Reader mail

Last summer, I did a cooking demo at which I read some scenes of livestock death. I wrote about it here. Yesterday, from visitor Artfulhome, came this comment:

Big of you to want to have a connection to the poor animal who died painfully and fearfully for your “fatty, juicy and delicious” dinner. I hope it was worth it. Anthony Bourdain has disgusted me with his macho bullshit where he seems to think that watching an animal’s brutal, violent killing somehow elevates him, and the pleasure he takes in eating its remains. It is a radical idea in this country, that perhaps we should be more advanced than to torture and kill to live well, when we really don’t have to. I love eating and cooking too, but am this close to becoming a raving vegan. The meat counter at my local supermarket has begun to smell like death to me, no matter that they sell free range, organic meat; that the animal had perhaps a slightly healthier, more pleasant life than most in its place is scant comfort. Maybe it’s getting older and having a closer relationship to my own mortality, maybe it’s looking in my terrier’s eyes and realizing that she is sentient, and that she, but for a slight accident of birth, could have been your panicked, scared, tortured pork chop.

I have a few points.

First: It should come as not surprise that the meat counter smells of death. It is death. The problem is meat eaters for whom it does not have any meaning of death. My point is that understanding, as a meat eater, the meat-is-death connection is valuable and important. Recognizing the sacrifice (of both human and animal) can encourage more care and less waste.

Second: Torture is a tricky word to use when talking about the meat we eat, especially when talking about all meat.The amount to which an animal knows it is going to die when it goes to the slaughterhouse can be debated, but I caution against the over anthropomorphizing of livestock.

Third: I, too, look at my dog and think about the similarities — I’m fascinated by how pigs can seem so dog-like when given the chance to run around and play. It doesn’t stop me from eating meat, but it does make me care about who is raising my meat.

Fourth: There is something macho about publicizing your willingness to watch of animals die. I’m no Anthony Bourdain apologist, but if a reader learns a little more about the violence involved, I think it has a value.

3 thoughts on “Reader mail”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    I agree that it’s important that meat eaters recognize from whence their dinner comes, that the connection is important and too rarely acknowledged. I stopped eating meat and fowl when I was fourteen years old, when I made the connection viscerally after visiting a relative’s farm, seeing the animals there, and finally understanding. (36 years ago, I am appalled to report!) I serve it to others, even my husband, feeling that I have no place making that choice for others, but am increasingly troubled by it.

    I think the term “torture” can be used rationally in reference to the unconscionable treatment that most livestock receives in the setting of those hideous factory farms. We can talk about deprivation of purely physical needs here, or about the physical AND emotional–and I defy anyone who has spent any time around animals of any kind to tell me that there is ANY animal who does not have emotional ties to their parents and offspring, who does not respond to kindness, who does not forge connections, make friends, feel grief and longing and fear.

    Jeffrey Masson has written a heartbreaking yet uplifting book called The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: the Emotional Life of Farm Animals. I recommend it for its discussion of livestock as the sentient beings it asserts they are, and also for its philosophical discussions of meat eating. For me, it had mainly been an issue of basic humanity; for Masson, it transcends that, and he distills it to the matter of basic ethics and–another radical idea here–natural rights. As thoughtful as you are about the issue, you really should read it if you haven’t already.

    My friend, a proud carnivore, who raises chickens (only for the eggs, and truly free range) can tell us about how proud of the hens are of their broods, and how each of them has a distinct personality, some following her like faithful dogs, and others who are more aloof and independent, and of their distressed behavior when one of their sisters died a natural death one night. My other friend, who has a few acres in the country, raised a mother cow and her two calves, whom she eventually had taken away and slaughtered. She recalls the panic the mother cow went into when the white truck turned up the long driveway to take her second offspring away, and her groaning, crying mourning that lasted for literally weeks.

    Anthropomorphizing of livestock is simply recognizing that animals have more in common with us–and certainly with the smaller, cuter species we choose to raise as pets–than many of us can comfortably rationalize with the way we as a species treat our “lessors”. Pigs are playful, intelligent creatures who have finally been recognized as more intelligent than most dogs. Occasionally you hear about one saving its owner’s life. And we slaughter them by the tens of thousands. I’m glad that the ones you eat get to play a little, but this, for me at least, isn’t just about making their deaths easy. The grim fact of life for these animals is that their lives are short, full of loss, deprived of natural social connections, and end in painful, frightening violence (Temple Grandin speaks to this in some of her writing: she has made a whole career out of trying to make slaughterhouses more “humane”, generally by trying to sneak the final violence up on the animals.)–and this is at BEST. More often, they are deprived of even space to move, good health (other than that provided by continuing doses of antibiotics), and even sunlight, on factory farms that are more literally open cesspools.

    I guess that for me, after all this meandering, rambling post, it comes down to this: a pig, allowed a natural response, when taken to slaughter will, as you would, scream with terror. It will, as you would, fight to escape. It will, like you, moan and cry with pain and fear. Knowing that, what about it makes it ennobling to eat the sad remains of this violence? Wouldn’t it be better to take this knowledge of animal suffering and make the choice to NOT contribute to it? I loved meat when I ate it–other than liver!–and still remember how satisfying and tasty it was. But it is about choices. Why not teach your good little daughter that her compassion for the animals she meets can be demonstrated by choosing another way to eat? There is no downside that I know of: farmers can raise crops for human consumption, the environment will benefit, most people can eat more healthily without meat, and you will no longer have even the trace of a stain of some guilty knowledge of animal pain when you eat your delicious dinner.

    Thanks for listening!

  2. Good morning! I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Just for clarity, slaughterhouses have systems in place that keep animals fairly (and unnaturally, considering their fate) docile–it would be impossible to achieve the large scale slaughters that most process without calm animals. (That is what Temple Grandin works on: efficient slaughterhouse systems that keep animals docile and malleable. When they can see ahead of them what is coming, they do panic….poor things!) In a more natural situation, I am told (first hand anecdotally) that animals do vocalize in fear, and it has been characterized as a scream. Rabbits, pigs, lambs….don’t remember about cows, although Temple speaks to that. I just don’t recall.

    We are all, rightfully, appalled and horrified at dog fighting stories and when we hear of specific animal abuse cases, and we turn our wrath to the perpetrator. Every time, I think of the millions of animals raised in factory farms and what THEY have individually endured…..and yet ending that practice would be considered radical and soft-headed, and would be impossible today.

    Oh well. We all do what we can.

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