Feature

A compassionate voice

Green Lifestyle

Dr Charlie Teo is a world-leading neurosurgeon in Australia, but he’s also a longstanding supporter of animal protection group Voiceless. We asked him why he thinks aligning our actions with our ethics is so important.

Dr Charlie Teo

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Why do you support the cause of Voiceless so ardently?

It just resonated with me I guess… I’ve always been an animal lover. Then I met Brian Sherman, over another issue, and he was wearing a plastic belt and plastic boots and he had a vegetarian meal, so I knew something was going on. I asked him about his philosophy, and he told me that he had a charity called Voiceless.

Brian never put any pressure on me to join, but when I Googled it, I liked what I read. They were giving a voice to animals that really had no voice – or were voiceless – and they were doing in a really smart way, they weren’t marginalising themselves or the community on the issue.

Voiceless are not advocating vegetarianism, or veganism. And they aren’t advocating not eating meat; they’re simply advocating something that’s humane. So, if you’re going to eat these animals and they’re sacrificing themselves for you, at least treat them humanely before you kill them – it’s not a big ask really.

Having been associated with Voiceless now for several years I just love the way they’re working at it slowly, bit-by-bit, step-by-step, and trying not to be one of those marginal groups. They’ve got very well established people on board; Supreme Court judges, actors, lawyers – people who give the organisation the credit it deserves, because it’s a very compromising charity that doesn’t advocate radicalism, but rather common sense.

What advice would you give to our readers who want to stop supporting factory farms, with the least amount of disruption to their everyday lifestyle?

That question is the essence of the charity because that’s exactly what we want to be able to create for people – a situation where they can be conscious about the way their food is being treated, but not having a huge impact on their life in terms of financial impact or socio-economic impact.

What we’re really lacking is legislation that allows us to be confident our food is being processed properly, that’s what we really need.

At this stage I think it’s very difficult for people to make a conscious decision to support non-cruelty to factory-farm animals and that’s what we want to change. We want to make it very easy for people to be able to go to Coles and Woolworths and go to a section that is truly endorsed, legislated free-range, and buy their food knowing that they’re buying a product that has treated their animals humanely.

There are some very terrible people out there, so what we need is a system where it’s legislated that people cannot call meat free range unless it is truly free range, following strict criteria. If those criteria are not met, and they’re advertising that it is free range, then they need to be subject to the harshest of penalties.

From your personal perspective, what actions do you take, and why?

From a personal perspective I must say that every time I pay a little bit extra to get free range, I wonder if it’s truly free range, or if I’m getting ripped off by the big multinational corporations. I ask myself if my little contribution really matters that much. So, if I’ve thought about these things, then there’s a good chance a lot of other people have thought about that as well.

Our family gets meat from Aussie Farmer’s Direct – it’s one of those companies that delivers to your door. Everything’s Australian, and all the meat is free range, and some organic, so that’s what we use.

The point I’d like to make is, if we all thought we couldn’t make a difference as individuals, then of course we’d never make a difference, so it’s all got to start with you. We can all make a difference just one person at a time. Together, we all have the power to create massive change. And Voiceless is there with you on this journey because we all feel that legislation needs changing to give people the confidence that they are eating humanely. At the moment, I think a lot of people, myself included, don’t have that confidence.

What actions do you suggest people take?

The problem is that we’re all eating way too much meat. We don’t need the amount of meat that we eat; we probably only need to have one meat meal a week and lots of vegetarians and vegans will tell you we don’t even need that.

But if you’re a meat eater then you probably only need about one meat dish a week, so to those that are raised on the idea that you need meat everyday, it’s absolutely wrong from a health perspective and from a medical perspective. You just don’t need that amount of protein and animal fats. The animal fats we require – that’s the saturated fats – can be gotten with around just one hamburger a week.

The more vegetarian restaurants you go to, the more you realise you don’t need meat. My family and I stayed with a friend in India recently. Of course most Indians are vegetarians and he made us four or five meals over a period of perhaps a week where my family had absolutely no idea they were vegetarian. My friend in India has a big fat Labrador dog, and they even feed their dog vegetarian meals.

There is often an ethical disjunct in society between knowledge and actions – how do you think we can help to align ethical understanding with actions in our current Australian society?

I guess there’s not a lot of kindness in the world, we’re all so busy, the world is so busy ripping people off and trying to get more money. People just don’t spend enough time thinking about things like thinking about where their food has come from.

You see the problem is we all think that we can’t make a difference. A lot of people think that if they stop eating meat it’s not going to make a difference, or if they start buying free range it won’t make a difference, because KFC and the other chicken places don’t go organic and free range. The problem is that feeling that you’re a little, insignificant pawn in this big world, and just because you go free range it won’t make a difference. But just imagine if we all felt that way? Then, we’d never make a difference, and nothing would change!

I must say it does take a bit of effort, and you are a little bit inconvenienced, but life wasn’t meant to be easy. And to make a difference to are going to have to make some sacrifices, so the sacrifices might be that you have to go without something that you love because it costs you that little bit extra or that you might have to travel a bit further to buy something – but I think it’s worth it.

Can you tell our readers about the evidence you've seen that animals other than humans are sentient beings?

The definition of ‘sentient’ is a conscious being that interacts with their environment and their fellow species, and feels the basic emotions of fear, pain and joy. If you’re around any animal how can you not believe that? They even show more sophisticated emotions like loyalty, petulance, and so on... And they feel fear, of course they feel fear, how could you say an animal does not feel fear? And how could you say that an animal can’t show joy and happiness when clearly they can? And how can you say an animal doesn’t interact with their fellow animals where there so many animals that have life long partners.

I just don’t understand how people don’t believe that an animal feels pain and fear. The only answer I’ve got is that to me, it’s so obvious I can’t believe how anyone could not believe it. I guess they can’t comprehend the way I think either. But all you’ve got to do is hang around animals to know it.

Why would you encourage people to get involved in the Compassionate Voices exhibition, auction and opening night?

The old dictum ‘you are what you eat’ just used to be a housewives dictum, something that your mum would teach you. But in fact, science is actually showing it’s true now! I guess I could give you a little teaser; you see there’s an article recently published that shows if you eat a lot of rice, the DNA of rice is incorporated into your genetic code. It’s absolutely fascinating, because before we mapped the human genome we thought that your genomic profile was just a stable profile that didn’t really change that much, but it can be influenced tremendously through what you eat and what you’re exposed to.

My talk on Thursday night is going to make people think because it’s going to hit at their own mortality, so at the moment a lot of people don’t eat humanely because they don’t think it impacts them but I’m going to let people know very clearly that science is showing now that it really is the case that what you eat is what you are.

Here’s another little taster, as a neurosurgeon I can say that no one’s quite sure what causes brain cancer. What we do have some evidence of is that, if you look at the demographics of those who have brain cancer, there are a few bits of consistent info that sticks out at you, and it makes you think about what causes brain cancer. We know that brain cancer is more prevalent in some professions, such as electricians and airline pilots, yet it’s also more prevalent in the offspring of fighter pilots and astronauts. Now your brain should be ticking over going, how on earth can a father’s vocation influence the disease that a child gets? Well, I’m going to tell you how on Thursday night.

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It’s not often enough that we get to celebrate animals, art and creativity, but the Compassionate Voices exhibition currently happening in Sydney, bringing together these ideas, and you can get involved via an auction to have unique artworks in your own home. Attend the opening night on Thursday 14 that Dr Charlie Teo will MC, or if you’ve missed this event, check out the Voiceless website for more events happening around Australia regularly.