animal ethics

Two pigs better than none?

I’m seeing Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times opinion piece, Two Pigs discussed all over the place these past two days, so I’m not going to add any additional commentary in this space. However, I thought I’d share the letter I sent yesterday:

I have an intellectual exercise for your readers. Let’s substitute “dog” for “pig” in every sentence of Two Pigs (Opinion, Oct. 25, 2007) and see if people respond so romantically to Klinkenborg’s ode to killing.

Be sure that your letter to the editor includes your full name, address, email, current location (where the letter is being written from), and day and evening phone numbers so that you can be reached in the event they consider your letter for publication.

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Do I hear an echo?

Today we’ve got no less than two opinion pieces pointing out the “moral schizophrenia” or hypocrisy of condemning Michael Vick for dog fighting while continuing to eat the flesh and other products derived from animals. The first linked below is from an avowed meat-eater, while the other is from vegan animal rights advocate Gary L. Francione:

WashingtonPost.com: Animal Cruelty Isn’t Judged on a Level Playing Field

Philly.com: We’re all Michael Vick

Of course, Courtland Milloy treads water, briefly touching on this conflict, teetering on an epiphany, but ultimately preferring to ponder why Michael Vick is being hit so hard with these charges, which seems kind of backward to me, especially given public sentiment. At least we can count on Gary Francione to expose the connection between cruelty to dogs and cruelty to animals typically considered food (which, lest we forget, includes dogs in certain other countries, as well as horses and so on, further highlighting the arbitrary absurdity).

Two opinions in major city papers drawing attention to this connection in one day. That’s what I call a nice day.

Pet the dog, eat the cow: Our confused relationship with animals

The Salt Lake Tribune has reprinted a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece by Crispin Sartwell that joins a tiny choir of people leveraging all of this media attention over the Michael Vick dogfighting case to point out our moral schizophrenia when it comes to animals. While the philosophy professor somewhat misunderstands animal rights, Sartwell does ask readers to consider animals’ value beyond our own interests in them:

We need to decide: (a) Do animals count? and (b) How, exactly, not as dwarfish, or four-legged, or stupid people, but as real things whose existence is, though connected to ours, profoundly external and different?

Right now the article is averaging thumbs down, so scroll down and give it a thumbs-up. Comments are taken as well. This discussion must continue, and it must grow beyond its current incarnation as “what we owe what we eat.”

You might use this as an opportunity to suggest that Sartwell is right to question our completely confused attitude toward animals, and to clarify the meaning of animal rights as a philosophy that recognizes animals have intrinsic value and seeks to protect the interests we share with them (life, liberty…) from being violated by us.

Wolfgang Puck ‘not going soft, or, heaven forbid, vegan’

From my headline, I’m sure you will understand my annoyance at this Newsweek piece written by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, whose recent “happy meat” proclamation has the media all aflutter. There’s little doubt that animals raised in accordance with Puck’s “humane” program requirements will experience varying degrees of improved welfare conditions before their untimely demise–solely to appear on the menu of Puck’s more than 100 restaurants–but most of these improvements will be relatively minor.

When one considers that not eating animal-derived products in the first place completely eliminates the intentional, avoidable suffering of individual animals, the most straightforward and effective way to reduce animal suffering overall (and end your contribution to it) is simply not to eat them or their eggs and milk. Now that is taking the interests of animals into account. Instead, this allegedly benevolent “culinary philosophy” deceives the public into believing that there is a humane way to eat from the animal world. The whole thing is really a PR campaign masquerading as a show of compassion, and this article is probably the clearest proof of that.

As some have pointed out, this emphasis on “happy meat” is actually promoting an ethos that would have us believe that it’s perfectly acceptable (and, in fact good) to eat animals in the first place, as long as they’re treated better before they’re slaughtered. As Puck says, “Yes, they’ll be killed for food—but until then, they should have a nice stay on Earth.” Of course, this also promulgates the notion that a brief life of easy meals, some small semblance of a “natural” lifestyle and protection from predators is a “nice stay,” and well worth the end result: traumatic transport and slaughter to end up on someone’s plate. Forget what the animals want.

Hammering this point home is a poll that asks, “Would you pay extra for meat from animals raised humanely in a free-roaming environment?” Where’s the option to abstain from animal flesh entirely, Newsweek? Irritating.

Ironically, the cognitive dissonance is evident in Puck’s own words. “As for foie gras, my customers and I can easily live without it.” Total disconnect. He completely neglects to offer the obvious fact that we can easily live without the veal he serves in some of his restaurants, much less pigs, chickens, eggs, and so on.

