I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent book Eating Animals—which has as much to say about people (who are literally eating animals) as it does about the creatures we do and do not devour.
I've always eaten meat, and aside from occasional troubling stories about the humanity, for lack of a more accurate term, of pigs or of the presumably isolated abuses visited on cows and chickens who are destined to be din-din, my past concept of eating meat vs. going vegetarian was mired more in thoughts of taste, weight loss and health than in animal welfare. I would describe myself as being an animal lover, and as being fascinated by and respectful of the animals I don't particularly love, but as having had a sort of resignation that people are going to eat meat, always have and always will, so whatever needs to happen between the cow goes moo to pass the ketchup needs to happen.
Over the years, my thoughts on animals and our relationship to them have changed somewhat. I always thought of real fur as flamboyantly unnecessary (but still do wear leather and own a lambskin rug) and while finding the antics of PETA extreme have rooted for the serious animalistas who've soiled the mink coats of the rich with blood.
I thought a lot harder about animals once I got my two dogs. I grew up with a cat and a dog, so it's not like I didn't already love the darn things. But almost immediately upon taking home the tiny, guinea-piggish Shih Tzu whom we would name Hyphen and Sash, it seemed clear to me how bizarre it is that we care (deeply) about some animals and don't care (deeply) about others.
It makes many of us enraged to think of people eating cats and dogs, yet pigs don't get a pass despite being so close to humans in their anatomy and seemingly as smart and filled with personality as anything any human's ever taken in, fed and loved.
Reading Foer's book has been rewarding, not only because it's as tightly packed with information as a modern factory farm is with miserable animals, but because he writes it in a way that is personal and highly morality-based, yet that never comes across as preachy. As practical as it is philosophical, Eating Animals is the book animal eaters should and could read, but probably dread reading.
He actually addresses that phenomenon—when someone tells you, "Here is a book detailing the recent history of meat production," you immediately know it will be a horror story that you might want to avoid because it could dissuade you from eating meat or because it could, at the very least, be upsetting. Since we all have that thought about books like this, doesn't that prove we're living with blinders on when it comes to the ethical (and other) issues swirling around eating meat?
I loved that the book contained first-person essays from various people involved in this issue—old-school farmers (whose ways of raising and killing animals somewhat humanely are on the endangered-species list), a vegetarian rancher, an animal-rights activist (who's also pro-life) and others. I felt like not both but all sides of the issue were well considered. Of course, we know Safran Foer became a vegetarian while writing this book thanks to a touching section at the beginning, so there is never any doubt whose side he's ultimately on. However, I think his intellectual, commonsensical approach would go down much easier than the passionate emotional approach embraced by many animal-rights activists.
Some of the things I took away from the book were not especially welcome. For example, it's a pain in the ass to read that turkeys, chicken and even fish are all considered by the author to be as grotesquely mistreated by our current system as pigs are, to the point where he eventually concludes it would be wrong for him to consider eating them. If anything, he seems to suggest that cows have it the easiest, and it's more realistic to find beef that is, if not cruelty-free, cruelty-lite. This doesn't help me out since eating chicken and fish has been very helpful in maintaining a reasonable weight and reasonable health and satiety.
Reading that free-range is utter bullshit was also quite the party-killer, and learning that PETA and other animal-rights groups have actually struck fear into the hearts of the factory-farming industry rather effectively has caused me to reassess their overall usefulness in light of some of their ridiculous, PR-magnet tactics.
But the most compelling aspect of the book for me is the author's argument that the truth about how factory farming works is hidden from the public on purpose because almost no one except the factory farmers themselves would support it if that truth were fully aired. And if that is the case, then it's got to be worth exploring—because while some would argue that the meat industry is absolutely vital, even granting that point, the outrageous cruelty involved is absolutely not vital.
Foer cleverly talks about some important phenomena surrounding food, such as the concept of breaking bread with family and friends, how announcing one's vegetarianism or, worse, one's selective omnivorism ("Sure, I'll come to dinner, but be sure the beef comes from such-and-such farm...") can be a social deal-breaker. He also recounts how whenever it comes up that he is a vegetarian, someone invariably wants to try to catch him in an "inconsistency," such as giving him the third degree about what his belts are made of. I do hate that tendency people have to demand all or nothing—if you're concerned about global warming, you have no right to be if you've ever left a light on; if you're a vegetarian (for any reason), you have no right to be if you wear anything but plastic flip-flops. I think it comes from two places—Americans in particular are fanatical about authenticity (some of the biggest fanatics are the most inauthentic, of course) but also there is a massive desire to avoid being judged and/or to avoid feeling guilt. If someone says, "I'm a vegetarian," why do so many of us hear, "You're a bad person for eating meat"? and why do so many others think to themselves, "I'm a bad person for eating meat"? (The reaction is often either hostility or discomfort, and I'm talking about when the vegetarians themselves are not being assholes.)
