Breaking the Cycle of Violence
By Sandra Hannen, President, New World Vision



My father was a hunter. A self-professed “English country gentleman”, this working man’s pride was greatly boosted every time he returned home from poaching trips with a sack full of game: rabbits, foxes, badgers, and the occasional deer. Yet, strangely, my presence on these trips seemed to act as a jinx. I was innocently happy as we returned home time and again empty-handed, and nature was left to dance another day in the sunlight.

Inevitably, the spell broke. At the tender age of nine, I witnessed our trained-to-kill dogs run amok and obliterate a mother duck’s entire family. It was a day that would change my life irrevocably. The frantic flapping and screams of the helpless, mortified mother against a backdrop of tranquility was surreal. She and I experienced such deep and binding pain at this waste of the precious beauty of life. That day, I looked violence straight in the eyes and rejected it unconditionally.

 I also never ate meat again.

Through years of research, I have come to the realization that our violence towards animals holds a mirror to the violence in the world. The war on animals is one of humanity’s best-kept secrets. Non-human animals today experience inordinate amounts of suffering at our hands that it truly is a one-sided war. Regarded as having no inherent value per se, our fellow members of the community of life have been reduced to the role of our prisoners,  slaves, entertainers, companions, exhibits, clothing, and food. In the wild, they have become our fiercest enemy.

How does the war on animals affect us? Anthropologist Margaret Mead commented, “One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.” Indeed, Humane Society of the United States statistics suggest a strong correlation between animal abuse and human violence, with many convicted murderers, wife-batterers and the like fine-tuning their skills on animals first. Children certainly possess a natural empathy for animals. I remember how shocked I felt the first time I realized my food had been a living, breathing being but a short while before. That contradictory messages and habits such as loving some animals and eating or experimenting on others also serve as a catalyst of human violence, both implicitly and explicitly, there can be little doubt.

The human propensity for violence is born out of our suffering from what the Dalai Lama terms “the illusion of separation”: the belief that others are separate from us. Yet wise people have been teaching since ancient times that we are all connected. There is no “us and them”, only  “Us”. Consequently, as Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Similarly, we all bear the burden of responsibility for the violence which consumes the world. We all commit daily acts of covert violence, from harsh words or thoughts to eating a chicken for dinner to purchasing wood stripped from the Indonesian rainforest home of the critically endangered orangutan. Ultimately, animals are human mirrors. Our treatment of them reflects our treatment of ourselves.

What can we do to counteract this violence?

First, we need to change individually, for society as a whole will not change unless we address the violence in our own lives. We can accomplish great things just by our personal choices. If we long for a peaceful world, we must first address the covert violence in our own thoughts, words and deeds.

We are pioneers in what the Dalai Lama calls “universal responsibility,” the cultivating of a sense of compassion for self and society, other species and the Earth. Indeed, through my humane education work in schools for New World Vision, I have witnessed the transformative power of inspiring compassion for other species. Such work, I believe, could even hold the key to our own survival.

Ironically, the tragic events of Sept. 11 brought our great capacity for compassion for others into full view, as demonstrated by the enormous outpouring of public generosity towards those affected by the tragedy. Imagine if we were to harness this sentiment and be guided by respect and compassion for all beings and the Earth from this day forward! The time has come to focus not on individual desires but on global needs.

Albert Schweitzer warned, “Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”  Animal violence is not only unnecessary in the 21st century and unworthy of us as a species, it also greatly obstructs the path of peace. What an impoverished world we would leave our children if they could only ever see a mighty gorilla caged in a barren zoo, her spirit broken.

How can we begin this process? Decide on two days a week when you will not eat animal products. Educate yourself on the impact of your choices on “the unseen”. Promote humane education in schools. Each of us has the opportunity and the responsibility to choose the future. Let us seize this challenge today to create a positive, nonviolent future for all of us — both human and non-human.

Sandra Hannen can be reached at New World Vision, 818 7th St., Suite 1, Santa Monica, CA 90403 or call (310) 393-8268. You may also reach her by e-mail at   

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