So. Let’s get on with the topic I didn’t have time to explain yesterday.
My brain had been sparked when I’d read this article in The Guardian, which I will forewarn you is an excerpt from a book called The Ethical Carnivore, and which describes the author’s first trip to an abattoir. If you’d rather not know what goes on at a slaughterhouse, it will be a pretty tough read.
As with virtually any article that makes me think, I made a point of reading the comments too. I found the usual (but generally civilized) mix of “don’t eat animals!” and “stop anthropomorphizing things!” As New Zealand is a strongly agricultural economy, the issue of livestock actually comes up a lot around here. And this comment stream is typical – it seems to be the standard, shouty, non-debate that comes up at any time when people want to openly discuss veganism, or animal rights, or our management of the life and death of livestock. No one’s mind gets changed. Everyone entrenches. No common ground is found.
So I’m going to try not to entrench. Instead, I’m going to tell a story…
Many years back, I saw a hedgehog in the backyard in the middle of the day. Hedgehogs are a fairly common (but introduced pest) animal in New Zealand. However, they’re also usually nocturnal – snuffling around in the garden shrubbery past midnight, looking for snails. To see one walking (with difficulty) across the lawn in the heat of the day could mean only one thing: there was something wrong with this animal.
I went and had a closer look at it. The hedgehog generally ignored me. But I could see that it appeared as though all of the skin across its back was moving and boiling. Upon even closer inspection, I found that the moving effect was caused by maggots. Thousands of maggots. Writhing between the spines of this poor animal and literally eating it alive.
In farm parlance, the hedgehog was fly-blown. This is where an animal has an open wound, or just a bit of poop in its fur, and that attracts flies. The flies lay eggs, and the eggs hatch into maggots, which burrow into the skin. The maggots eat deep into the animal, gradually expanding and often creating infection. It tends to be a worse problem on animals with dense fur (or in this case spines) because their wounds may not dry out quickly or their hair collects poop. Farmers treat these problems in sheep all the time – docking their tails to keep their rear-ends cleaner, dosing them with anti-parasitic medications, and treating their wounds quickly – because eventually, especially on a small animal such as this, the maggots can kill their host. Which is fine by the maggots, because they just keep eating.
I was in no doubt that this hedgehog was suffering. Wouldn’t you be? The sheer number of maggots it now carried meant that it had very little skin left. So it had stumbled out of its hiding place and gone out in the sunshine to die. There was nothing I could do for it other than go and get a spade and speed up the process.
I often think about that poor hedgehog when people bring up this debate about the ethics of killing animals for food. And to me the reasoning is simple: death inevitably comes to us all.
I think that a lot of our discomfort around slaughterhouses and meat-eating actually come from the fact that (in the developed world at least) we are pretty divorced from death. We no longer have to witness and deal with death on a daily basis. We no longer have to lay out our relatives on the living room sofa, and wash their corpses, and dress them up, in the way that our great-grandparents did. We get to tuck death away in the shadows of another world, which makes the idea of death even more scary and alien.
At my age, I’ve seen plenty of animals (and humans) die. It’s always unpleasant. My grandmother suffered for months in hospital, and the fear in her eyes was heartbreaking. My cat Viggo, whose face was being eaten by cancer and who had gone blind in the end, growled and swatted at the vet when she came to our house with his final injection. All animals (humans included) generally fight death with every tooth and claw, but when we get to the point that we invite it then it probably would have been better if we gone earlier. Natural death is overrated. Death by predator is usually terrifying but mercifully brief. The death that comes without a predator is often slow and painful and exhausting, but really no less terrifying. We certainly don’t have to torture the things that we eat, but nature contains much much worse ways to die than a simple bolt to the brain.
And what happens to the animal after that bolt – that’s not suffering. If you think it’s somehow disrespectful to them, then you’d better not look too hard at the process of embalming.
Here’s the thing: I completely embrace the fact that humans are animals just like any other. I don’t think that we have any special rights over the lives of other animals, and I don’t think that ascribing sentience to other animals is “anthropomorphizing” them. If anything, believing that other animals don’t think is petramorphizing them – turning them into rocks. There is bountiful scientific (and anecdotal) evidence that other animals are sentient, and a lot of our struggle to embrace this fact comes from having to remove our taught (and completely unscientific) bias that sees humans as special. It’s patently obvious to anyone who’s loved a pet dog or cat that these animals not only think, but they dream… which requires imagination, and a brain that can create stories and experiences even when unconscious. It’s only natural that we will more easily recognize sentience in other mammals, but that’s only because they are more like us. We more easily understand their physical and verbal cues, and therefore we can more easily fit them into our rubric of “intelligence”. This doesn’t mean that fish can’t think – it just means that we don’t really understand how they think, because our relationship with them is much more distant and we don’t have to live anything that resembles their lives.
