“There are two paths, one of life and one of death, and the difference is great between the two.” So opens the ancient Didache. Tragically, where the rest of the animal kingdom is concerned, we’ve taken the path of death.

Every year billions of animals are brought into the world just to die and suffer at our hands. We brand them, number them, take away their young, forcibly inseminate them, painfully experiment on them, take the fur from their backs, and deny them even the most basic of rights.

Not just to life, but to freedom from bodily harm, to sunshine, fresh air, natural habitat, company of their own kind, the right to choose their mates, to respect and dignity – and very often to sleep, rest, food, shelter, even water too. Sickeningly, the only daylight most ‘factory-farmed’ animals ever get to see is on their terrifying last journey to the slaughterhouse. We even make a sadistic ‘sport’ of hunting and baiting them. It’s a deeply disturbing picture. If this is Imago Dei, one dreads to think what the Other Place must look like. For animals we have created a veritable hell on Earth.

The facts are grim, but they must be faced. Every year 60 billion animals (excluding fish) lose their lives to the meat industry alone. Most are still babies when they die. Some, like ‘suckling’ pigs and ‘veal’ calves, are not even weaned (to the intense grief of their mothers). Each of these is an individual: a sentient, suffering being – much as the industry might try to depersonalise them as so many ‘stock’, ‘units’ or numbers.

The average meat eater consumes over 11,000 animals across a lifetime: 1,158 chickens, 6,182 fish, 39 turkeys, 23 sheep, 18 pigs, 28 ducks, 4 cows, and at least 1 goose and a rabbit. Every death is an extinction. Slaughter is rarely humane. There’s no special treatment for ‘organic’. Nor does the Freedom Food label, unfortunately, offer any protection to the lamb who’s about to be pushed onto the killing floor. That’s a lot of lives, a lot of suffering.

In the torturous, lonely world of the laboratory, another 100 million victims die annually in experiments that, shockingly, 86% of the time have absolutely nothing to do with new medicines. And this in a time when we have so many humane alternatives: MRI, CAT and PET scanning, use of human cells, tissues and organ culture, molecular and test-tube methods, clinical trials on voluntary human patients, (far more accurate, of course) use of computer models – and importantly, the development of disease prevention.

We have enslaved the rest of the animal kingdom on a scale and gravity never seen before, in the history of rapacious Homo sapiens. How can we continue to justify this? Unfortunately, our long-entrenched speciesism persuades us that there is a crucial difference between other animals and us. We tell ourselves that they don’t feel like we do, so their suffering is somehow less. We tell ourselves that they don’t matter – not where there is a human interest involved, anyway. But this is ‘fallen’ humanity, hiding behind a veil of illusion – in wilful, supreme denial.

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sharing their life with an animal companion and engaging in a relationship based on trust, rather than exploitation, absolutely knows that animals feel a complex range of emotions easily recognisable to us; that they dream (and therefore process their experiences); that they anticipate, and remember. What more proof do we need of consciousness? This raises serious moral and ethical questions. Animal rights – the rights of non-human animals (to break up a much-maligned term) – is one of the most pressing social-justice issues of our time. It’s long overdue that we come into right relationship.

It’s not easy, but we need to have the courage to bear witness. We mustn’t close our eyes to their pain. The animals are completely disenfranchised. They have no voice. Only we can change things. TV advertisers and the vested interests might like to convince us that cows enjoy making butter, that chickens line up to become nuggets, and that French laboratory rabbits concur that we’re “worth it”, but we know in our deepest selves these things aren’t true.

But there is already so much pain in our own lives, we say. We can’t cope with any more. Yes, but we must remember that their pain is a thousandfold greater than ours. We live lives of such privilege in comparison. Can’t we offer just a little generosity?

Unfortunately most people aren’t connecting with the day-to-day reality of the animals’ experience at all. We know about it in vague, abstract terms – that it happens, that we don’t like it – but we’re not engaging with it viscerally, empathically. It’s this, combined with the fact that animal exploiters like to keep their activities behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny (for obvious reasons), that allows all this atrocity to continue. Theory keeps us at a safe distance, in our heads – we need to connect with our hearts.

Empathy is a powerful tool. The Golden Rule – do as you would be done by – was based on nothing less. For too long we have been derided for making the natural leap with non-human beings too. “Anthropomorphism” is an old and bitter accusation. But it’s not about projecting: rather, it’s about identifying and recognising – observational, Cartesian tools after all. It’s about focusing on our similarities (which are many) and not on our differences (which in basic terms, are few).

To link to the suffering of another, to have the sensitivity and compassion to feel their pain and care about it, is the ultimate act of love.

Every one of us can make a difference. We are not powerless. Above all, we can stop eating flesh. Meat is an addiction. We don’t need it. In fact, our omnivorous bodies are infinitely healthier without it. It’s the single most powerful thing we can do. We can take a step further and become vegan, avoiding all animal products. Our protein needs are easily taken care of and a vegan diet really isn’t one of gourmet deprivation at all.

Buying only cruelty-free cosmetics and personal and household products is another big step in the right direction. It’s no longer expensive to care. In the UK, many of the major supermarkets’ own-brand products are now animal-friendly and carry the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection’s leaping bunny logo: The Co-operative, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Superdrug, for example. (More information can be found at www.gocrueltyfree.org.) When even toilet bleach and furniture polish are tested on animals, it’s the least we can do.

Let’s dream a world – and actively create one – in which cruelty and abuse are a thing of the past. There is no higher purpose than to protect the weak and vulnerable, to free the enslaved and the suffering, to transform the darkness. There is no greater love. In this Olympic year, let’s become torch-bearers of a new ethic based on equality of ‘beingness’ and on inherent worth. Let’s manifest a Peaceable Kingdom, an earthly Nirvana – right here, right now. As Victor Hugo said, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Heidi Stephenson is a writer and animal campaigner. The title of her forthcoming book is The Book of Life: The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Animal Kingdom.