On Eating Animals

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Some years ago in a Montana slaughterhouse, a Black Angus cow awaiting execution suddenly went berserk, jumped a five-foot fence, and escaped. She ran through the streets for hours, dodging cops, animal control officers, cars, trucks, and a train. Cornered near the Missouri river, the frightened animal jumped into its icy waters and made it across, where a tranquilizer gun brought her down. Her “daring escape” stole the hearts of the locals, some of whom had even cheered her on. The story got international media coverage. Telephone polls were held, calls demanding her freedom poured into local TV stations. Sensing the public mood, the slaughterhouse manager made a show of “granting clemency” to what he dubbed “the brave cow.” Given a name, Molly, the cow was sent to a nearby farm to live out her days grazing under open skies—which warmed the cockles of many a heart.

Cattle trying to escape slaughterhouses are not uncommon. Few of their stories end happily though. Some years ago in Omaha, six cows escaped at once. Five were quickly recaptured; one kept running until Omaha police cornered her in an alley and pumped her with bullets. The cow, bellowing miserably and hobbling like a drunk for several seconds before collapsing, died on the street in a pool of blood. This brought howls of protest, some from folks who had witnessed the killing. They called the police’s handling inhumane and needlessly cruel.

It’s tempting to see these commiserating folks as animal lovers—and that’s how they likely see themselves—until one remembers what they eat for dinner. A typical slaughterhouse in the United States kills over a thousand Mollys a day—lined up, shot in the head, and often cut open and bled while still conscious, an end no less cruel and full of bellowing—all because Americans keep buying neatly-packaged slices of their corpses in supermarkets. Raised unnaturally and inhumanely, over a million protesting birds and mammals are violently killed in the United States every hour (that’s 300 per second).  How is it unreasonable then to say that nearly all meat-eaters in America participate quite directly in a cycle of suffering and cruelty of staggering scale?

Yet the idea persists that Americans love animals, largely because of their love and concern for a class of animals called “pets” (and other “cute” animals like dolphins, polar bears, and pandas). Most Americans have had at least one pet at some point in their lives, and many see their pets as extensions of their families; they photograph their pets, swap stories about them, buy them gifts and treats, spend money on their illnesses, support taxes to build shelters for them, and mourn their deaths. Yet, the question continues to rankle, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it in a November 2009 New Yorker piece:

How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious.

What might explain this disjunction? From humankind’s long community with farm animals, how has it come to this?


A Brief History of Farm Animals

For much of our settled history—and even today in parts of the world—most people lived in close proximity to farm animals. Animals fertilized our crops, shared our labors, and nourished our bodies, helping us enlarge our settled communities. Families commonly kept a few farm animals, gave them names, and saw them as individuals with distinct temperaments. Children grew up around them, related to them effortlessly, and came to know their cycles of birth, aging, and death. Our obligations to domestic animals arose in part from a sense of kinship, community, and mutual dependence; we saw in them our own instincts, physical vulnerabilities, and social-filial attachments. They frequently inhabited our myths and polytheistic beliefs. Each time we killed and ate one of them, we also silently paid the price, however small, of having known the animal in life and in its dying moments. Children were often saddened by the slaughter of an animal they knew, and missed the animal for a while. Ritual animal sacrifices occurred only on special occasions. Abuse of animals occurred too, but it was neither systematic nor centrally organized, and depended on the moral compasses of the owners. Like people, animals had their own luck in ending up with a severe human family or a gentler one.

In later millennia, urbanization, specialization, and new economic, religious, and humanistic ideas began altering our relations with farm animals. As Lesley J. Rogers explains in Minds of their Own (1998), ownership of farm animals became concentrated in fewer hands, and flocks and herds grew larger. As a result, the individuality of animals was lost to their owners and they began receding from most people’s everyday lives. Over time, farm animals became yet another natural resource managed by specialists, who harvested their material value and transferred it to others via the market.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that a hallmark of our modernity is a drastic loss of first-hand knowledge and experience of nature’s beats and rhythms, including knowledge of animal lives. Most people today have no experience with farm animals. Generations of us have grown up in urban housing, public parks, and city streets, and rarely around the animals we eat. From a young age, we socialize our children—rather indoctrinate them, for there is nothing natural about it—to dearly love and fuss over some domesticated animals while eating others without thought, not unlike eating carrots.

In the twentieth century, the inexorable logic of modern economics and the assembly line turned farm animals into number-tagged bodies to be fattened, disinfected, and processed as quickly and cheaply as possible. We found new uses for animal parts in plastics, detergents, tires, cosmetics, dyes, contraceptives, crayons, and more. This went hand-in-hand with our portrayals of them as “dumb animals,” making it easier to overlook their abuse and ignore their manifold social and emotional lives. Only animal behaviors with an economic impact merited attention. For example, factories had to deal with the tendency of animals to injure others or themselves when forced to stand in cramped feedlots in ankle-deep excrement, or when packed in tiny cages.