It’s apparent that activism focusing on the treatment of animals will bring about many more of these frustrating “changes of heart,” a perverse sort of “progress” that makes many people feel even better about eating the products of animal exploitation. Despite Puck’s avowed disdain for veganism, consumers have the power to more meaningfully reduce the overall suffering of animals on this planet by going vegan, and by influencing eateries in their community to incorporate vegan options into their menus.

Ethics of cloning

I occasionally receive emails asking what I think of certain issues, and I’ve often thought about refashioning my responses into posts for the site. Well, I suppose I should get on with it, then.

Q: I was wondering, what government policy do you feel should be established to regulate cloning?

Do you feel that animals should be used to harvest organ replacement for humans and/or produce pharmaceutical products and why do you feel that way?

Are there any circumstances where cloning of animals to benefit humans would be acceptable?

Could cloning be used to save a species from going extinct?

A: The key to answering your various questions is to understand the fundamental tenets of true animal rights (i.e., not welfare):

Animals are sentient beings whose inherent rights cannot ethically be violated merely because it is expedient for us to ignore them.

Their intelligence, self-awareness, and their feelings set them far apart from the “things” in nature like rocks and plants. In fact, in all ways that matter morally, non-human animals are rather like us. After all, we are each of us animals, too. Our shared interests in simply living–experiencing freedom of movement, freedom from pain and suffering, to forge familial and social bonds, and to express natural behaviors–make any differences between us trivial and completely irrelevant from an ethical standpoint.

In other words, non-human animals possess all the fundamental prerequisites necessary to consider them full members of the moral community. Thus, a non-human’s individuality as a self aware being inherently entitles her to the basic right to be left alone and not to be treated as a human resource. So, from that framework you can see that it is morally objectionable to use any animal for any purpose, just as it is morally objectionable to use humans for any purpose.

Of course, this response does not begin to address the myriad technical problems with cloning, a procedure that typically has a very low success rate and has high risks for the very few clones that are successfully created, many of whom are born with health defects. Additionally, at this time, there’s no accounting for abnormal gene expression. Clones don’t necessarily turn out to be carbon copies of their parents, and scientists still don’t understand why clones appear to have shorter or longer telomeres, affecting the clone’s lifespan in unpredictable ways, often by shortening their lives drastically.

I only bring these issues up in brief because they present a powerful argument against cloning from an animal welfare perspective as well, if one is so inclined as to look at the issue from that point of view. Unsuccessful cloning, very much the norm, produces its own ethical quandary.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought. Cloning presents yet another potential threat to biodiversity, the very cornerstone of evolution. As a natural, time-tested method of adaptation to changing climate conditions, biodiversity is key to survival for all species on earth and, as such, any threat to it should be viewed with grave concern.

The friend I had for lunch

Daily Mail (UK)

Here’s another account of a televised brush with one’s feelings toward animals, including a step-by-step description of a lamb’s slaughter process (fair warning: I do include that description in my excerpt below). There are moments of near-revelation, which could have led to adopting a diet free of animal flesh, much less their eggs and milk, but the author (like others before) seems eager to put the experience in the past and continue eating animals once the memories fade…

It really does make me wonder why some people respond as I and others did when having similar connections to where our food really comes from, i.e., going vegan, and why others do their best to shake off the experience, as if some sort of bad dream. Plenty of opinions are expressed in the article, and they are quite common, but Tom Rawstorne actually takes the time to examine them, so I’ll refrain from dissecting them here. Suffice it to say that the arguments presented for eating animals simply cannot compare to the violence of taking another life, and come off as rather shallow and self-serving.

You would think the sheer process of analyzing these feelings and writing about it for the Daily Mail would fix the experience in one’s mind so much as to make it unforgettable, but denial is a pretty common reaction, too. I suppose I can hope that a seed has been planted, and that the author will never be able to let this go, perhaps one day actually choosing to abstain from eating other beings, as I have also seen happen.

Until he had the misfortune of meeting me, there’s no doubt Faw-Faw had a good life. Born last April, he has been running free outdoors ever since, and has eaten nothing more than his mother’s milk, grass and a handful of winter feed made from wheat and barley.

*snip*

The trouble is I’m also starting to form some sort of bond with Faw-Faw. On Wednesday night I visit him at the abattoir in Sturminster Newton, where his life is going to end. He’s in a barn divided into stalls that are filled with 20-odd cattle and the same number of sheep. There’s straw on the floor, hay to eat and water to drink.

*snip*

The following morning at 7.30am he’s herded the 50 yards from death row to the abattoir. It is a clinical place, where the animals are hooked up and slaughtered efficiently.

The slaughterman places a giant pair of tongs about his head, and a massive jolt of electricity renders him instantly unconscious.