I’m patient though. For the vast majority of human history, we couldn’t even get our heads around the fact that other humans could think. When we encountered people who looked very different to us, and who spoke another language, their alienness could justify all manners of abuse. They weren’t really people – at least not in the way that we were people – and there was no collective agreement on what made up humanity (versus “animal”). It’s only very recently that any of that started to fall away. With the debate around slavery in the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, (and even when now dealing with other people who lived in the same home as you and who spoke English) much of the justification came from the idea that black people were inherently different, that they experienced slavery in a different way from how a white person would experience it, and that they were naturally unsuited to freedom and human rights. It really does seem like weird mental gymnastics now, but we figured out a way to justify commodifying people who were literally telling us that they didn’t like it and that they deserved better. With humanity still only gradually emerging from that sort of bone-headed logic, really what chance does a cow have in explaining its wants and needs to us? Yes, they are fellow mammals, but they’ll never be physically capable of verbalizing English, so we get to stay stupid.
Having said all of that, I still eat cows. I’ve never been a farmer – I’ve never had my livelihood dependent upon the economic value of large, ruminant animals – but I’ve lived on farms and I’ve probably had more exposure to cows than the average person in the developed world. I completely recognize that cows have thoughts and feelings and dreams not that far removed from my own, but I still eat them. I have been inside a slaughterhouse (and yes, it was very upsetting). I’ve seen a herd of dairy cows mourn the death of their alpha female by gathering together and rooting up the spot in the field where she died, every time they went into that field, for two years. I’ve seen a bull standing alone in a field, with a huge erection, obviously daydreaming about someone or something that wasn’t present. I’ve played chasey games with cows, and protected them from roving dogs, and been stood on by their big gallumphing hooves. I like cows. For the most part they are fun and curious and slightly silly, loyal, brave, less skittish than sheep or horses, and certainly not big dumb rocks.
And no, they don’t taste that good. That is not a justification for all evils. Strawberries taste good. Passionfruit taste good. I could eat passionfruit until there are none left in the world. Cows taste like beef – which is okay, and suited to some dishes.
However, it’s also important to note that the vast majority of farmers I know also like cows. Most of the farmers I know actually care about the physical and mental health of the animals in their care – and not just because it has economic benefit. When you talk to them, most farmers can identify the animals in their herd who are pleasant and funny, and the ones who are jerks. I think too often the vegan/animal rights crowd vilifies the wrong people for the wrong reason, and only because they don’t really understand what goes on on most farms most of the time. It’s just that all farmers are pragmatic about death. Let’s all just agree that treating cows cruelly is a bad thing. Let’s all just agree that seeing them solely as unfeeling blocks of meat tends to say a lot more about your psyche than theirs. And let’s strengthen our legislation to protect the wellbeing of the animals in our care, without presuming to criminalize all farming. Because is raising a happy animal in (relative) safety, and then killing it quickly and painlessly, really less moral than hunting an animal or leaving them to get eaten alive by insects or cancer? Is it really worse than never allowing them to live at all?
See, to me, the measure of whether or not to eat something isn’t based around whether I can relate to it. I love my garden, and have written before about how I nurture and am cheered by my plants as though they are my children. But I still eat them. No, this doesn’t mean that I would eat human children. Apart from the obvious troubles with the law, and the fraught experience of having to explain yourself to their parents, there’s no evidence that human cannibalism is particularly good for humans. Indeed, it will tend to make you sick. Dogs and cats are carnivores, but don’t tend to cannibalize unless (like humans) they have no other options. The logical outcome of accepting a collective animal sentience isn’t human cannibalism. If you think it is… perhaps you need to consider why the line that keeps you from cannibalism is so thin in the first place. “I only refrain from eating humans because they can communicate their thoughts to me.” Um, ok.
Instead, I eat things for the same reason that everything on Earth eats: it’s part of a cycle. Even though we as individuals tend to fight death, nature as a whole doesn’t abhor death. What nature abhors is waste.
Short of having your corpse shot into space, or cremated, or vigorously embalmed, all death tends to feed life. That’s all biodegredation is – it’s a transformation into a new form of life. When a tree dies, it feeds millions of invertebrates and micro-organisms, whose own bodies and waste become soil, which in turn feeds another tree. When that hedgehog died, it was in the process of giving life to thousands of flies. We may not personally like flies (they are much more distant relatives to us than the hedgehog is) but their lives in turn feed other lives, which feed other lives, which feed us. And I also believe that we in turn should feed them. We are part of a cycle of nutrients which keeps the Earth alive. And we are all actually communities unto ourselves – humans are not only chock full of millions of micro-organisms which help keep our systems functioning, all of our cells are made up of material that we’ve collected from other dead animals. No life can exist without death. I’m actually not offended by that thought. Instead, I feel really blessed to be so enmeshed into so many other lives. And one day my micro-organisms will make me into soil, and my presence on Earth will become part of millions of other lives.
I like cows. I like living cows. Just as I like sheep, and pigs, and chickens, and horses, and dogs, and asparagus (it’s very pretty when in fern). I’m not that fond of earwigs, but I guess they have their purpose. I think all of these things have as much right to live as I do, and I feel joy for the fact that they get to have a life. However I don’t believe that eating something, and incorporating its life into mine, is inherently disrespectful.
That doesn’t mean that we should be assholes to other animals when they’re alive. Being part of a nitrogen cycle and being a sadistic psycho are mutually exclusive actions.
Can we all, at least, agree on that common ground? Please?