Late last year, an infant elephant in the state of Kerala in India fell into a well as the baby's herd moved to cross a river.
Together, villagers and government officials mounted a five-hour rescue, using heavy earth-moving equipment to clear a path of packed-down soil that allowed the youngster to climb out.
As is evident in this video clip, when the baby was reunited with the herd and the group began to move off across the river, one of the adult elephants calmly turned around and raised her trunk at the rescuers, who cried out in celebration. While I can't say for sure that this raised trunk was a gesture of gratitude, based on what we know of elephant cognition and emotion, I can say it's entirely possible.
Today I'd like to borrow that trunk-raise gesture and offer grateful shout-outs about some good things happening for animals. I've chosen to focus on farmed animals, who tend to get less adoring attention in the media than do elephants and other charismatic big mammals like chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and whales — and our companion animals like dogs and cats.
To start, here's a real favorite of mine since I first learned about it from animal activist Alysoun Mahoney late last year, a project that links our love for our pets with the welfare of farmed animals: The Animal Place Food for Thought program works with nonprofit groups focused on animal and environmental causes to get animals off the menu at their events.
This goal makes perfect sense, when you think about it. Imagine attending a luncheon fundraiser for your local animal shelter. As you listen to the speaker discuss initiatives based on compassion for animals, all around you people eat chickens, or parts of pigs and cows. That's a definite disconnect!
Food for Thought's Campaign Manager Patti Nyman told me by email that the cruelty experienced by farmed animals is a natural issue for staff at animal and environmental nonprofits to take up, because they're already devoted to caring action for animals. "It's particularly important that those who work in shelters learn that animals raised for food are no different in their capacities to feel joy, pain, and fear than the animals with whom we share our homes," she said. "Animals suffer tremendously on farms — far worse and in far greater numbers than dogs and cats."
Numerous organizations have endorsed or supported an animal-friendly menu in line with the campaign's goals. Mahoney said that she has seen "tremendous ripple effects" as a result of the campaign: "When an organization adopts a vegan policy for their events, this often influences individual employees, volunteers and donors" to change their eating habits, too.
This same concern for farmed animals came across in a telephone conversation I had with Jon Bockman, executive director of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE). I had just last month used ACE's giving advice, calculated through a transparent process and aimed at identifying high-impact animal charities, to help me come to a decision about holiday donations, and was interested in learning more about ACE's perspective.
"Just based on the numbers we've been able to gather," Bockman told me during our conversation, "we have determined that far and away, farmed animal advocacy is where we can garner the most good."
Americans are generous donors to charities: $373 billion worth of generosity, in fact, in 2016. Bockman told me that across the years 2014-2016, only 3 percent of charitable donations in the U.S. went to animal or environmental groups, and of that only about 1 percent specifically to farmed-animal charities.
In other words, there's an incredible opportunity waiting to help with what Bockman calls — in a near echo of Animal Place's Nyman's words — "arguably the greatest source of human-caused suffering on the planet."
ACE's message is timely, as many of us grapple with questions like the ones I posed at Aeon magazine last summer about pigs: Who are we eating? How can those of us not prepared to go vegan help by embracing the movement toward reducetarian eating?
The future of food is changing rapidly, and my final trunk-raise goes out to the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., where all kinds of nifty projects are in progress. Earlier this month, the lab highlighted what it calls six artifacts from the future of food, an imaginative yet substantive way to show us what changes may be on the horizon.
One of my favorite "artifacts" is the Lunchabios, a kit for kids of the future to take to school — an obvious riff on the fantastically popular-in-real-life Lunchables. In this (as yet fantasy) lunch, kids synthesize their own foods on the spot:
"Lunchabios come with a gooey cheese bioreactor to culture your own cheddar, yeast and nutrient packets to help your cheese grow, and crispy crunchy crackers to make the experience magical!"
And to this faux-product promotion, the lab adds a serious note of science, looking ahead to coming decades:
"The introduction of ultra-cheap bioreactors means that the process of synthesizing simple food products, such as cheese, will leave the realm of well-funded labs and enter the realm of, well, everyone."
This vision fits very well with what I wrote in this space earlier this month about clean meat: Growing dairy products and meat from animal cells — with no animal slaughter necessary — is an emerging and realistic prediction for the not-very-distant future.
And right there is the key connection between Lunchabios and helping farmed animals. Max Elder, research manager at Food Futures Lab, put it this way in an email:
"There's a possible future in which over a trillion sentient lives are saved every year from immense suffering. That future might look a lot like our world today, but with products like Lunchables containing food made from animal cells, not animal bodies."
Some animal rescues are electric to watch unfold in real time, as with the baby elephant in Kerala, India. Others are slower to play out and less dramatic, but aim, nonetheless, at large-scale, caring action for billions of animals we too often forget.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape