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A Mouthful of Flesh

A Mouthful of Flesh

“But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time she had been born into the world to enjoy.”
- Plutarch

In my last post, Dog, Horse… It’s Good Food for Us, I posed the question of whether there is a meaningful ethical difference between eating a dog and eating an animal commonly used for food, such as a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or fish.

So far, readers commenting on the debate have brought up some interesting points, which I feel are worthy of further discussion.

As one would expect, some readers feel strongly that there is a major difference between killing and eating a dog (or, presumably, a horse, cat, hamster, or guinea pig) and killing and eating a cow, pig, sheep, chicken, turkey, fish, (or, presumably, a deer, moose, duck or quail).

Frankly, it’s a little baffling trying to figure out what combination of factors puts certain animals off-limits to certain people. Rabbits are a case in point. We’re horribly confused about rabbits – some of us shoot them, some of us pet them, some eat them and some enjoy watching dogs tear them apart, limb from limb. As a society, we don’t seem to know what rabbits mean to us. Are they our pets, are they our prey… or are they, in fact, persons: individuals who exist for their own reasons?

Two weeks ago, I posted about Elizabeth Carlisle, who drowned two rabbits and had her manager take a photo of her holding up their bodies. Readers were outraged at this story, presumably because of the callousness and cruelty exhibited by Carlisle, but also because the animals she had killed were rabbits, animals whom many readers believe fall into the category of pets.

By contrast, five weeks ago, there was a story aired on NPR Radio. “Rabbit So Good” celebrated the legacy of a restaurant called The Rabbit Hutch, named after the main ingredient in their cuisine. As a vegan, hearing a story like that is like hearing a report on the holocaust. Yet the NPR story about The Rabbit Hutch was celebratory. Elizabeth Carlisle held up the bodies of two dead rabbits and was charged with a crime of animal cruelty. The owners of Rabbit Hutch Restaurant served rabbits’ bodies to diners for sixteen years, and the closing of the restaurant was mourned on NPR. Do we need any further evidence that we are dreadfully confused about our relationship with animals?

As with Elizabeth Carlisle, Paea Taufu stirred people’s emotions because he killed an animal we are used to letting in to our circle of compassion or empathy. Dogs are different to cows, aren’t they? Pigs don’t have the same feelings that dogs do… do they?

But of all the responses so far, there is one that strikes me as particularly interesting, because it raises an important question about an issue that is in serious need of examination, in regard to the rising popularity of ‘humanely-produced’ animal products. 

It seems that the reason many people feel that this particular act of animal killing was different to the millions that occur every hour in the US alone is because the animal in question was a ‘pet’… An animal who had been taken into the home of a human family.

Some readers seem to assume that this dog was granted the love and care that we would like to think all pets receive. Of course, in a great many homes around the world, this is far from the truth. The suffering of animals being used as pets ranges from extreme brutality (think Michael Vick, a classic example of pet ownership gone horribly wrong), to socially acceptable callousness (think tail docking, ear clipping, declawing, and the most recent trend in pet mutilation – devocalization), to common heartlessness (millions of ‘pet’ animals abandoned at shelters every single year).

But of course, many animals being used as pets are treated as part of the family. We take care of them, and we are concerned about their well-being. They are given names, they make friends with our children, they give and receive love and affection. They depend on us to meet their needs and if we do so, they trust us. For that reason, one reader argued, it is wrong to kill and eat them. Once they are let into the family, they are off-limits as food.

There are many animal farmers who do exactly this with their animals. Many cows, pigs or sheep on family farms, (while they may be living outside) become a part of the family. They have names, make friends with the children and they might even be loved, stroked, groomed and well cared for. But when slaughter time comes, none of that means anything, except maybe to the heart-broken children who don’t understand why their pets have been killed and butchered.

In fact, increasingly, these kinds of situations are being praised as sources of ethical animal products. ‘Compassionate carnivores’ judge the ethical status of animal products according to how ‘happy’ or ‘pet-like’ an animal was prior to being slaughtered.

One website touting its animal welfare standards displays a slideshow of beautiful images of children in a bucolic farm setting, cuddling animals including a lamb so small that if he were human you would call him an infant.

These emotive images are accompanied by Orwellian phrases such as:

“Appreciation builds respect, respect creates kindness.”

A reader could almost think they were visiting the website of an animal sanctuary.

Such phrases appeal to universal values. But they seem more than a little hypocritical when you think of the picture that is not being shown: the same child screaming in horror and rage when she finds out what happened to her beloved animal friend whom she once cradled in her arms and fed from a bottle.

“The belief that all living [beings] should be treated with respect is part of our very fiber as humans.”

Yes, I believe that it is. But I also believe that a culture that justifies the slavery, exploitation and killing of innocent non-human animals for no reason other than that we like the taste of their flesh, milk and eggs, has a way of silencing that belief inside the individual.

I doubt very much that the two girls in the pictures would witness the slaughter of any one of those animals and see it as an expression of the belief that all living beings should be treated with respect. I think they would be very clear that such an act is blatantly wrong.

It is wrong when animals are crowded into factories, treated like machines and killed using extremely brutal methods. It is wrong when animals are free to roam, treated kindly, and killed using relatively painless methods. It would be wrong if I treated my family pet like royalty and killed him swiftly and painlessly while he was sleeping, to cook his flesh and serve it for a Sunday meal with my family.

Killing is wrong. Exploitation is wrong. It is time that we stopped trying to justify actions that are morally reprehensible, for the sake of ‘a mouthful of flesh’.