To raise efficiency and cut costs, farm animals began to be engineered for abnormally rapid weight gain, fed unnatural corn-based diets that cause metabolic disorders and liver damage, and injected with preemptive antibiotics and growth hormones. To reduce fights and injuries due to overcrowding, animals began to be routinely mutilated—for instance, their beaks, horns, or tails might be chopped or burned off without anesthesia—and they were often confined in tiny crates in windowless rooms. All of these procedures are now standard and legal. As with so many aspects of our economy, the full cost of this enterprise, whether ethical, environmental, or health-wise, has never been factored in. The tragedy was complete when raising and killing animals for meat came to be seen as agriculture, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates this industry.

What might have arrested this decline in the fortunes of farm animals are big cultural ideas, both religious and secular, that for whatever reasons opposed killing animals. But those did not arise in the West as they did, for example, in India. Depending on whom you ask, Western monotheistic religions, while seeing humankind as God’s special creation, ranged in attitude from passive disaffection to active malice towards animals. Christian doctrine has practically no injunctions against treating animals as a means to human ends, so no sin is committed when mistreating or killing animals. Rather, animals were declared vastly inferior, incapable of possessing souls, and created for the use of humans, who stood right below the angels. And so Western monotheisms have long seen animals as dispensable for human interests, desires, and whims. (This is also true for the “Confucian zone” of East Asia.)

In the modern age, even secular humanism, with its nearly exclusive focus on humans, has shown little regard for the treatment of animals. “In the West,” writes Mary Midgley in Animals and Why They Matter (1998), “both the religious and the secular moral traditions have, till lately, scarcely attended to any non-human species.” With notable exceptions like Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Arthur Schopenhauer, and contemporary animal welfare organizations like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the dominant strands of Western culture have remained heavily invested in denying moral consideration to animals. Rather conveniently, animals are presumed to lack feelings, thoughts, emotions, memory, reason, intelligence, sense of time, language, consciousness, or autonomy. Until the 1980s scientists entertained the idea that animals do not feel pain. Such self-serving presumptions, enabled by our estrangement from farm animals, certainly made our consciences rest easier. This helps explain why the animal rights movement focuses so hard on demonstrating many of these capacities in animals (sometimes overstating their case). So tenacious can our habits of life and mind be that even today, despite everything we know and the genuine alternatives we have for a nutritious diet, less than 1 percent of U.S. adults have turned away from factory-farmed meat for ethical reasons.


The Modern Business of Killing

Slaughterhouses today operate behind closed doors, their violence increasingly concealed from society at large. Even their design tells a revealing story: careful division of labor, compartmentalized zones, non-unionized immigrant labor (especially on the kill floor), with few workers ever witnessing a killing despite working there for years. Language, too, cushions the psychological impact of the job, says Timothy Pachirat, an assistant professor of politics at The New School for Social Research. In an interview published last year at the group blog Boing Boing, Pachirat talked about his experience working undercover in a slaughterhouse.

In addition to spatial and labor divisions, the use of language is another way of concealing the violence of killing. From the moment cattle are unloaded from transport trucks into the slaughterhouse’s holding pens, managers and kill floor supervisors refer to them as “beef.” Although they are living, breathing, sentient beings, they have already linguistically been reduced to inanimate flesh, to use-objects. Similarly, there is a slew of acronyms and technical language around the food safety inspection system that reduces the quality control worker’s job to a bureaucratic, technical regime rather than one that is forced to confront the truly massive taking of life. Although the quality control worker has full physical movement throughout the kill floor and sees every aspect of the killing, her interpretive frame is interdicted by the technical and bureaucratic requirements of the job. Temperatures, hydraulic pressures, acid concentrations, bacterial counts, and knife sanitization become the primary focus, rather than the massive, unceasing taking of life.

In the United States, farm animals make up a whopping 98 percent of all birds and mammals humans use, the rest being pets, victims of research and sport, or those held in zoos. We can’t ignore this 98 percent and still claim to be serious about animal welfare. According to David J. Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan, who contributed a chapter titled, “Foxes in the Hen House: Animals, Agribusiness, and the Law,” to the 2004 collection, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, the factory farming industry

has persuaded legislatures to amend criminal statutes that purport to protect farm animals from cruelty so that it cannot be prosecuted for any farming practice that the industry itself determines is acceptable, with no limit whatsoever on the pain caused by such practices. As a result, in most of the United States, prosecutors, judges, and juries no longer have the power to determine whether or not farm animals are treated in an acceptable manner. The industry alone defines the criminality of its own conduct.

