Sunday, May 23, 2010

Redefining cruelty

For more than 50 years, the Heifer Project has worked to feed humans by distributing animals—-chickens, rabbits, cows, guinea pigs, sheep, and other creatures—-to needy individuals and families. In terms of spreading the misery of animal agriculture around the world, the Heifer Project is a champion. ...

First, as with all animal agriculture, the process of creating a pound of edible flesh involves feeding many more pounds of plant food and grain to the animal before he or she is slaughtered. It’s hardly an efficient method of producing food.

Second, the animals are not raised on factory farms, so they often graze in the neighboring area, which results in the loss of habitat for nondomesticated animals and furthers the extinction of other animal species.


Well whaddaya know.

Is it categorically bad for humans to eat meat? In some ways, this is a little bit little bit like wondering whether it's bad to have an abortion, and whether one life should be treasured above another. But the similarity is actually superficial--relations among members of the same species is very different from relations among different ones.

A lot of ink, both real and virtual, has been spilled around this and a few adjacent questions, and often the vegetarian argument hinges on the conditions found on farms. People--invariably people who have not spent much time on commercial farms--announce that these conditions are bad: They fret over mud or crowding or cage construction, and because I work in an agency that serves the farm community, I know some of those concerns are not just legitimate but urgent. Self-interest alone should galvanize us to focus on animal health--when we don't, we risk salmonella, e.coli, giardia, and mad cow disease.

But a lot of these concerns are sentimental and projective. Cattle, for example, are herd and prey animals, and if you watch them carefully you see that they don't react badly when they get squished together, especially when they're uneasy--the lion is less likely to eat a given individual when there's a large and potentially dangerous group as opposed to a vulnerable individual. This reaction probably has adaptive elements in common with schooling behavior in fish.

But because humans don't like being squished, most humans assume that squishing is unpleasant--the underlying assertion is that all creatures have the same standards of comfort and discomfort that we do. (I can't resist adding that one common result of raising "cage free" eggs is that removing the cages makes room for more chickens per square inch. Since I don't know a whole lot about chickens, it's hard to be confident about the chickens' position on this purported improvement in their living conditions.)

We make the same category error when managing non-farm animals, sometimes with very bad results. Is it cruelty to feed a dog human food? Since dogs have digestive systems very different from ours, I think it is--some dog owners poison their much-loved companion animals because they think chocolate is a key food group and the dog is missing out if it's not on the menu. And to make matters worse, most dogs like sweets for the same reasons we do--they offer access to compressed calories.

But choloate also contains theobromine, which is a neurotoxin in canines, and even a small amount can trigger heart arrhythmia and seizures. The even wider human habit of feeding table scraps to dogs not only encourages begging, but inserts in the dog the processed, sweet, salty, and nutritionally ambiguous foods we humans often eat. Yet this is never labeled for what it is--animal cruelty.

The Heifer Project is one of my favorite charities--it opens doors of self-sufficiency and boosts the human enterprise by giving third-world farmers access to improved strains of domestic livestock, selectively bred--in humans we call this eugenics--to produce a more edible product and more technophilic offspring. And is that cruelty? No, it's not.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

PETA piper

Here's a picture of PETA people outside the Westminster Dog Show back in February, all dressed up to make a really good impression.

The message, as I half-understand it, is that dogs shows are bad, but the symbolism here seems ambiguous at best. I wasn't there to pick up one of the flyers--I lived in New York long enough to know I won't be going back--so it's not at all clear who the Klan outfit is directed at.

It's apparently not all that clear to PETA, either--according to their own news release, the Halloween outfits are meant to convey the idea that the AKC sounds the "death knell for many beautiful, healthy, and loving dogs whose lives end at animal shelters. Shelters do their best to help the millions of animals dumped on their doorsteps every year, but life in a cage is no life for a dog, and euthanasia becomes a sad necessity."

But wait--if that's their position, doesn't it follow that the white sheet and hood are on the wrong side of the door? Aren't the people on the inside of the building the oppressors, the sworn enemies of shelter dogs everywhere? Something's gone horribly wrong here, unless--let me see--could this actually be about a photo op, and the siren allure of getting above the fold of tomorrow's paper?

Which worked: The story made USA Today, the LA Times, and NBC, to name a few.

But, to be frank, launching ad hominem attacks on the people who are involved with PETA is just too easy--we can chant in unison that Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, is personally responsible for killing 23,000 shelter animals in a single 18-month period, while finding homes for eight.

Or we can point out that PETA has gotten into legal trouble in Virginia for illegally dumping dead shelter animals.

Or we can laugh at the PETA initiative to rename fish "sea kittens" on the theory that people won't eat a creature with a cute name.

But if we want intelligence injected into the debate about right relations with other creatures, PETA has not earned a place at the table. And, if my poking around on both sides of the story is accurate, the supposedly more middle-of-the-road Humane Society of the United States hasn't either.

My point here is that throwing stones at tempting targets (this is code for "people I don't agree with"), is pointless--name-calling only freezes people more firmly into their positions, even if they know those positions are illogical and untenable, sea kittens on dry land. I'd much rather focus on the disagreement itself. Like the snappy little dog described in an earlier entry, that is where the rubber meets the road.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

once bitten

Earlier this week I was waiting for something else to happen and watched a woman with a small dog get her wrist bitten. She deserved it--people who get bitten generally do--but what was interesting about the transaction was her complete surprise and her apparent inability to see life from another creature's point of view.

Here's what happened: The setting was an urban (well, sort of urban) campus, and it was a warm day between classes--the sidewalks were very full. Even from about 500 feet away, I could see the little dog was signaling a lot of unambiguous anxiety about the crowding, the feet, the bicycles, and the periodic outbreaks of humans running with Frisbees. Whenever some new alarm was raised, the dog would flatten its ears and half-lower its rump, pulling backward on the leash, and the human on the other end would pull the dog forward. They progressed at a snail's pace down the block, slowed by anxiety on one end of the string, exasperation on the other.

When the pair came to the crosswalk, the woman reached down to pick the dog up and presumably carry it safely across the busy street, and this is when the bite occurred--just as she moved to get one hand under the dog's ribcage while the other hand was flapping around, busy with winding the slack of the leash around her palm. Suddenly a balky, worried little dog became a biting dog, a frantic bundle of defensive rage. The dog latched on to the woman's wrist, just for a second, but with the momentum of sheer panic. I'm sure it hurt, even if the dog was diminutive, and this hurt escalated when the dog got thwacked fairly hard for misbehaving--an event that probably reinforced the original message that humans do unpredictable, hurtful things with their strange appendages.

Why does our species find it so easy to disregard clear signals from other creatures? Episodes like this are a form of cruelty that seem to be off the radar of people active in the animal-rights movement, perhaps because so many people in the movement don't seem to know very much about canine or other species behavior. Yes, PETA, puppy mills are bad, and you can take a picture of how very bad they are, but I argue that this is worse.

If a dog has rights, then one of them is to be understood, especially when the dog is yelling at us, as loud as possible, at the top of a pair of tiny lungs.