A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”    — Ingrid Newkirk, President, PETA

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with meat.

Where I’m at now is a belief that if one is not a vegan, one can at least be conscious of what meat is, not celebrate it, and try to limit the damage by both cutting down on consumption and seeking less cruel options when possible.

Back in ancient times before I’d graduated high school, I considered being a vegetarian.  I graduated early, mid-year and needed to do something before college and so I volunteered on a kibbutz, because I was sixteen and a half and it was the only way I could figure out to leave home and go really far away without my parents reporting me as a runaway.

The volunteers were assigned different duties.  There was stacking the dishes as they came off the dishwasher.  I still remember the large cockroaches that sometimes came off with them.  There was spritzing the orange trees with insecticide.  I don’t think they could get the “migrant” workers from Gaza to do it, so they used us.

And there was of course gathering the chickens.  They’d get a shipment of newly hatched chicks, raise them in a giant coup which was of course spacious when the chicks first arrived and then increasingly crowded as they grew.  After a relatively short time, I think about eight weeks, the chickens would be ready to go to market, gathered and stuffed into a truck.  Grabbing them required boots and thick gloves.  There were certain instructions since an injured chicken would not be considered kosher.

At five a.m, a few of us would wade into the packed coup and scoop up chickens by their necks.  They’d squawk and peck, doing their best to defend themselves.  As I made my way through scooping up one or two at a time as others pecked at my boots amid the noise and the shit smell, I mentally referenced IB Singer’s famous line, “In their behavior toward creatures, all men are Nazis.”

I stopped eating meat after that for several years, though I really wasn’t a vegetarian.  I never quit fish.   I’d been fishing a couple of times.  Somehow even seeing fish squirm when taken out of the water, I didn’t feel the consciousness was the same.  A fish was not a dog to me or even a chicken.

In the years that followed there were different meat/non-meat variations. I briefly tried to be an honest vegetarian and give up fish.  I dated meat-eaters and went along for the ride.  At one point, after not having eaten chicken in years, I was staying in a Mexican beach town.  There were a lot of chickens running around.  Often these local birds would wind up being served at the restaurants that lined the beach. It didn’t seem like a terrible life for those chickens — they went around minding their own business, living their lives and every so often one or two of their number would get snatched up and ….  Not much difference than for any of us, and the meat tasted damn fine.

At some point I wound up where I am now:  I eat poultry on occasion, generally if there aren’t many alternatives though possibly at a restaurant if there’s some “free-range” available. Except for duckie.  How I can watch the ducks in a pond and find their antics immensely soothing and then eat these birds as though they were a vegetable is beyond me.  But there you go.  Probably if I knew anything about life on the duck farm, I wouldn’t do it.  But I remain woefully and willfully ignorant on that score.

I don’t as a rule eat mammals, which is not to say that I don’t ever eat them but we’re probably talking about under 5 times in ten or more years.  I won’t eat pig though.  Nothing to do with any religious inclinations or even the taste.   To me a pig is a dog is a boy.  The way they are farmed is extremely cruel and there is good evidence that they are as smart, if not smarter than dogs.  Pigs in some fundamental way seem more like us than any non-primates.  They are almost hairless, social, love to wallow in dirt, will eat anything, defend their young, and aren’t always that great about personal hygiene.  Really, if you’re going to eat a pig where do you stop?  Long pig was the Maori term for human meat, and even if you weren’t planning to go that far, explain to me exactly the difference between a pig and a dog?

But that’s the dilemma isn’t it?  A vegan would argue that we all feel pain, and people love their pets even rabbits and yes, even chickens and ducks.  The emotions we attribute to certain species and not others is not rational or even universal.

Which of course brings me to my menagerie — which I’m not planning to eat, ever, but do have to feed daily.  I’ve got a dog and two cats.   PETA offers information on going veg for your “animal companions.”  While my dog could conceivable live on veggie diet, I can’t imagine she’d like it much, and as for the cats — clearly these little vermin catchers (or would be vermin catchers as they are stuck in a vermin free apartment) were not meant to be vegetarians.  The big guy, a very vocal, Russian Blue, would probably make my life a living hell if I even tried.

Lately, because of several factors including the expense, ecological waste of cans and concerns about quality — I have started to cook meet for my animal companions. Specifically, boiled chicken, maybe with some beef liver or other cheap cut.  The thing about it is, this puts me in touch with meat.  Literally and viscerally.

There’s just no way I can look at a whole, headless chicken and NOT think of it as a dead body.  As for the cow’s liver — you could replace it with a human one and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  Cooking meat, the smell of it in my home, picking the meat off the bones, the awareness of it’s constant decay, the need for care and cleanliness lest I containment my entire kitchen, the bloodiness of it, well kind of makes me think.   I understand how and why we (humans) eat meat; I don’t quite get how we continue to be so blind to what it is.  You don’t have to kill it to realize what it is, you just have to touch it, smell it, and see it.

