Hal Herzog is fascinated with our moral relationships with animals, the contradictions we feel and the ethical problems when we avoid contradictions. A dog, he points out, is a member of the household in the United States, vermin in India, and food in Korea. We humans tend not to eat animals we either adore or despise. As Koreans and Chinese have started keeping pets, they have become more ambivalent about eating dog meat and relegate certain species to the dog trade. The Oglala Indians eat dogs and keep them as pets, but pets are chosen at birth and only pets are named. This is a tactic that many farming families use for animals that could be pets or food.
Herzog is an anthrozoologist who studies the interactions between humans and animals. He is also possessed with a quick eye for absurdity and a broad range of interests. In this book he has visited industrial farms and Appalachian cock fights, dogmeat markets, dolphin treatment centers, loggerhead turtle nest- protection runs,animal research laboratories, and rescue refuges for injured animals. Even his family pets come up for scrutiny, when an animal rights neighbor apologetically called to ask if he was feeding kittens to his new pet boa constrictor and he experienced a revulsion that he would not feel about feeding the snake mice. And it led to a comparison of the food a snake needs compared to a cat- 5 pounds of flesh versus 50 each year- which leaves a moral burden of owning a cat ten times that of a boa. Herzog writes well and I had trouble putting the book down, stopping only to ponder some of the questions he raises.
Like most of us, Herzog eats meat, wears leather shoes, but thinks that animals should not suffer. He foreswears veal, spends more money to get chickens that roamed under open skies, has cut back on meat and is more troubled by the use of laboratory animals for safe eye makeup than for medicine. But he spends time with animal rights activists of all stripes, giving them a fair hearing and pointing out where people he may disagree with are correct.
For instance he looks at regulations protecting lab animals. Regulations entitle dogs to a period of play each day while cats are not entitled. Mice have very little regulation, but a lab mouse is entitled to more protection than a wild mouse in the same lab, even if most of the wild mice are escapees from the experiments. He goes so far as to design a series of animal experiments and submitted them for approval to Animal Care Committees at research universities, expecting similar responses. In fact approvals varied 80% of the time and were quite arbitrary.
In fact Herzog tells us that the most comprehensive legal protections for animals, which still are admirable, were developed in Nazi Germany while human beings were tortured and slaughtered. The cognitive dissonance is amazing.
But he points out that we have our own cognitive dissonance. Why do we treat cockfighting as more cruel than the slaughter of chicken for food? Your average Tennessee gamecock will be pampered during its two year life, running free with 150 feet of lawn and a private bed, fed special rations, being exercised like an athlete, able to mate, then one night will be sliced by the Mexican short knife after a fight to the death. Your average industrially raised Cobb 500 food chick will live in utter squalor, bred too large for its aching legs, lungs burning for 24 hours a day from ammonia-laden air, never seeing daylight, pumped full of medicated chicken chow, then will be jammed into a crate, suspended upside down and electrocuted around its 42nd day of life. Herzog gives the red light to both activities, but sees the hypocrisy of trying to make cockfighting a felony while permitting wholesale torture for food production.
He looks at vegetarians, and vegans and ex-vegetarians: 97-99% of Americans eat some flesh including 60% of people who call themselves vegetarians but have eaten meat in the past 24 hours. There are 3 times as many ex-vegetarians than vegetarians, usually because they often felt sick. (Others feel better, at least for several years. There may not be one good diet for everyone.) Actual vegetarians can range from his friend Pete who is disgusted by meat but will shoot the racoons who steal his vegetables, to people who wrestle with taking the life of a carrot, much less a fish. Herzog considers the various theories of animal rights, from an absolutist vision where choosing between saving a baby or a hamster in a fire is equivalent, to considering an animal’s ability to suffer, its level of cognition or more arbitrary determinants (say cuteness) to decide whether one can kill or eat an animal. Is it better to kill 200 chickens or one cow? How about 70,000 chickens or one blue whale?
He wonders why the treatment of lab animals, mostly rodents who people would kill as pests, have engendered more interest by the anti-vivisectionist community (including bombings of laboratories and threats to the families of researchers) than the vast carnage of industrial meat production. When was the last time the Animal Liberation Front attacked a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) and liberated the cows? Why are neurological researchers attacked more than people working on physical disease?
Since this book deals with the morality of killing animals. I wish that Herzog had looked at the religious treatments of killing for food or ceremony. Grace before meals is a way of aknowledging the taking of life for food and feeling gratitude for it. Both Kosher and Halal restrictions look seriously at the treatment of animals, before and during slaughter. Even the separation of milk and meat is justified by revulsion over the idea that a kid might be stewed in its mother’s milk. And Kosher vegetables must be inspected to not inadvertently kill and consume insects, which would be more sinful than eating pork. Christians are enjoined by Paul from eating blood, (but this has not prevented the development of blatwurst.) A friend who is a priest of Ifa, will ceremonially kill chickens or African rats, but is otherwise vegetarian. A college professor spent time with a tribe of normally vegetarian New Guinnean natives who four times a year would religiously kill a boar and distribute its meat to every member. Some religions permit anyone to kill for food while others proscribe it unless in a ritual context that honors the life taken. There is much to be learned from religious attitudes towards killing food.
I come from a tradition that believes plants are as sentient as animals, though people may be generally less skilled at decoding their communication. This is known by indiginous herbalists worldwide. Scientists have confirmed that plants communicate by rhyzophere signalling through the soil and the release of volatile aromatic compounds into the air, as well as the nonlocal consciousness that Jagdish Chandra Bose and Cleve Backster have researched. That means that any food I eat involves the killing of a being or, in the case of fruit or seeds, a potential being. That said, you and I are being consumed by animals as we speak, from skin mites to internal fungi, helminths and bacteria. We are walking ecologies in a human superstructure, with 10% of our DNA being human. Our internal bacteria and viriuses can even affect what we choose to eat and how much of it we consume. And we consume other walking or planted ecologies, some of which can recombine with our own microorganisms after death. And of course we could be the food of wildcats or ultimately worms. I therefore cannot take a fundamentalist approach to not killing other beings. So I choose not to kill unnecessarily, to be grateful for food I eat and to avoid the egregious violence of industrial farming.
This is a book that will change the way you look at food and our relationship with animals no matter where you are coming from. He wrestles with complexity, personally coming down on the side of non-food fundamentalism, an omnivore who takes animal consciousness seriously. I highly recommend it.
Related articles by Zemanta
- Our conflicted relationship with animals (salon.com)
- Africa brought out the meat-eater in me (salon.com)
- Bruce Friedrich: Resolved: Eating Animals Is Indefensible (huffingtonpost.com)
Parts of this post appeared as an Amazon review of the book