Veterinarians who report abuses against farm animals risk liabilities. And in 2011 independent journalist Will Potter wrote: “the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force has kept files on activists who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms and recommended prosecuting them as terrorists.” The FBI file, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, detailed activists’ actions trespassing on farms to videotape abuses and suggested these actions violated the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.


“The Axe for the Frozen Sea Inside Us”

The above quote comes from Franz Kafka, who was writing about literature and contended that, “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us.” How can we confront our colossal indifference regarding animals? Clearly, most people don’t even know about the horror and pain we inflict on billions of birds and mammals in our meat factories. But there’s no good excuse for this, is there? It’s more likely that we don’t want to know—can’t afford to know for our own sake—so we turn a blind eye and trust the artifice of bucolic imagery on meat packaging. Some see parallels here with the German people’s willful denial of the concentration camps that once operated around them, or call those who consume factory-farmed meat little Eichmanns. “For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer (who also used to say he turned vegetarian “for health reasons—the health of the chicken”).

Predictably enough, many others are offended by such comparisons. They say that comparing the industrialized abuse of animals with the industrialized abuse of humans trivializes the latter. There are indeed limits to such comparisons, though our current enterprise may be worse in at least one respect: it has no foreseeable end. We seem committed to raising billions of sentient beings year after year only to kill them after a short life of intense suffering. Furthermore, rather than take offense at polemical comparisons—as if others are obliged to be more judicious in their speech than we are in our silent deeds—why not reflect on our apathy instead? Criticizing vegetarians and vegans for being self-righteous—or being moral opportunists in having found a new way of affirming their decency to themselves—certainly doesn’t absolve us from the need to face up to our role in perpetuating this cycle of violence and degradation.

Not long ago a Humane Society sting operation at a slaughterhouse in California caused a large public outrage and media hubbub. A cynic might say that the outrage was motivated less by the cruelty, and more by concerns about the nutritional safety of meat from downer cattle. But genuine disgust at the cruelty was also evident in the response and in the flurry of donations to animal welfare groups. So it’s not that farm animals get no sympathy in the United States, only that Americans somehow don’t realize that cruelty is the norm, not the exception, and is, in fact, infused into the very idea of factory farms; what makes meat cheap is the assembly-line processing of animals who essentially subsidize it with their suffering.

Treating animals humanely requires natural diets, open spaces for living, eliminating the use of hormones that explode body weight and mutilations like chopping off beaks, tongues, and tails, together with more stringent training for caretakers and inspectors, surveillance cameras, professionals who enforce laws and prosecute violators, and so on—all of which make meat more expensive. Our desire for cheap products is often at odds with our desire to be ethical and humane. Few things strike me as more absurd than calling oneself an animal lover while patronizing industrialized meat, though people will surely continue to deceive themselves and even offer various lame justifications to defend their habit (for example: many other animals also eat animals, humans are at the top of the food chain, people need meat protein to live, our traditions or religions sanction meat eating, and so on).

The modern animal rights movement has certainly impacted a range of concerns—such as reducing the use of animals for furs and cosmetics testing, and enforcing laws against wanton hunting and certain cruelties—but not quite factory farming, which seems a more difficult case. This may well be because the industry is tied up with big corporate interests and serves more widely entrenched cultural habits. Another reason may be that the rights movement has not fostered enough discussion on where animal rights come from. What’s needed in my view are not theories of rights or liberty for animals, nor talk of “speciesism” or utilitarian optimization—at least not primarily—but narratives and experiences that reawaken us to a sense of kinship with farm animals, which is the ground upon which we build our obligations to them. (I can recommend the documentary film, The Emotional World of Farm Animals, as a place to begin.) There is no evidence that farm animals suffer any less than dogs or cats. They too are lovable, intelligent, and have individual personalities and social-emotional lives; many of them even bond with humans. They too have behaviors that in our pets we describe as fear, elation, loneliness, anxiety, playfulness, and so on. More of us rediscovering this may be a prerequisite to bringing greater dignity to their lives and deaths—and in doing so, greater dignity to our own.

With its dedication to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each individual, the humanist movement is especially well positioned to deliver and exemplify such a message.

It’s also possible that even if we really took the time to discover how we treat farm animals, most of us might in good faith still decide to patronize factory-farmed meat. We might conclude that the price we make animals pay, and the price we pay in sacrificing part of our humanity, are worth the benefits. Such honest deliberation would require that we make our meat factories open to the public—give them glass walls, so to speak—even visit them with our kids, so they too can decide for themselves. That might be a step towards a clear conscience. But meanwhile, how terribly dishonorable we look by averting our gaze and choosing ignorance, and—in a surreal twist—going sentimental for cows that escape while callously sponsoring the anguish and pain of billions of their fellow animals.

Recommended online video: “Farm to Fridge—The Truth Behind Meat Production,” by Mercy for Animals; narrated by James Cromwell.