Many people are very picky about whom they eat. Various reasons and excuses are offered for their meal plans. This essay first appeared in The Atlantic (reprinted with permission) and follows up on a number of essays I've publshed here (see also). Many of the comments also are worth reflecting on. A recent interview about the fascinating cognitive abilities of wild turkeys also is relevant to add. It concludes: [Interviewer asks] "So turkeys are not as stupid as their reputation suggests?" [Answer]: "No. But I think the first thing we do when we domesticate an animal is breed the fine evolutionary edge out of them. They lose that well-honed razor's edge of survival that causes them to be clever, independent and a survivor. In some sense we breed the brains out of them." (my emphasis)
"Eating Animals," by Nicolette Hahn Niman, a livestock rancher, with help from deer hunter Tovar Cerulli and butcher Joshua Applestone, caught my eye because, at first, I thought this essay was authored by Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote a best-selling book with the same title. While Niman and her friends do rightly argue against consuming factory-farmed animals -- who live utterly horrible lives from the time that they're born to the time that they're transported to slaughterhouses and barbarically killed -- these three born-again carnivores, all former vegetarians or vegans, now proudly eat animals and think that it's just fine to do so. They gloss over the fact that even if the animals they eat are "humanely" raised and slaughtered, an arguable claim, they're still taking a life. These animals are merely a means to an end: a tasty meal.
The defensive and apologetic tone of this essay also caught my eye, as did the conveniently utilitarian framework of the argument. The animals they eat were raised simply to become meals because Niman and others choose to eat meat. I like to say that whom we choose to eat is a moral question, and just because these three now choose to eat animals doesn't mean that other people should make the same choice. Note that I wrote "whom" we eat, not "what." Cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals raised for food are sentient beings who have rich emotional lives. They can feel everything from sheer joy to deep grief. They can also suffer enduring pain and misery, and they don't deserve to have the good and happy lives provided by Niman and others ended early just so that their flesh can wind up on what really is a platter of death.
Cows, for example, are very intelligent. They worry over what they don't understand and have been shown to experience "eureka" moments when they solve a puzzle, such as when they figure out how to open a particularly difficult gate. Cows communicate by staring, and it's likely that we don't fully understand their very subtle forms of communication. They also form close and enduring relationships with family members and friends and don't like to have their families and social networks disrupted. Chickens are also emotional beings, and detailed scientific research has shown that they empathize with the pain of other chickens.
Raising happy animals just so that they can be killed is really an egregious double cross. The "raise them, love them, and then kill them" line of reasoning doesn't have a meaningful ring of compassion. And this isn't mercy killing (euthanasia) performed because these animals need to be put out of their pain. No, these healthy and happy animals are slaughtered, and if you dare to look into their eyes, you know that they're suffering. If you wouldn't treat a dog like this, then you shouldn't treat a cow, a pig, or any other animal in this way.
As a field biologist who studies animal behavior, I feel that the authors' appeal to what happens in the natural world -- "life feeds on life" -- is an illogical justification for their food choices. I've seen thousands of predatory encounters. I cringe when I see them, but I would never interfere. Wild predators, unlike us, have no choice about whom or what they eat. They couldn't survive if they didn't eat other animals. And indeed, many animals are vegetarians, including non-human primates, who eat other animals only on very rare occasions.
Jessica Pierce and I wrote about how appeals to nature are misleading and illogical in our book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. We argued that wolves, lions, and cougars, for example, are not moral agents and can't be held accountable for their actions. They don't know right from wrong. On the other hand, most humans do know what they're doing and are responsible for their choices. When it comes down to whose flesh winds up in our mouths, we can make choices, and in my view, eating animals is wrong and unnecessary, even when they are "humanely" raised and slaughtered. Let me add a caveat here because, as a world traveler, I do know that many people do not have the luxury of making a choice about their meals and must eat whatever is available to them. However, those who do have that luxury can easily eat an animal-free diet. And we can work to show others that a vegetarian or vegan diet can be very economical and healthy.
Niman and her friends also note that vegetarian and vegan diets have "never really taken hold." So what? This hardly means that we shouldn't try to do the right thing. They write, "The vast majority of Americans who do try vegetarianism or veganism -- about three-quarters of them -- return to eating meat. Rather than urging people to consume only plants, doesn't it make more sense to encourage them to eat an omnivorous diet that is healthy, ethical, and ecologically sound?" No, it doesn't. What it means is that these people should try harder and not give up just because it might seem difficult to change their meal plans. Perhaps they just need more time and encouragement from other vegetarians who can show them how easy it is to stop eating animals.
It's easy to add more compassion to the world and to expand our compassion footprint. Excuses such as "Oh, I know they suffer, but don't tell me because I love my burger" add cruelty to the world, even if the animals people are eating weren't raised on factory farms and killed in slaughterhouses. You're eating a dead animal who really did care about what happened to him or her. When I ask people how they can dismiss the fact that an animal was killed for their pleasure, they usually fumble here and there and offer no meaningful answer. When I ask them if they'd eat a dog, they look at me with incredulity and emphatically say, "No!" When I ask them why they wouldn't eat a dog, they can't really tell me, offering statements laden with dismissive phrases, such as "Oh, you know...." Because I often travel to China to help in the rehabilitation of Asiatic moon bears who have been rescued from the bear-bile industry, people sometimes ask me, "How can you go there? Isn't that where they eat dogs and cats?" I simply say, "Yes, it is, and I'm from America, where they eat cows and pigs, who are no less sentient and emotional beings." Animals really are very much like us.
No matter how humanely raised they are, the lives of animals raised for food can be cashed out simply as "dead cow/pig/chicken walking." Whom we choose to eat is a matter of life and death. I think of the animals' manifesto as "Leave us alone. Don't bring us into the world if you're just going to kill us to satisfy your tastes."