Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Pain: Eating Animals, Continued

You may have noticed, or you may not have, that I didn't really get into a whole lot of discussion about animal cruelty in my discussion of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals." This may or may not have struck you as odd, since it's a big part of Safran Foer's book, and a big part of why many people don't eat animals (or animal products) and a big part of any (reasonable) discussion of eating animals. Commenter Jennie of City Pittie (check it out!!), commented that I discussed the "human cost" Safran Foer writes about. This wasn't meant as a criticism, and I didn't take it as such, but she is absolutely right. This was only one part of "Eating Animals," and it's only one part of conscious eating.

Some background maybe is in order. I stopped eating meat (animals), in a fairly traditional order- I didn't go "cold turkey"- what a terrible phrase in this context. In an odd twist, it was the Seventh Day Adventists that started it all. I went to camp every year as a kid with my chorus, who rented space at a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school for two weeks. Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians- until this moment I had never thought to look up why. Apparently, SDA's believe "For more than 130 years Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs) have practiced a vegetarian dietary lifestyle because of their belief in the holistic nature of humankind. Whatever is done in eating or drinking should honor and glorify God and preserve the health of the body, mind and spirit." (See more at the SDA website.) Ironically, the food at this boarding school was complete and utter crap. Sure, it was the early to mid-90s, but I think I ate more potato products and things cooked in Jell-O molds in each 2 week period that I was there than I have in all of my life since then. The second or third year that we were there, they turned off the soda machines, since they had been plugged in every meal, and kids were going sugar crazy. They definitely served fake meat, and I remember it being the early kind of fake meat (probably made of potatoes)- white strips of fatty looking stuff with pink stripes was bacon. Vegetarian does not have to equal healthy. The point is, after the year that I was 12, I came home from camp stopped eating red meat. A couple years later, I'm not exactly sure why, I stopped eating chicken, turkey, etc- "white meat." I was down to only eating fish/seafood, and not very often. When I went to college at 18, I quit all fish, altogether, though for the first year or two I would eat sushi when I came home on vacation- sushi has been my favorite food since I was about 2 years old, and that was hard to kick. After the first couple years, I eliminated all meat.

Long story short, I eliminated meat from my diet because I thought of myself as an environmentalist. I obviously wasn't influenced by the SDA's, though looking at that position statement and their nutritional recommendations, they're clearly onto something. About a year ago, I wrote about how I'm just not as passionate as I used to be. I also don't feel like I know as much about as many things as I used to. When I was in little-kid-school, I feel like I knew a lot about a lot of things. I especially knew about the environment, and cared a lot. Remember how the "rainforest" was a hip "cause?" I cared, a lot. Cows were a big deal to me- I knew exactly how many gallons of water it took to grow a pound of beef, and how many acres of rainforest were decimated each minute to grow a cow. This really bugged me. I also knew the numbers about chickens and antibiotics- I could spout this at you and would say "I want to have antibiotics work when I need this." I still believe all of this, but I don't know the statistics off the top of my head to back it up. And I'm not going to look for them. The point is, I didn't stop eating meat because the animals were suffering. I believed they were suffering, but that wasn't The Point. I stopped eating meat because I believed my individual choices mattered in a big picture way, for the Earth. It wasn't about the pain. Which is weird, considering what I do for a living.

On the other hand, it's not weird at all. I was recently described by a good friend as having a heart of steel (more on the context a different day). I flinched at this- I'm not heartless, or cold-hearted, or even steel-hearted. We amended the definition- I have a cage with barbed wire around my (very large) heart. I don't do my job solely because of the pain the animals I deal with suffer. This sounds terrible, like I'm one of the "bad" animal control officers out there (and yes, there are officers out there that just don't care. I'm not going to stand up for them). I do care. I'm not going to defend the fact that I don't cry at every animal with a broken limb, or that is hit by car. And I'm not going to defend that I don't eat meat solely because the animals suffer. If I didn't have my cage, I wouldn't be good at my job. I would cry all the time, and basically lose my ability to do it.

