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.”
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’.