After a recent talk I gave in San Francisco, a man raised his hand and asked me how I could distinguish between “human slavery and animal slavery.”
Now there’s a provocative question.
I think we’re as humane as any livestock farmer can be. Our animals live natural lives in a clean place. They are well fed. We handle them as gently as possible, and as seldom as possible. We allow all our calves to stay with their mothers until they wean naturally, rather than separating them young so the cows will breed again sooner. We keep a bull so our animals don’t need to be trucked around or confined in a squeeze chute to be artificially inseminated. In fact, our cattle go their whole lives without being roped, run through a squeeze chute or hauled, at least until they are sold or slaughtered. We choose our slaughterhouses in part based on their humane treatment of the animals they kill. We look for facilities that handle the animals gently and take care not to traumatize them unnecessarily. There’s a surprisingly wide variety in the habits of people who handle livestock in close quarters all day. Some people are rough with them. Others take a lot of care with the animal’s feelings.
We don’t brand our animals or tag their ears. Because they have ample room, clean water and because we don’t haul in replacement stock very often, we virtually never require a veterinarian, so the animals don’t have to go through the disturbing experience of being confined and handled. Most livestock hates to be confined in small spaces or handled by human beings. I believe a lot of farmers cause problems during their birthing seasons by watching their animals too closely and upsetting the mothers’ sense of security. Imagine a human mother trying to give birth while being monitored, much less handled, by a predatory species.
Most importantly, our animals are never alone. Cattle, sheep, goats, mules, donkeys, chickens, turkeys and dogs are all social creatures that crave, most of all, the companionship of their own kind. In particular, they are happiest in the herd, flock or pack where they live in a stable social order. So we do our best never to keep any of these animals alone.
The cat’s another story, of course. He seems to like his luxurious solitude.
We aim to give our animals natural, healthy lives.
In the end, of course, they are killed for their meat.
Is this fair? That’s a fascinating question. All life ends in death, including yours and mine. Nearly every animal in the natural world – particularly the herbivore – ends its life in the jaws of a predator. In the natural world, they are either taken by a predator early in life before they become strong enough and fast enough to escape, or they are taken when old age begins to slow them down. It is natural, but is it fair?
So far as I can tell, human beings are the only predator that shows any concern for the comfort of its prey. Other predators commonly begin to devour their victims before they are dead. Some swallow their prey alive. In times of plenty it’s not uncommon to see predators toying with prey, seemingly for sport. I’m convinced that the prey’s feelings are not a consideration for most predators.
So in a sense, to be killed by human beings is a lucky break for an herbivore if we achieve our goal of killing them quickly and humanely. Otherwise, they are inevitably dragged down and mauled by something less considerate.
Most of our livestock would not survive long without our care. The sheep and goats depend on the protection of our donkeys and mules, who naturally become members of the flocks and instinctively protect their friends from roving predators. Without that protection, the sheep and goats don’t last long. They are not fast, strong or shrewd enough for the wild.
All the livestock depends on hay in the depths of winter. Even if they could roam freely across the landscape, they are not well equipped to feed on the dormant grass beneath a foot of crusty snow. Survival rates would go way down without the hay we cut, bale, and deliver.
I think our mules and donkeys might do OK without our help. Horses and donkeys thrive in the wild elsewhere. Domesticated sheep, goats and cattle don’t typically survive very long in the wild, though, unless they have their own predator-free island in a warm climate.
Without intentional breeding and human care, the sorts of animals we raise wouldn’t exist. There would be bison here where we live, elk and whitetail deer in place of cattle, sheep and goats. In the absence of human beings, there would be mountain lions, wolves, bears and coyotes to prey on them. If human beings hadn’t come to North America, there might be saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and cave bears, too. Mastodons and camels. Giant porcupines and ground sloths.
But we do live here and I can’t figure out any reason that we have any less right to live here than any other species. I don’t think our existence, in and of itself, can be defined as “unfair.”
Neither could I define it as unfair to eat meat. If it were, then the very existence of predators would be an offense. The whitetail deer is not morally superior to the coyote. Without predators, the ecosystem would be grotesquely overpopulated, a zero-sum environment where every creature was jostling with every other creature for a few plant-based or carrion-based calories. Predators are a necessary and beautiful part of our elegant system. A world without them would not be a less painful, less traumatic place. The pain and trauma of mortality would merely take slightly different shapes. There would be more disease. Death, on the whole, would take longer.
There is, of course, the argument that a vegan diet uses less of the planet’s resources. That’s fundamentally true, and if our goal is to maximize the human population while minimizing our consumption then the vegan discipline certainly makes sense. Eventually, though, human population growth consumes the entire surplus, anyway. All the grasslands and forests get plowed up to grow carrots, corn and soybeans.
And if one accepts the ethic that requires us to consume as little as possible, as individuals, then aren’t we stuck in that tiresome old austerity paradigm? Don’t we all end up in sackcloth eventually?
On the other hand, since human beings can feel empathy for the animals we consume, do we have a moral responsibility not to consume them?
That is, I think the best argument for vegetarianism. Since humans can conceptualize the pain felt by our prey, should we nurture our empathy and refrain from eating meat?
I think about this question a lot. In a few days I’ll load five of my young rams into a trailer and take them to be killed. A few days after that they will be in our freezers. I held them when they were babies. Over the past nine months I’ve watched them grow from two-pound, curly-headed sprites into 80-pound monuments of ovine masculinity, created from grass. They are out there in the snow this morning, sparring and bucking, sharing a big bale of hay.
Each of them has a personality and I care about each of them as individuals. When I take them to be killed, I’ll feel that familiar twinge. It is a specific sort of pain I would not feel if I were a vegan, or if I purchased my meat at the store.
So which is the more genuine demonstration of empathy: To refrain from predation altogether or to consume meat feelingly, with genuine sadness and appreciation for the creatures we consume?
More on this next week.