to end the suffering of animals. As activists, we can ask how we are taking account of the body in our campaigns. The new iAnimal project from Animal Equality, that uses virtual reality to immerse the viewer in the world of pigs within industrial agriculture, does just this. The experience is one that places one’s ‘virtual’ body within the same confines as the pigs. We feel the fears and terrors they do—even if we can leave the nightmare behind.

What I have learnt personally, and corroborated through scholarly research and writing, is that the changes we want to make in the world as vegans are bodily changes. They are habits of eating and of socialising, habits of action. Aristotle tells us “we are what we repeatedly do.” He was talking about the fields of excellence, but the idea also holds for our everyday habits. 

This doesn’t mean we forget about cognitive thought. Take sleep as an example. Around eighty percent of gains in sleeping are made through behavioral—embodied—changes, such as keeping the same rising time, and not staring at screens before bedtime. However, you must also change your thoughts of yourself as a poor sleeper. You alter your identity. Without that rational change in thought, even if the sleep improves the old bodily habits are likely to slip back in. 

But it begins in the body. This attending to the body allows us to experience relationships with others. These relations are naturally full of compassion and empathy. Or as philosopher Mary Midgley once put it, “What makes our fellow beings entitled to basic consideration is surely not intellectual capacity but emotional fellowship,” We engage in this “emotional fellowship” by recognizing the absolute value of bodily freedom, and our obligations toward ensuring that all those who want to express their natural desires, can. The lives of non-human animals will be known to us best when they are free to express their desires, and move their bodies.

So what can we do? Campaigners, you might re-evaluate your work to ask how it relates to the bodies of those you’re trying to reach. How can your work involve bodily encounter, and bring people closer to the existing entanglements between humans and non-humans? 

For all vegans, we can engage with mindfulness, and empower our relationships with animals, for example by visiting farmed animal sanctuaries. The renowned animal biologist Marc Bekoff suggests we rewild our bodies and our lives, so why not read his book? Or, if you’re interested to know more about the pigs who inspire my activism, you could also read mine!

By Dr Alex Lockwood, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland


Bekoff, Marc. Rewilding our Hearts. Novato, CA.: New World Library, 2014.

Blackman, Lisa. The Body: Key Concepts. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2008.

Gruen, Lori. Entangled Empathy. New York: Lantern Books, 2015.

Lockwood, Alex. The Pig in Thin Air: An Identification. New York: Lantern, 2016.

Midgley, Mary. “Persons and Non-Persons,” in In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 52–62.

The importance of bodily encounters in animal activism The importance of bodily encounters in animal activism thumb 20horserace

6 reasons to boycott the Grand National

The importance of bodily encounters in animal activism The importance of bodily encounters in animal activism Quarter Pounder Burger 1

How ethical is your vegan burger?