Former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2009), The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, writes about his journey into animal protection, his relationship with Voiceless and why he’s proud to be a Voiceless Patron.
I grew up in the 1950s in a typical suburban home in a western suburb of Sydney. My mother was born Jean Langmore Knowles (1915-1998). She raised her four surviving children in a culinary tradition that she learned from the grandmother of my father, Donald Kirby (1916-2011).
This was basically an Irish diet. It was long on meat of every variety. The vegetables were typically overcooked and unsurprisingly unappetising. I became used to the carnivoran habits of most Australians of that era. We had a family friend, Bruce Bond, who had worked with my father and was vegetarian. But we never met a vegan and indeed I had never heard that word until shortly before my association with Voiceless began.
From time to time in my youth, I went through periods where I ate no meat. This was a personal choice. Looking back, I can see that it often followed an inquisitive visit to the museum in the old medical school at the University of Sydney. The existence there of human body parts in formalin turned me off eating meat for a time. But then I lapsed back to my unquestioning ways.
The big change in my culinary life came almost exactly at the time I concluded my service as a Justice of the High Court of Australia in February 2009. That very week, I had accepted the obligation to launch a book on Animal Law in Australasia at a function convened at the Law School of the University of Sydney.
The book launch was sponsored by Voiceless, an organisation of which I had previously been unaware. This is not to say that I had no prior connection with animal welfare concerns. In the 1990s, I was invited by RSPCA Australia to serve in the undemanding task of honorary Patron of that organisation. I was “installed” in that function by a true animal lover, the then Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen. At his official residence at Yarralumla in Canberra he greeted all guests with members of his family, who included two large Labrador dogs. I remember that they, seemingly uncontrolled, ran up and down beneath the long dinner table at Yarralumla, nuzzling into the crotches of their astonished official guests, including me. Perceptively, Sir Ninian expressed serious doubt as to my credentials to be Patron of RSPCA Australia. But he did the honours. And thereafter, I discovered the worthwhile activities performed by that organisation.
When I left judicial office, I lost the privileges of Patron. I was then ripe for the plucking by Voiceless, when the opportunity arose.
The chapters in the book I launched in February 2009 gave me insights into the profound cruelties that humanity had inflicted on animals in Australia. These cruelties extended to the methods of raising, fattening, transporting and slaughtering animals for food. But they also included chapters on cruelties meted out to domestic pets; animals used in sport; circus animals; and animals used for testing drugs and medications to make sure they were efficacious and tolerable for human beings.
Animals lived in the world of human beings and for the use, nourishment, benefit and amusement of human beings.
The thesis of the book I launched that night in 2009 was the need for much greater sensitivity in the relationship between human animals and other animals. The book described, in horrifying detail, the cruelty inflicted on sentient animals before and at the time of their slaughter. Although it was a text book describing and illustrating the operation of the present laws, it was a powerful stimulus to deeper consideration about the very idea of slaughtering animals, chopping up their bodies and cooking the products for human consumption. The more I thought about this issue, the less comfortable I became with the instrumental notion commonly taught by the Abrahamic religions: that non-human animals are merely things provided by God to and for the benefit of human beings who existed at the top of the hierarchy of living creatures as a result of divine munificence.
There was an immediate consequence to this experience in book launching. From that evening on, I never ate meat again. No beef. No pork. No lamb. No veal. No mince. No chicken. No duck. Once I had made up my mind, I did not miss these food items of the previous 70 years of my life. On the contrary, the thought of eating the body parts of animals came to disgust me. It was not a matter of taste that was offensive. It was the very idea of a human assertion of such superiority to other living and breathing creatures sharing a spectrum of emotions with myself, that drove me away from my eating habits of old.
My partner Johan dismissed my reversion to my previous intermittent avoidance of meat knowing, as he did, of the earlier intervals where I had turned away from meat consumption but later relented. He suggested that this was just my latest fad. And that I would “get over it”. But I did not.
Although I have not succeeded in bringing him along the same journey as myself, the practicalities of the kitchen of our home have meant that he too has radically cut back on meat consumption. He now consumes virtually no red meat, restricting himself to the white meat of chicken. When I remind him of the horrific circumstances in which most chicken are raised, subjected to medications and genetic manipulation and then placed upside down on a line to slaughter, he points to the fact that I have continued to consume all quantities of seafood. He has mounted many arguments to the effect that the world destruction of the sea animal habitat is a major challenge to the biosphere. But for me a small quantity of seafood meat is not offensive on the sentience scale.
“Don’t you consider that a fish feels a pain of the hook or the suffocation of the vast nets that trawl the oceans?” Johan asks. I see his point. I am on the journey to vegetarianism. I put my present compromise down to the fallibility of human beings.
Testing my moral assertions, Johan suggests that the expansion of the human brain came about by the human consumption of meat. That was the way human beings transferred into their species the massive enlargement of the brain from which has come the miracles of civilisation. To which I answer that the self-same expansion of the brain has increased human moral sensibility. We now ask questions, including moral questions, that our forebears never asked. Increasing numbers do not accept that animals were put on Earth simply to be slaughtered or otherwise used by human beings.
Johan and I have countless debates about these topics. He never ceases to warn me that Adolf Hitler was a non-smoking, teetotaller, vegetarian. “Balance in all things” is Johan’s conviction. Cruel slaughter of higher forms of life is impossible to balance, at least in my book.
In due course, I was asked by Brian Sherman to be a Patron of Voiceless. I came to know the other Patrons. They included John Coetzee, Nobel Láureate in Literature; and Dame Jane Goodall, primatologist and anthropologist. Also, in due course, Brian Sherman himself. This is distinguished patronal company. And it has brought me into contact with the many highly practical tasks undertaken by Voiceless to improve the welfare of non-human animals on our planet. The termination of sow stalls. The verification of “free range” eggs. The protection of farm animals living on the brink of desert viability. The elimination of live animal exports. The exploration of new frontiers for animal protection.
I feel proud to be a Patron of Voiceless. I admire its initiatives. They have united old fashioned scholarship; proficient professional education programs; the latest in empirical investigations; initiatives of community engagement; and political activism. Somehow, I feel sure that my co-patrons and most of the supporters of Voiceless are purer and less flawed than I in their insistent dedication to a world that respects the biosphere and all living creatures within it: no exceptions.
But in the meantime, I proudly engage with the Sherman family and their contributions to creative arts; ethics in business; and animal welfare. For them, human rights are vital to a civilised world. But they are not sufficient. We must dream larger dreams and act and respond to bigger challenges. When these take us to a stronger appreciation of the commonalities of our own existence with that of other living creatures in the Earth’s biosphere, they say “so be it”.
Voiceless points us towards new directions. In our own imperfect ways, we should all follow.
- Watch The Hon Michael Kirby launching one of Australia’s earliest animal law textbooks at the 2009 Voiceless Animal Law Lecture Series.
- Read more about The Hon. Michael Kirby’s work.
- Learn more about the Voiceless Animal Law Education program.
- Find out where you can study Animal Law in Australia.
- Read more articles exploring animal law issues on the Voiceless Blog.