The answer is worth trying to figure out, and Eating Animals should be helpful in that direction. I think anytime things are just done out of comfort or ease or tradition, they bear investigation. I loved that this book was so thoughtful—and, to quote Foer, "that's a radical understatement"—because that is the proper antidote to a custom (eating animals) that is as old as recorded history, and yet that has become complicated in the past 90 or so years by innovations that are pretty easily argued to be unconscionable.
Some of the specific things I took away: the chillingly sensible argument that euthanized dogs and cats from shelter could far more easily be consumed than the animals we breed exclusively for our consumption, especially considering that their remains are used to help feed those animals anyway (he argues this in the way those Californians are arguing that divorce should be illegal as a way of making a point about marriage equality); how insane the genetics of chickens and turkeys and pigs have become due to the demands of factory farming; the mortal danger we're all in from pig farming in particular when it comes to providing un-nature massive opportunities to create new pandemics and killers like MRSA; the disastrous impact factory farming is having on the environment and how it's "radically unsustainable" over time; Foer's description of how fish are captured as being a "war" on marine life that also must end as we deplete the oceans; the story of a pig-slaughterer who described a pig nuzzling him affectionately like a a puppy before he had to kill it; the horror-show oopsies that occur every day in preparing pigs and chickens and cows for slaughter (legs sawed off of living, struggling animals who were just skinned alive); and maybe most frighteningly the syndrome by which workers in slaughterhouses often become sadistic about their jobs, inflicting unspeakable pain and suffering as some kind of coping mechanism.
Am I a vegetarian now? (And if so, why not a vegan?) Not necessarily. I went vegetarian this week while reading the book and it's been unrewarding. As Foer admits, the diet is never going to be as rich as a diet featuring meat, which is not to say it's untenable. (I hated diet soda before I forced myself to start drinking it; now, I can't drink regular. And I shouldn't be drinking soda anyway.) It also takes real effort to come up with foods that have no meat in them and yet that are filling and non-fattening—I didn't lose and almost gained some weight eating so much rice, I can tell you that.
But if I'm not going vegetarian, I'm not going to eat meat oblivious of where it came from. It's often been said people would eat less or no meat if they had firsthand knowledge of exactly how it came to them, and not only from a "meat is murder!" perspective—it's bathed in chemicals and has had plenty of opportunity to become contaminated with germs. And perhaps I won't eat as much of it, or won't eat it as frivolously. It's probably not going to be all or nothing for me, as it won't be and isn't for most people. In that way, I have no problem admitting Foer is a better man than I. But I would like to investigate how to support ways of penalizing and in other ways changing the factory farms now that I know, rather than merely suspect, that they're inexcusably run.
Finally, I read a review of this book in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani which seemed to suggest that because there is so much human suffering in the world, Foer should focus on that rather than on chickens and pigs. That's the kind of truly stupid illogic that makes a book like Eating Animals so refreshing. Among the many "right on!" thoughts Foer conveys is his belief that caring is not a zero-sum game. Turning Kakutani's argument on her, why the fuck is she sitting there writing a bad review of a book about animals suffering when there are people down the block in need of food and shelter?
No, caring should and can be unlimited. If it were more widespread, factory farming would not happen in the way it does and ethical concerns about the consumption of animals would come down to whether or not it's ever okay to eat them instead of focusing on the fact that so many of the animals we eat suffer unimaginably while living in a feces-stained environment that is sometimes so tiny they can't turn around or lie down.
As Foer suggests, caring is a muscle, and there's nothing wrong or weak when we care about which things matter and which things do not. If an animal is destined to be eaten, does it matter whether or not a worker gouges out its eye for sport first? Does it matter if it's thrust into a scalder fully conscious? Does it matter that tens of billions of them live short, terrifying, painful lives and wreak havoc on the environment while doing zilch to help feed the world's chronically hungry? How could it not?
People care about animals. This is evidenced by the pets we keep and the laws we support demanding that even wild animals not be treated without mercy. But what a bizarre society we are when a man is arrested for deliberately running over a mother duck and yet owners of factory farms allow for the far more callous, environmentally impactful deaths of thousands of animals daily, animals who, like the mother duck, won't wind up being eaten or used in any way?
I think the indefensibly inconsistent standards are fascinating, as is Foer's attempt to explore them and to ask us, as his babysitter once did, "You know that chicken is chicken, right?"
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