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.

1 comment:

  1. Really well written post, I thoroughly enjoyed it (and agree).

    Thanks :-)