Safran Foer took the cage down, though, when it comes to eating Animals. Again, not meat, Animals. I didn't talk about this at all in my previous post, which is why I am back for part two. This isn't really what I want to be writing about on my vacation- vacation posts are pictures of Mac at the beach, discussions of car shows, of the Phillies back in first place. But eating Animals is more than just the human factor, it's the Animal Factor. Safran Foer tells a story of his first "aha" moment when he was 7: he had a vegetarian babysitter who was watching them eating chicken. Her answer to not eating with them was that she didn't want to hurt anything. Safran Foer writes
What our babysitter said made sense to me, not only because it seemed true, but because it was the extension to food of everything my parents had taught me. We don't hurt family members. We don't hurt friends or strangers. We don't even hurt upholstered furniture. My not having thought to include animals in that list didn't make them the exceptions to it. It just made me a child, ignorant of the world's workings. Until I wasn't. At which point I had to change my life.
So most of us, especially the people I chose to surround myself with, and I like to include myself in this, don't like to hurt anything. Eating Animals involves hurting things. Sin of omission or comission? Does it matter? Does it matter once you Know Better? Reading this book means you know better.

Safran Foer describes some of the sadism that people who work in the factory farms engage in. I'm going to continue to be the eternal rose-colored-glasses and tell myself that the shitty conditions of The System make them do it. I'm not going to repeat the pain that these things cause. Some of the things that stuck with me are again, with the pigs and the fish. Fish first this time. Aquaculture is not the answer, even if it somehow seems better than wild fishing, based on the grossness of line fishing described by Safran Foer. In salmon farm, there's so many "sea lice" in the dirty water that the fish have open wounds on their faces. Sometimes the lice eat through the fish's faces, all the way down to the bones. In order to lower the bodily waste prior to transport to slaughter, the fish are starved for seven to ten days before transport. Starved, for over a week.

Pigs live in crates, for all of their lives. They're bred with all kinds of deformities in order to achieve "more tasty meat," which causes them to suffer without even really doing anything. Pigs are outdoor animals- they nest, the burrow around, they shit and live in separate areas. But in their factory farms, they never even see outside. Female pigs, sows, have about 9 piglets at a time, and is pregnant for as much of her life as possible, because we need more pork. Her "gestation crate" is not even as large as animal welfare people recommend for a dog who is going to be "crated": she can't stand up, lie down, and turn around. She can't turn around.
Her bone density will decrease because of the lack of movement. She will be given no bedding and often will develop quarter-sized, blackened, pus-filled sores from chafing in the crate... More serious and pervasive is the suffering caused by boredom and isolation and the thwarting of the sow's powerful urge to prepare for her coming piglets...To avoid excessive weight gain and to further reduce feed costs, the crated sow will be feed restricted and often hungry... The system makes good welfare practices more difficult because lame and diseased animals are almost impossible to identify when no animals are allowed to move.
The pigs are treated like brood bitches at a puppy mill. Only worse, I imagine. And then we eat them.

The meta question is "What does it mean to be human?" I can think of all kinds of excuses we can make. The weakest one is "it tastes good." There are lots of things that taste good. They don't have to involve cruelty. Other weak ones include "it's cultural." Well, no. Until the last 50-60 years, factory farms didn't exist. Safran Foer documents the woman who "invented" (I guess developed?) the first chickens who would become the chickens who can exist in the factory farm situation. Eating this kind of heavily doctored (literally- genetically and once alive) animal is not a cultural thing. It's a recent, economic development. Another argument is economics: "only rich people can eat ethically raised animals." Well, yes, maybe, right now. But it's perfectly possible to eat as a vegetarian- people do it all over the world. It's also perfectly possible to eat a hell of a lot less meat than most Americans do now, and at least wean ourselves off some of our dependence on factory farmed animals. Another economic argument that doesn't hold water: "But it's the jobs! What about the jobs!" The amount of jobs in factory farms and slaughterhouses are very small compared to what agriculture used to be for the US (of course I can't find this in Safran Foer's book right now). The jobs are shitty, have extremely high turnover (I think it was over 150% a year, if I remember the number right from the book), and are dangerous. Few people will work them. Read Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" for more statistics and information about this human toll. The industry is not "for the people."

"But I like it." Well, so do I. What a first world problem. I eat eggs, and dairy, in the form of cheese, and pizza, and quesadillas, and ice cream and lots of other delicious foods that right now, I can't see giving up. And I don't eat consciously at every meal. And I still consider myself human, and a pretty decent one. I'm just no longer able to pat myself on the back quite as easily as I was last week. It kind of sucks. Also, a first world problem. I certainly don't have any answers, as self-righteous as I sound. I hate sounding self-righteous. Part of me regrets reading this book. Ignorance can be bliss. But that's not how themacinator rolls.