A Digest of The Omnivore’s Dilemma Part 5: Eating Animals
“Should People Eat Tasty Animals?”
“Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanging animal.” -Ortega y Gasset
For his book’s journey Pollan ate (and explored) a McD’s meal, a supermarket “organic” meal, and then a local, organic, sustainably farmed meal. His final meal requires two hunts: One hunt for fungi, and another hunt for pig. I learned a whole lot about fungi, but what I mostly want to talk about is the hunting of animals.
I’ve never killed a mammal for food. I’ve know many who have, and have tasted of what they killed. I even once ate a deer hit by a truck (thanks to my friend T-Dogg). When I was little my dad took me hunting but I didn’t have the patience for it. The same went for fishing, although I remember chopping the heads off a couple fish before my dad cleaned them. I’ve always wanted to go through the experience of hunting just once. It fascinates me now. In one way because of the art and poetry of going off into the woods and hunting for food, being alone, accomplishing the hunt, performing an activity older than buying cooking. Another way it fascinates me is the almost sadistic attitude some hunters have, and how some people hypocritically look down on hunting yet eat meat that is killed in less authentic ways than hunting.
Pollan chooses this as his last meal because it’s one step beyond sustainably farmed livestock. This is the most ancient and eco-friendly way to eat meat, and yet the one way that reaches into our hearts and asks us the most fundamental question about eating meat: Should we?
And I’ve decided to take this discussion seriously. I want to actually hear what vegetarians and animal rights activists have to say and take it into consideration. It gets old, hearing people say things like “PETA stands for People Eat Tasty Animals”. It does no good in the conversation and it prevents us from asking any questions about our eating habits. I know PETA is a freaking weird organization that wastes their time and resources on some profoundly stupid causes and demonstrations, but at the core is a very important value: treating animals well. PETA may whine when someone swats a fly, but they also stand beside you against dog fighting.
So Pollan decided to “take some more direct, conscious responsibility for the killing of the animals [he eats].” To hunt one’s own food completely. And this is what crowns his four-meal adventure, the taking of a meal only from the wild and uncultivated, where nature has truly done all the work, leaving you to only snatch and prepare. Thoreau said that we must pity the boy who has never fired a gun to kill an animal, because he is uneducated. You could say this clashes with a modern view of education, one that sometimes portrays hunters as less educated, even less enlightened. Elmer Fudd is cast against the carrot-eating rabbit.
To Eat or Not To Eat—the trail of arguments
I’ll loosely follow Pollan’s line of cross-debating the issue. Firstly, if it’s wrong to eat animals, why is it not wrong for them to eat one another?
Well, because they don’t know any better, but we can choose to, and if it’s the natural order for them to eat one another, do we want to base our morality on the natural order? Would not a naturalist do that? So, we are enlightened as a species above animals because we have a conscience about eating other creatures. That then places us above them as a species, allowing us to kill and consume them. After all, if we can come up with moral reasons for not eating meat, we are not of the same flesh as they are, and so we have license to eat meat because we have a choice to, choice being what conscience is about. If it is wrong to eat them, we must defend a reason why other than the fact that we merely have a conscience. The moral burden lies on the one arguing that we must not.
Because we are gifted with conscience, we are capable of studying habitats of other creatures and course-correcting them. We can introduce a new species to cultivate or destroy a habitat. And although we can destructively kill off a species, we have and must do animals in order to ensure their own or another species’ survival, thus balancing the ecosystem. Our obsession with individual rights applied to animals just doesn’t work, because it doesn’t take into account a species. There have been cases when killing small numbers of an animal actually helps save the whole species. Because animals are not gifted with the cognitive skills we have, we are entrusted to ensure the survival of a species if we feel we can and must do so, and sometimes this calls for killing animals, sometimes in fairly large numbers.
Pollan brings up the clash of values that would occur if, say, everyone were to become exclusively vegetarian. This would mean killing animals that graze and destroying their pastures in order to make more room for planting vegetables, as well as instantly altering the landscape of animals populations and creating possible cataclysms in some ecosystems. So for those who believe that nobody should eat animals, such an idea is beyond utopian. And since you couldn’t get people to that on a large scale anyway, it wouldn’t be worth thinking of for those who want it.
Ok, so I can kill them. But what about the way they are killed? And raised before being killed?
Pollan makes the claim that “in our factory farms we’re inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time in history.” We are very confused about our relationship to animals. On the one hand, we no longer contact them as much, with the exception of domesticated pets and anthropomorphized cartoon animals. We are dog owners who watch Disney talking squirrels. And on the other hand, beyond our sight, countless animals are factory raised and slaughtered in disgusting, inhumane ways on a daily basis, and eventually we devour them hardly conscious that, yes, it was an animal I just ate. So what we have is a high number of animal welfare advocates who go vegan residing with a high number of people who eat too much meat and litter like crazy. I think about how to reconcile these two impulses, to care for and kill an animal. Can we honor them and eat them? Or are we only supposed to do one? In America, there are about 10 million vegetarians, while 9 billion animals are slaughtered annually.