He’s then hooked onto an overhead conveyor belt by his rear legs, and a single sweep of a knife severs the carotid artery in the throat. This process takes about ten seconds.

Suspended upside down, the lamb’s still-beating heart pumps a flood of blood on to the floor for about one minute. Faw-Faw is no more.

I’m doing fine so far but it’s the transition from sheep to meat that gets me. As he passes down the line his feet and head are cut off, the pelt peeled back and the guts tumbled out.

The carcass is steaming and I feel nauseous, a feeling that reaches cheek-bulging proportions when I place a hand on the pink, slightly sticky, ribcage. It’s hot and the flesh is soft, gelatinous. And yet no longer alive.

A few yards on and the bureaucracy kicks on. The carcass is weighed, visually checked for signs of disease, stamped by the inspectors and then a joint of meat cut out and handed to me. I hold it in my bare hands and feel that heat again, the muscles ticking, the flesh twitching, and enough’s enough. I’m out of there.

An hour later, I’m back at Richard’s farmhouse near Warminster, and have pulled myself together enough to place that same piece of meat in the oven, a sprinkling of dried rosemary and a bit of garlic on top.

Some 40 minutes on and out it comes. It looks and smells delicious. I try to eat a piece but twice have to spit it out. Something about it, its animal smell I think, reminds me too much of that slaughterhouse.

The third mouthful I manage to swallow – I persevere, because in a way I feel I owe it to Faw-Faw. What a waste otherwise.

It’s a good bit of eating, as Brian promised, and doubtless would have been better still had it been hung for a week or so, as is normal practice. But I can’t eat any more now anyway.

Richard says he’ll send me some other cuts, and I thank him, fairly confident that by then the memories, my senses, will have dulled enough for me to really enjoy it.

In the meantime, I reflect on the experience and am surprised how much it has affected me.

On the whole (as of this writing), the comments have not been favorable toward this “sentimental” view of animals, so you may want to chime in with your thoughts. You can also email the editor, but don’t forget to include your full name and contact information to be considered for publication.

Seventh Generation continues greenwashing of Heifer International

The Inspired Protagonist: Why I Support Heifer…

Recently, Seventh Generation‘s blog, The Inspired Protagonist, invited me to comment on a message from Heifer International’s publicist they posted in response to my blog entry taking Seventh Generation to task for promoting the commodification of nonhuman beings as a holiday giving idea.

However, what was termed a “thoughtful rebuke” was more or less treated as something to be countered, not something to think about. I wasn’t even invited to post as a guest, but was relegated to the comments, which many visitors to the blog may never see. In fact, ever since I wrote my original post, The Inspired Protagonist seems to have been finding ways to give Heifer International a positive spin at their blog via guest posts.

It appears that Seventh Generation has some sort of arrangement with Heifer International, such that they are going out of their way to greenwash the company and justify their support of it. Obviously they wouldn’t want to officially sanction a criticism of HI’s exploitation of animals by offering me a guest post, nor would they allow anything other than the rosiest picture of HI to be portrayed, as their newest post demonstrates.

I do not want to sanction the exploitation of animals, so therefore I suppose I must no longer purchase Seventh Generation’s products, and I let them know as much in my comment following the most recent apologia for Heifer International:

While I welcomed the opportunity to respond to the Heifer International publicist’s comments at this blog, it is disappointingly clear that Seventh Generation is committed to their ongoing partnership with Heifer International (note the link under “Inspiring Actions” in the sidebar), and that any official Inspired Protagonist posts will continue to promote and support that organization rather than carefully examining how a socially and environmentally responsible corporation can help people and the environment without using animals as a means to an end.

It is also clear that I will need to stop buying Seventh Generation products until such time as I can be reassured that the company is no longer actively supporting and promoting the slave-like treatment of animals as commodities instead of the sentient beings that they are.

I hesitated before using the word slave, since I doubt anyone will support the notion that the animals are being whipped and beaten, and I have no firsthand evidence of this, but the term slave-like is meant to imply the impunity with which people bought and sold other beings. In that case it was fellow humans, in this case it is nonhuman beings that have as much of a right to freedom as any human.

As one can easily infer from my original post, I realize that many cultures around the world live in climates where animals can graze on available land that does not provide ready food for humans, while providing milk and eventually flesh for people to eat. It may well be impractical for people in those areas, particularly nomadic cultures, to try to become self-sustaining on an entirely plant-based diet, at least at first. But should we really be supporting the continued use and further degradation of lands inhospitable to humans, or should we be supporting efforts to transform those lands into fertile areas capable of bearing fruit?

Fortunately there are other companies out there providing environmentally-friendly household products that don’t appear to be actively promoting the commodification of animals, and I encourage you to purchase from them.