I was recently talking with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. He had asked me what I was up to and so I told him about my small farm, my homesteading work and my provisioning project. Interested, he probed me further: Was I growing my own veggies, how about wheat, did I have fruit trees, what about protein? and so on. Inevitably, the conversation settled on the horrific revelation to a contemporary ‘civilized’ person: “You mean you kill your own chickens!?” Yes, yes I do.
The tension mounted as the conversation took the obligatory tour through the all too familiar terrain one gets dragged over by uninformed–so called ‘civilized’–hypocrites: ‘Oh, I could never kill an animal… Oh, those poor chickens (rabbits, cows, pigs, etc.)’ and my favorite: ‘How could you kill the animals you know and then eat them?’ All this from the mouth of a meat eater.
I have had it with the selective morality of animals rights proponents, both professional and amateur: there are no moral lines in the sand to be drawn on this issue, only varying degrees of complicity and awareness. At one end of the spectrum are those ‘friends’ who insulted their friend and would-be hostess (see the Yellow Legs post for this background story) by rejecting her home-grown lunch in favour of an anonymously raised and slaughtered (and quite possibly factory raised and processed under abysmal conditions) pig at the neighbourhood pub. At the other end are those who have chosen to walk the talk: those small holders who know first hand just how intelligent, curious, funny and, yes, tasty pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows and the like can be.
In Western cultures, animals were once honored and looked upon as spiritual forces and/or god-like creatures: serpents, cats, doves, lions, and (where I’m from) wolves, ravens, coyotes, eagles and so on. But agricultural peoples have never anthropomorphized the animals they worked with every day, and eaten. Sure, the Hebrews told stories about sheep and goats, and the Greeks told stories about hares and tortoises (Aesop), and the First Nations told stories of raven, coyote, and salmon, but only to illustrate important lessons and human concerns; the animals themselves were not sentimentalized into humanoids.
In nineteenth century Britain however, under the influence of the Romantics, animals were enlisted into the newly fabricated ‘cult of childhood’. Generations of children have, since then, grown up surrounded by humanized animals: in England, Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty and Mole, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle; in the USA, Brer Rabbit, Roosevelt’s Teddy Bear, the Forrest Service’s Smokey the Bear, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and the ultimate avatars from Looney Toons, Walt Disney and Pixar which infest our imaginations. As a result, we in the Western world have difficulty avoiding the anthropomorphized animal–it’s everywhere, from cereal boxes to toilet paper.
Here on my farm I not only name several of my animals but also I anthropomorphize the heck out of them through my story-telling. I certainly don’t make a habit of naming everyone, but it sometimes just happens; Yellow Legs was a good example of this. I watch them all, and by observation I learn about their unique personalities, their likes and dislikes. The old adage that you can’t eat an animal that you’ve named is almost true, and the ones I do name are often not eaten, but kept as breeding stock or egg layers. However, I am able to eat those animals I have named (‘Yellow Legs’ for example) because I am aware of the hypocrisy and pernicious sentiment of any other option.
None of this detracts from the wonderful fact that these animals can give such joy when they are alive. Who knew that a chicken has a personality, that turkeys are curious and intelligent, that a goat can have an eating disorder, that a dog would like morning coffee (so long as it is instant), or that a duck would mope for days after its mate got taken by a fox? It’s ironic that this close observation which comes from closing the loop makes it even more difficult for me to consume these animals, yet consume I must, because the alternative is to go back to purchasing from the factory system, when my new intimate knowledge of farm animals and the fact they have personalities makes me even more horrified by how they are treated by corporate agriculture’s factory systems!
In the case of my farming colleague whose ‘friends’ decided to turn their noses up to the food she presented to them, ostensibly because they ‘knew’ the pig, I have to ask: How hypocritical can you be? Animals in agri-business suffer terribly in life and in death, but, unlike the gorillas of Burundi, the grizzlies of the Great Bear Rain Forest, or the baby harp seals of the Canadian Arctic, they usually don’t get the publicity, the sympathy and the cheques. While there are those who might self-righteously have an owner arrested for the way he or she treats their dog, but ignore or simply not respond to the concentration camp-like conditions behind the walls of intensive livestock operations. What are the criteria which put an animal into the ‘food animal’ category rather than the ‘pet’ category? And what makes even a food animal like a pig into an animal those ‘friends’ refused to eat? And why does someone consciously monitor where their money goes when once a year they cut a cheque to some ‘animal issues’ organization, but not pay an ounce of attention to the abysmal conditions for animals which their expenditures support three times a day?
One of my motives for starting to farm as I am, was to close this loop of hypocrisy. I had gone from meat-eating to vegetarianism to veganism and back again. I had realized that there is no clear line on one side of which lies digestive virtue. After all, even a vegan must consider the loss of rain-forest to soy bean fields, the environmental cost of transporting that soy bean to their plate, or the inordinate amount of energy used to convert it into tofurkey, wrap it in attractive packaging and get it to the store-nearest-you-in-time-for-Thanksgiving, and so on. The least hypocritical position is to make one’s ecological footprint as small as possible; this means extracting oneself as much as possible from the corporate agricultural system. In other words, get out of the supermarket and into the local farmers’ market, and/or grow some food yourself.
Eating is a political act. When I kill and eat the chicken which was happily grazing outside my door in the sun yesterday, I am keeping my ecological footprint small, and in terms of eating, I am not being hypocritical. I am also not supporting the corporate agricultural system and its innate animal abuse. How you spend your money on the food you choose to eat has direct influence on how agriculture is practiced and, ultimately, how hundreds of thousands of animals are treated. If you care about animals, then go find out what your hard earned money is supporting, three times every day.
Today, few of us have the opportunity to know the animal that nourishes our bodies. Few of us even consider the animals we eat in the same category as the bears, gorillas, or baby harp seals. But we should; they are all animals worthy of the same ethical consideration and humane protection. If anything, our food animals deserve more from us. In the food factory system they are not free, not in a natural environment, their bodies are doctored by humans in many ways, their natural life cycle of reproduction and mothering is denied, interrupted or distorted: their sole purpose for being is to be turned into food. Knowing these facts should be the ground of any ethical decision-making. I wish I had been with my farming colleague’s group of ‘friends’ ordering their pork lunch at the pub. I would have explained how their food was made, and if one of them said, “What are trying to do? Put us off our lunch?” I would proudly answer, “Yes.” With a bit of luck, we’d all end up back at the hostess’s table where they’d started. If you eat, knowing agriculture and its practices is your responsibility; it’s your money that is supporting it–spend it consciously.
Please see the Humane Farming Association for information on the realities of factory farming. They have very good educational packages available for purchase and/or download for those who teach or work in food related education, or if you are simply wanting to know more about where our grocery store food actually comes from.