Quite a split personality. We are not a nation of hunters (less than 10% of us hunt), but a nation of people who never see, but continually eat, factory raised meat. Sure, hunting kills aren’t always quick, but forest animals live a natural life in the open before we kill them, whereas factory farmed animals live a dreadful existence of obesity, sickness, and crammed spaces before slaughter. 90% of us never have to think about what the process of killing an animal for food is like. Those who choose to hunt confront it every time. Ask any hunter in his right mind, and he’ll tell you the goal involves an immediate or quick kill. Ask any factory farmer, and he’ll tell you how much “product” he plans to ship. In terms of suffering, hunting is more humane than factory farming.
And then there is the difference between pain and suffering. It’s been scientifically disproven that animals feel no pain. However, though they feel pain, it ban be argued that our concept of suffering is different from an animal’s. We have no way of proving that animals share the same psychological additions to physical pain that we do, though some (dogs, dolphins, elephants, animals that most of us don’t eat) seem to be close. Pollan makes the point that the rhesus monkey will mate right after being castrated, but makes the counterpoint about language, that a rhesus monkey would find a dentist less bearable because he wouldn’t know why his tooth is being drilled. No matter where you sit in the debate, animals can’t speak for you with human language.
To Eat Honorably
Assuming you agree that I have justified eating animals on the basis of being a special species above them in form and essence (not only naturally but also spiritually, as I believe we are the only creatures breathed with the breath of God), then the privilege of being a species of conscience comes with the responsibly ruling over this creation. Fundamentally, I believe this is possible, because if the relationship exists, it need not be savage any more than we would call it savage in nature. Although it can be done savagely, and I believe it is done savagely in slaughterhouses, it can be done with a dignity and respect for the creature and the eater. Nature is not savage, because nature is not brutal. We impose our concept of brutality on her and are brutal to her, but she does what she is made to do. Dog fighting is savage; euthanizing a rabid dog is not. In both cases, we are in charge.
Pollan describes this honorable eating as “sublimating” the eater-eaten relationship. I’ll always remember this transcendent moment from Cold Mountain when Inman, the main character on his way to his love after deserting from an ungodly war, stumbles upon an old woman living on the land:
“A little spotted brown-and-white goat came to her and she stroked it and scratched below its neck until it folded its legs and lay down. The animal’s long neck was stretched forward. The old woman scratched it close under its jaw and stroked its ears. Inman thought it a peaceful scene. He watched as she continued to scratch with her left hand and reach with her right into an apron pocket. With one motion she pulled out a short-bladed knife and cut deep into the artery below the jawline and shoved the white basin underneath to catch the leap of bright blood. The animal jerked once, then lay trembling as she continued to scratch the fur and fondle the ears. The basin filled slowly. The goat and the woman stared intently off toward the distance as if waiting for a signal.”
This scene is also in the film, and it also makes you jump. Our American minds can’t comprehend stroking an animal’s ears and then slitting it’s throat. But who are we to say this isn’t supposed to be the relationship to animals we have, that one way of showing how beloved creation is would be to use it to sustain you?
“See, I think there is a plan,” says the goat lady. “There is a design for each and every one of us. You look at nature. Bird flies somewhere, picks up a seed, [poops] the seed out, plant grows. Bird’s got a job, [poop]’s got a job, seed’s got a job. And you’ve got a job.”
The preservation of whole ecosystems, including ours, requires the killing of individual animals. And if we kill them, we honor them by not only eating them, but by using them for clothing and such. But to do so honorably we must consider raising them in a way that reflects the beauty of creation. Our morality is ours alone, and so in order to raise animals honorably for any purpose, we should do so in a way that meets their biological needs as well as ours, not one that only meets our want of convenience and more money.
Pollan reminds us also that “what’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle.” It’s not the act in itself, but when we do not give the animals a “happy life and merciful death“. When you kill 400 cows an hour, you tend to get sloppy and each each kill slips from your mind and travels to your subconscious. The rest of us forget that because we either see it at the grocery store after it’s shipped from who-knows-where, or in a burger made from who-knows-how-many-cows.
American Indians gave thanks directly to the animal as they killed it. Levitical priests under the Law of Moses cast lots for ritual slaughter, so that the “gravity of the act”, as Pollan puts it, would not dull their conscience.
“Did the chicken have a good life?”
