Nuts and Berries

Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.  As Pogo (Walt Kelly) said to Porky, “Yep, Son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”  The latest outrage in the “agriculture industry” is what “Change.org” calls “Shocking Animal Abuse,” the torture and torment of dairy cows by workers at Conklin Dairy in Ohio.

The “ag industry” will respond with condemnation of the workers or owner and assurances that this is an “isolated incident,” that the perpetrators will be punished and that it will not happen again.  There will be whispers that the footage showing the cruelty is the work of “animal activists” and has been edited.  Baloney.  This kind of thing happens every day and the ag industry knows it.

There is no such thing as humane slaughter or “fair treatment” of animals raised as commodities when the idea itself is unfair.  Temple Grandin has been used by a cynical industry to sell an idea that has no merit.  Do we really believe that one autistic woman is able to understand what animals feel any more than we are able?

We are also animals.  We know in our hearts how it must feel to be kicked with a boot, prodded with a pitchfork, stabbed with a knife, hung by a leg, dragged by a chain. And we know that the premeditated, deliberate, cold-blooded killing of a sentient being so that you can consume its flesh or use its skin or other organs can not be humane.  Even as we swoon over the “Food Network” programs that heavily feature meat-based recipes, read in our glossy food magazines about 700 tasty ways to cook a chicken or a rabbit or a pig, we know it.  The raising and killing of an animal for consumption can be kinder, less messy, less terrifying to the animal, and variations on this theme.  But put yourself in the place of an animal about to die and describe for me the manner in which you want to go.  Captive bolt to the brain?  Rifle shot to the head?  Knife to the spine?  Quick beheading?

My own conversion to not consuming animal flesh is recent, incomplete and conflicted.  I still eat fish and dairy.  I know that involves killing.  My car has leather seats and so does my living room furniture.  I feed animal flesh to my dog and cat.  My favorite pair of shoes is a pair of boots–leather.

I admire people who lead a vegan life but I have not achieved it and I may never.  I have eaten meat when it seemed easier to do so than to decline.  I have enjoyed eating meat.  The Dalai Lama himself says he eats meat on his doctor’s orders.  Hmmm.  The Buddhist dharma has a precept against killing, but practitioners are all over the board.  One individual, a Buddhist practitioner, who calls himself a “social vegetarian” puts it

I will eat meat in social settings where it would cause comment, concern, trouble, work or embarrassment for others if I were to insist on being a strict vegetarian.

That is all well and good, but does it serve the animal to eat its flesh so that you do not embarrass the human who allowed it to be butchered and brought to us on a plate?  And what about the plants?  Natalie Angier, in a New York Times editorial last year entitled “Sorry, Vegans, Brussel Sprouts Like To Live Too” calls it a “small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive.”  I agree that it is a tragedy, but I do not agree that it is small.

What is to be done then?  On the micro level, I think we can start by eating only as much of anything as we need to survive.  Not “producing” animals for consumption or use as if they were toasters or cell phones.  Giving up the childish fantasy of “humane slaughter,” “free range chickens” and “grass fed” cows.  Visit your local slaughterhouse (if you are allowed) and see for yourself what “humane slaughter” looks and sounds like.  If you feel like putting your body on the line, trust the feeling.

Befriend a slaughterhouse worker.  Ask them about their day  In the larger picture, I think we need to stop bowing to “cultural differences” that allow us to make distinctions between “our” “American” animals (not to be killed) and “their” animals (culturally acceptable to kill).  If we are to condemn the practice of killing a dog or a horse or a cat anywhere (and make no mistake, I am condemning this practice), then it must be condemned everywhere.  The dog, horse and cat do not have citizenship.

And here is the difficult, but to me inescapable, corollary.  If it is inherently cruel and inhumane to kill and cook a dog, horse or cat, then it is inherently cruel and inhumane to kill and cook a cow, pig or chicken.  If we are not yet there in our thinking and practices, it should not be the result of a lack of effort or resort to “magical thinking” on the lines of “This steak on my plate was once a happy cow that lived among family members and freely and painlessly surrendered its life so that I could eat.”

I have never (to my knowledge) eaten horse flesh and I find the idea abhorrent.  I have eaten cow, pig, chicken, turkey, rabbit, duck, goose, lamb, deer, boar flesh, however, and I now find that idea abhorrent.  And a head of lettuce?  No frisson on the frisee today, but maybe tomorrow.

I am not suggesting that cutting the throat of an animal is the moral equivalent of picking a tomato from a vine or that we should abandon all attempts to be more humane about the way we raise and kill “food animals” as long as there are humans who eat animal flesh (me and almost everyone I know).  But the emphasis on “humane” treatment can only be a stopgap and not a justification to keep eating meat.  Do less harm of course, and at the same time let us stop kidding ourselves.

There may be happy cows, jolly pigs and cheerful chickens, but they are not found on feedlots or in farm animal production factories.  Yep, son, I have met the enemy and he is me.

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