Respecting the Smallest Lives

I was recently in a hardware store with my boyfriend when he pointed at something with a troubled look on his face. I followed his gaze and saw some kind of substance designed to kill flies. We regarded it with heavy hearts.

It may seem silly to get upset over something so innocuous. But we’re the type of people who rescue hapless houseflies that fall into the sink, conversationally greet the woodlice that roam across the bathroom floor, and name the spiders that dwell above our bed. We admire the mottled slugs that find their way under the back door and move snails away from busy paths so they don’t get trampled. The idea of intentionally killing a fly is pretty alien to us.

To me, being vegan means respecting all life – not just the cute fuzzy kind. I’d no more deliberately squash a bug than kick a dog (though the small size of most insects does make it easy to hurt them accidentally).

Many people dismiss tiny creatures like insects as being unworthy of moral concern, claiming that they’re lacking in intelligence or even that they aren’t sentient. But an animal’s intelligence should not determine how well it’s treated. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”Β Besides, it makes no sense to judge other species’ intelligence by human standards.

I also don’t buy the idea that insects aren’t sentient. They react to external stimuli much the way other animals do – by flying away or playing dead in the face of danger, for example. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that they probably feel some level of fear when someone tries to swat them; something must motivate them to flee the situation. Though some say this is just instinct, surely instinct is intertwined with emotion?

Others argue that it’s acceptable to kill or injure insects because they allegedly can’t feel pain. Again, I don’t buy this; as a friend of mine once pointed out, it’s possible to suffer without feeling pain. If you broke a leg but it didn’t hurt, you’d still suffer because you’d be unable to take part in the activities you normally enjoy. You might also become unable to take care of your own needs, and eventually die if you didn’t have anyone to take care of you and treat your injury.

Similarly, most people would object to being killed even if it was done painlessly. No sentient being wants to die, no matter how small they might be. I also think it’s important to remember that we have no idea what it’s like to be a fly or a snail. We don’t know how they experience the world and we can’t say with any certainty whether they feel pain or not.

Some people dismiss ideas like this, saying there are more important things to worry about. But I think we have room in our hearts to care about all creatures, whatever species they might be.

For example, some people think it’s preposterous that vegans won’t eat honey, but to me, it makes perfect sense. Bees work incredibly hard so that they have something to eat over the winter. What right do we have to take that away from them?

Sadly, there are instances where we have little choice but to cause harm to some creatures; if you have head lice, for instance, it’s impossible to get rid of them without killing them. But if an animal has no real negative impact on your life, I can’t see any justification for harming that animal.

Do you think we should extend our consideration to even the smallest of species? Leave a comment below.


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15 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I agree. The smallest of animals are here to live, so what right do we have to take that life away? We may squash them (intending to or not), and the death may be quick, but why wouldn’t you let them die naturally? Bugs have as much as a right to life that animals and people do. πŸ˜‰

  2. A wonderful and much needed article. It’s so refreshing to hear someone voice their concern for smaller animals such as insects. Like you I rescue flies, remove worms from footpaths to prevent them being trodden on and allow slugs to wonder at will in the Kitchen and bathroom and certainly never ever kill any small creature be it a spider insect or slug. It is very rare that people, even some vegans, consider the lives of these animals as important. Thank you for this article and your kindness towards these tiny animals that few consider.

  3. Flies are generally swatted because they are disease carriers, not to mention the annoyance of being repearedly buzzed!. Mosquitos leave painful sores and also carry disease. Spiders leave painful bites that inevitably scar. Slugs and snails destroy gardens, particularly leafy greens. While I believe in respecting all life I am not adverse to protecting myself and family from diseases, bites, and the ravishes of hungry snails. So, I’ll put the ladybug out, but swat the fly; toss the worm off the wet pavement into the grass, but stomp on the snail (except snails in the forest or away from gardens — they play an important role in our ecology). I’ll get rid of a spider in the house, but leave them alone outside. Mice are not tolerated in the house, but they’re cute in the field. Respect does not mean allowing myself or my family to be victimized by bugs, vermin, or other dangerous entities, be they human, animal, or microbial.

    1. Whilst I hear what you’re saying, I think there are kinder ways to deal with most of these problems. I usually open the window to encourage flies to go out, or coax them onto a piece of paper and take them outside. Spiders too are easily caught and put outside. When we had mice, we managed to find out where they were getting in and block the holes. A friend of mine also had a lot of success with humane traps. Whilst I’m not a gardener, I know people who’ve used certain permaculture techniques to keep away slugs and snails without harming them. The point I’m making is that we should strive to do the least harm we can, but I accept that in some instances it’s not possible to avoid it completely.

  4. i think you’re right. and there’s another side of the question: every creature has its purpose on nature. by killing and hurting them we’re creating unbalance.

    if people can’t be altruistic towards small creatures. then there’s this egoistic point of view: ultimately, we’re hurting ourselves as well. we live in an ecosystem after all. (:

    oh and i love that you are so kind to the animals around you. i do my best to treat every animal fairly, but sometimes we are just so used to kill them… something i need to work on.

    1. That is so true, we humans have already done a lot of damage to ecosystems – for example, all the apex predators in the UK (like wolves and bears) have been wiped out, so now we have an overpopulation of prey animals like deer. I definitely think that we get what we give – if we’re cruel to animals, it will end up hurting us. Thanks for reading! πŸ™‚

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