Of course it sounds like an episode of Portlandia for us to sit in a restaurant and ask such a question. But that’s because by the time you sit down to eat, if the restaurant hasn’t made it clear, you can assume they use factory farmed chicken. And the “good life” question supposes an absurd, Disney movie farm, anthropomorphized “good life” similar to that of humans. All that is necessary is room to range, non-GMO corn, no steroids, and a quick, painless death. Countless cultures have done that for thousands of years. This couple that asks a zillion questions about a chicken may be a satire, but only because it exaggerates when this consciousness about eating meat goes to an extreme.
I am convinced the explanation for this coincidence of vegetarianism and factory farming is the reactionary nature of our response to what we’ve become. There are so many more vegetarians in America today not because of an explosion of weird liberalism in a vacuum of the 60s, but because of a revulsion to the factory farming industry that has grown over the past hundred years.
And this is the reason I don’t look down on vegetarians, why I completely understand them. The ones who think it’s wrong to eat meat in principle I think are naive and utopian, but I respect them. But many people are just going vegetarian not because they believe eating meat is wrong, but because they can no longer eat meat in a culture that has poisoned the dignity of eating meat. Many people go vegetarian for a period of time off and on, too. It’s a more complex craft than merely saying “meat or no meat”, and you should learn about it before mocking people who do it. It may carry some poetic irony for me to say this, but if you’re tired of seeing vegetarians, the best way to “get rid” of them is to get rid of factory farming. A lot more people would eat meat if they believed the chicken lived the life of a chicken, and not the life of an assembly line product.
On the hunt
Pollan concludes his journey with a meal from a hunted pig because of the argument that the greatest honor we can bestow an animal is to hunt them. We’ve let them live their life according to the natural order, and we kill them as a predator in the natural order. And especially if we use everything, we maximize their death’s usefulness. Is this idea absurdly romanticized, thanks to Hemingway and McCarthy? Or are these guys realists who sublimate an act that naturally strikes our conscious? I lean toward the latter.
I believe that an authentic hunter is a remorseful hunter. Not to say that you have to cry when you kill a dear deer, but that there’s a part of you that this always touched emotionally by the dying of the animal by your hand—except if it’s a gnat. It could be as simple as saying “she’s a beauty” when you catch a fish. Sometimes hunters are depicted as being brutal simply because they hunt, laughing maniacally as they shoot animals. There are hunters who have that sadistic attachment, but that’s an unfair characterization. Most hunters, and most of those I’ve known to hunt, are peaceful, meditative, respectful, and in awe of the living creatures they hunt. It is a sublime paradox that has a spiritual element. The “guilt” we feel in killing an animal directly (whether by hunting or slaughtering on a farm) is attached to the awareness that something good was lost, in order for something good to be gained. It reminds us that something was, one might say, sacrificed. This awareness urges us to be thankful, because we feel the gravity of what just occurred. Sacrificing animals, killing them, is integral to most religions. Look especially at Judaism, in which killing of the best animal is performed and the sacrifice is symbolically given to God. The emotional attachment must be there.
This transcendent virtue in hunting is why Pollan singles out hunting as the culminating point of his food journey: “It puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter.” We confront the human-animal relationship directly in nature with an act more primitive and ancient than farming, agriculture, and domestication. A hunter is in a better position than anybody to come to terms with what humans do to animals. Everyone should try to hunt (or fish) in their life, because such an activity puts us in this place where we can’t escape the reality of what must happen for us to eat meat. Says Pollan, “cooking something thoughtfully is a way to celebrate both that species and our relation to it.”
We all need to eat less meat, and eat it more responsibly. That is a restriction that could benefit us all. Those of us who choose not to eat meat, either for a time or permanently, should not be chastised or mocked. A culture that does not know the lost art of fasting has no base for mocking things it does not understand.
The Good Shepherd has a few things to teach us about the care of animals.
Caring for the life of your beast/Priestly slaughter
See here where I discuss these two aspects in “The feedlot, the grocer, and the McD’s”.
The diligence of the hunter
“Whoever is slothful roasts not what he took in hunting,” says the Proverb of Solomon, “but a precious possession is a man of great diligence” (12:27). Proverbs should not all be taken too specifically, as if everyone who has ever eaten something they didn’t catch themselves is a sloth. But taken as a broad statement, slothfulness defines a people who want always to have the food brought before them without care. The diligent man must be the opposite, one who works for his food, not just by working to pay for food, but by working to get good food, to go to personal lengths to prepare his own food. By this proverb, the character of America is one of great slothfulness.
What further dilemmas involving the killing of animals for food come to mind? How seriously do you treat them and why?
Hunters, I would especially like to hear from you regarding this journey.
Vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians and other meat-restriction-dieters, I would especially like to hear from you regarding this journey.
Continue to part 6, the conclusion.