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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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526 comments

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8:44PM PDT on Oct 27, 2009

I am a human animal, a member of the group of animals we call the great apes. I have evolved to be an omnivore, to the best of my knowledge there is no indigenous human group that has evolved naturally, in situ, as vegetarians other than in a religious community as a philosophical choice. Having said that, I have absolutely no argument with those of my species that have made the choice to be either vegetarians or vegans. We live, as humans, in ways that our evolution has simply not been able to catch up with and perhaps that is the way the species will eventually go. But right now I chose to be a mindful omnivore, I do eat meat and animal products as well as plant and plant products. As a mindful omnivore. I demand that the animal I will eat, that was bred for that purpose, be treated with respect while it is alive and when it is slaughtered, that it be done in the most humane manner available. Then, as many indigenous people do, I give thanks within my own belief system to that animal just as I do to the plant from which other parts of my diet come. I try to limit my consumption of meat because I do not believe that meat should be the main food for omnivores and I try to learn and understand new information about sustainable food production. If your choices are different from mine I am always glad to have the opportunity to discuss the differences respectfully.

7:22AM PDT on Oct 2, 2009

What is a stupid website??? Deb H?

That is why I am a vegetarian: never could justify the killing for taste not nutrition.

2:06PM PDT on Sep 15, 2009

All animals have feelings. Cows like attention just as much at dogs and cats. And they are very curious. Thats why I don't eat cows. I had a turtle once that came when I called it. Read the "Divine Matrix", you'll see we are all connected. What you think and do affects everything.

10:13PM PDT on Sep 13, 2009

>>except maybe to the heart-broken children who don't understand why their pets have been killed and butchered.

7:59PM PDT on Sep 13, 2009

Be Not Content
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Poems Of Sentiment


Be not content--contentment means inaction;
The growing soul aches on its upward quest;
Satiety is twin to satisfaction;
All great achievements spring from life's unrest.

The tiny roots, deep in the dark mold hiding,
Would never bless the earth with leaf and flower
Were not an inborn restlessness abiding
In seed and germ, to stir them with its power.

Were man contented with his lot forever,
He had not sought strange seas with sails unfurled,
And the vast wonder of our shores had never
Dawned on the gaze of an admiring world.

Prize what is yours, but be not quite contented.
There is a healthful restlessness of soul
By which a mighty purpose is augmented
In urging men to reach a higher goal.

So when the restless impulse rises, driving
Your calm content before it, do not grieve;
It is the upward reaching of the spirit
Of the God in you to achieve--achieve.

10:54AM PDT on Sep 13, 2009

Angel, you'd said "... We do as much as we are willing to do. If anyone believes that they are not capable of doing *any more* than what they already do, then they are deluding themselves.

I'd really meant my comment more as a reflection upon those who ARE striving in *some* way. That said, even those who've, say, given up in despair, or are overly-conditioned, could still be said, ultimately, to be "doing their best" at any moment. That's where acceptance of "what is" comes in. One's beliefs ARE what drives everything we do, regardless of whether they are 'good' or 'bad' beliefs. Sure, it's delusional, but you can't usually simply talk someone out of delusion.

You also said, "Surely we should *always* be striving to do more, and to be better? Accepting what is, as though no change is needed in ourselves or others, is either to accept that the world is just fine as it is, or to believe that we, ourselves, are already perfect."

Granted, for the most part, but "shouldy" attitudes can also get us in trouble, so we have to be careful there, too. Spiritually-speaking, we can both "accept what is" yet still seek positive change towards what we'd prefer to see at the same time. And one's *willingness* to do "our best" in any given moment still reflects whatever our consciousness is *capable* of handling/not handling, accepting/not accepting, at that moment.

It's hard to explain these concepts in such short blurbs.

9:13AM PDT on Sep 10, 2009

If you care where your food comes from then you should check out this link to OCA for its Millions Against Monsanto campaign.

http://www.organicconsumers.org/monlink.cfm

3:00PM PDT on Sep 7, 2009

I'd like to add a note about the emotional mess that seems to be created on these forums.

I know that there have been (unfortunately) rude and obnoxious comments posted (on *both* sides), but I think it's a shame that we frequently allow our emotional involvement to cloud our perception of the issue.

I know that some vegans can be offensive in their delivery, but they are not alone in that department. The fact is that many people use the unpleasant delivery as an excuse not to hear the message behind the words.

The comments which come from non-vegans, intended to be hurtful toward vegans, can be incredibly nasty and obnoxious, and very disrespectful toward the sensitivities of those who are living an ethic which many on these forums claim is admirable, whether or not they choose to do so themselves.

And a word in defense of angry vegans: I think many people do not understand how incredibly frustrating it is to be vegan in a *very* non-vegan world. Our cause is fought against with a ferocity that is *almost* unparalleled in other social justice movements.

The vegan ideal, in its essence, embodies the principle of non-violence. What could be a more universal value? And yet our points are ridiculed, insulted, trivialized and ignored, as though we are suggesting that people acknowledge the sentience of their teddy bears, rather than living, breathing creatures who feel pain and seek to avoid harm and death just like dogs, cats, and humans.

1:24PM PDT on Sep 7, 2009

i'll add that you can't expect people who believe you're torturing animals for pleasure to tell you "you're doing the best you can". clearly, they have an urgent need to convince you to change. you just have to realize that there are issues that you might not be willing to sugar coat as well. for abolitionists, this is that issue.

5:55AM PDT on Sep 5, 2009

I just feel the need to point out that *no one* (myself included) does *the best we can do*. We do as much as we are willing to do. If anyone believes that they are not capable of doing *any more* than what they already do, then they are deluding themselves.

Surely we should *always* be striving to do more, and to be better? Accepting what is, as though no change is needed in ourselves or others, is either to accept that the world is just fine as it is, or to believe that we, ourselves, are already perfect.

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