So of course this has made me think more of the ethical compromises we all make.  I wonder how pure even the vegans are.  How many of them insist on going veg with their dogs and cats?  But how can they justify not doing so, and choosing one species above others?  And what about the bees?  Vegans don’t eat honey, but how do they feel about the subjugation of bees used to pollinate crops?  How many insist on not eating fruit or vegetables cultivated with the labor of captive hives?  Why is it okay to have animal companions like dogs and cats but not egg-laying hens?  Chickens developed as domestic animals and they lay eggs, so why is it not okay to “exploit” that if the chickens also get something (a nice roof over their heads) for their trouble?  I do understand objections to milk and cheese.  Good milkers need to give birth to calves, and all those excess calves especially the boy ones aren’t needed.  Plus once a cow reaches a certain age, she’s no good as a milker anymore and retiring her to pasture is an expensive option.

Some might call me a hypocrite because of my half-assed stand on these issues and loads of inconsistencies.   I’m waiting for when biotechnology can bring us real “cruelty free” meat.  I imagine future meat farms that will be vast labs in which meat will be grown organ by organ, and its cultivation involve no pain to anyone.  But that brave new world will no doubt face its own moral issues and questions.  Meantime, I’ll continue to aim for simply paying attention and trying to do less harm.

7 thoughts on “Meat

  1. Who am I to judge? I don’t know if you have pets. If you do, how would you feel about someone’s treating them the way a veal calf gets treated?

  2. I’ve always been a hypocrite where meat is concerned. I absolutely will not kill an animal, but I’ll eat anything if it’s already dead -though I avoid buying anything I know has been inhumanely treated, like battery chickens. For a couple of years I was vegetarian, when we lived at a Tibetan centre. I kept the cows there, so I knew they were well treated. We kept all the heifers, and only sold bull calves to local farmers who treated them humanely. Older cows were pensioned off when they couldn’t conceive, but most went on milking until they were about 16-17 years old, and then lived a further 2 years or so – about 3 times the life expectancy of a cow in a Scottish dairy herd. People laughed at my sentimentality, and I certainly wasn’t trying to maximise profit, but I suspect that the economics weren’t so crazy. When you’re getting 5 gallons a day from a cow who’s over 10 years old, she’s paid for herself several times over. So it’s certainly possible to manage dairy and egg production on a harm minimisation basis – and that is all you can aim at, as you suggest.

    1. Hmmm. Larry, you’ve given me a thought. “Harm reduction” it’s not just for addicts, but a philosophy to save the planet — could be applied to how we eat, use fossil fuels, and generally take care of the earth.

      1. I hadn’t thought about the application to green politics before …

        People always hit you with this ‘hypocrisy’ tag when you are trying to do something that goes against our cultural norms. You are inconsistent and therefore wrong. They are morally superior because they don’t just eat meat, they bring their children up to slaughter their pet rabbits etc. (“Come along – wring its neck like Daddy showed you.”) The same people accuse you of being “pro-drugs” if you provide ‘shooting galleries’ with needle exchange, free condoms and resuscitation equipment on hand – as they do in Frankfurt. It’s a very Christian line of argument somehow. Buddhists don’t have any problem adopting harm reduction. So you can’t avoid swallowing micro-organisms every time you drink a glass of water? Doesn’t mean you have to embrace cruelty.

  3. full disclosure, Marion is my better half.

    I like the proposition of “harm reduction.” Mostly because being a vegetarian/vegan is not natural for human beings. We are the rats of the ape world. We are not true carnivores – neither are we vegetarians. So we must kill to eat. Or we must “outsource” the killing to eat.

    We can, however, use the principle of “harm reduction” such that when we kill, we do least harm. We can kill only free range animals. We can abstain from veal. We can look into the practices of our hired animal killers. We can reduce meat to a level akin to what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would likely have eaten.

    Those in the US of a certain age will remember the Star-Kist Tuna commercials. A cartoon tuna, Charlie (voiced with a Noo Yawk accent by Herschel Bernardi) spent his days trying to get caught to be a Star-Kist tuna. Even at the tender age of 8, I was profoundly disturbed by this. “Why did Charley want to kill himself?”

    Pondering to this day the concept of a suicidal tuna has made me realize that actions have consequences, and my actions of killing other souls, even by extension, has consequences. Since I believe that we must eat meat as we are *obligate* carnivores, we must at least remove from our consciousness the idea of “Carlie the Tunas” who just want to off themselves for our plates. Ergo eating meat is a symbolic act of the flux of life death and creating and destroying. Almost sacred. Kind of gustatory Kali.

    1. But doesn’t that bring us back to the beginning of human culture when the hunt was a ritual with many rules as was the preparation and the feast? Now, meat is simply what’s for dinner with as little thought as possible about where it came from and how it arrived.

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