By Karen Davis, Ph.D.,
United Poultry Concerns (UPC)
The idea put forth by sectors of the animal welfare community seems to be that killing one’s own animals will somehow develop empathy in the killer. It isn’t just about “now I know” but “now I care.” But is this so?
The fact is that bonding and “connecting” do not necessarily entail compassion, and violating another’s body does not invariably lead to sympathy with the victim or with anyone else.
Yes, it appears that most people are “very removed from” the meat they eat. Well, not from the meat, obviously, but from the animals to whom the meat was once attached. This removal dates to the mid- 20th century, when animals raised for food in Western countries disappeared from barnyards into factory farms.
Drive by the long, low buildings on the Virginia Eastern Shore where I live, and unless you already know what you’re looking at, you would never guess that many thousands of chickens are living inside each one of those buildings. And those huge Tyson and Perdue “processing plants” with the smoke pouring out of the smokestacks and the cement parking lots filled with cars, who would guess what is going on behind those walls? Except when you see the truckloads of chickens going up and down the roads all day, from the chicken houses to the slaughtering plants, or you’re one of the thousands of poultry industry employees on the Eastern Shore. Otherwise, how would you know?
So, to reconnect meat eaters with the animals they eat or, more precisely, to reconnect them with the fact that they’re eating animals, media culture and society have got on board with the animal welfare, deep ecology idea that what’s needed to bridge the gap, between urbanized meat eaters and the animals behind the scenes of this meat, is to slaughter their own animals. Look your chicken or your goat in the eye as you slice “its” throat and watch “it” struggle in pain and suffocate to death in “its” own blood. This will teach you that eating meat involves killing an animal, although Michael Pollan’s alter ego, Joel Salatin, owner of the Virginia family farm Polyface, told Feedstuffs that “people should not accept that it’s okay to eat grain but not a pig or a chicken just because one has eyes and one does not” (May 23, 2011).
The idea put forth by sectors of the animal welfare community seems to be that killing one’s own animals will somehow develop empathy in the killer. It isn’t just about “now I know” but “now I care.” But is this so? In the case of billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, there is no evidence in his account of his latest “personal challenge” that killing animals himself began or ended in empathy for the animals he had previously bonded with only as meat. According to the story, he “evolved,” from boiling a lobster to death, to cutting the throats of a goat and a chicken. And so on from there. Of the lobster episode Zuckerberg said, “The most interesting thing was how special it felt to eat it after having not eaten any seafood or meat in a while.”
In other words, the “most interesting, special thing” for Zuckerberg, by his account, was not the lobster or his relationship with the lobster as a fellow creature as opposed to “lobster”; it wasn’t about expanded or deepened empathy at all. It was about his Seafood experience, his Meat experience and the thrill of eating an animal he had, just minutes before, intentionally tortured to death in boiling water. (Don’t plead that Zuckerberg didn’t know the lobster was sentient.)
So what does it mean to bond with an animal or anyone else one chooses to kill for pleasure? Bear in mind that rapists and serial murderers sadistically, ritualistically “bond” with their victims – they know their victim’s pain and they experience it vicariously as pleasure. The fact is that bonding and “connecting” do not necessarily entail compassion, and violating another’s body does not invariably lead to sympathy with the victim or with anyone else. Indeed, hurting others is a thrill for many people who lust for more of the delicious sensation. We know this is true when it comes to humans intentionally hurting other humans, but when it comes to humans intentionally hurting animals, the rhetoric disconnects from reality as easily as the face disconnects from a small helpless body under the smack of a hatchet.
Which brings me to the animal protection spokesman who recently blogged that while many Americans were shocked by Zuckerberg’s cruel behavior and “sympathized with the animals he killed,” their – our – reactions were/are misplaced: “While I understand those natural reactions to the killing of these creatures, I think we owe Zuckerberg some plaudits, not only for reminding people that eating meat involves the killing of animals, but also for recognizing that it’s morally dubious to simply pass on the ‘dirty work.’” Sure, okay, but let us ask, then, whether it is even more morally dubious, or just plain wrong, to do the dirty work yourself, especially when there is no need to do it at all. The topic is death, ladies and gentleman, not hauling the garbage.
Regarding the mantra that urban people need to “reconnect” through personal killing with “where their food comes from,” let us recall the fact that throughout most of human history and in many if not most parts of the world today, animals were, and are, driven to market on foot, slaughtered, beaten and otherwise openly abused in the streets in all kinds of ways, and the people doing and witnessing these events were and are basically oblivious to it. Familiarity breeds oblivion as much as absence does. As I noted in my book, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale:
B.R. Myers writes that research could prove “that cows love Jesus, and the line at the McDonald’s drive-through wouldn’t be one sagging carload shorter the next day.” Only consider: in Salisbury, Maryland, a McDonald’s sits on one side of the street and on the other side a gigantic chicken slaughter plant looms, surrounded by its endlessly sagging truckloads of chickens waiting on the dock to be killed. There is no clear evidence that the sight of suffering evokes sympathy or protest in the majority of people, and the first shock of seeing suffering can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, people can choose not to look. (p. 24)
In conclusion, I will simply say, in response to recent discussions about Zuckerberg and the like, that I do not believe that people voluntarily killing their own animals for gastronomy raises the moral level of society or the ethical status of animals in society. I do not believe that Zuckerberg’s behavior will have the slightest positive effect on ending global factory farming except, ironically, to further it since his fundamental message is that it’s perfectly all right to kill an animal needlessly if you wish to and can get away with it. Which in the case of “food” animals, you can. I do not share the view that Zuckerberg killing his own animals “reduces animal suffering,” nor do I believe that now that he is killing his own animals he “connects” with them, other than as a hedonistic sadist or an affectless sociopath, and sociopathology paradoxically comprises both. He boasts that he loves to hunt and kill animals. What else do we need to know?
When you choose to terrorize and torture an animal to death for culinary pleasure, or even let us say to kill a chicken or a lobster or a goat “humanely” with a death-inducing sedative, which nobody does, you’re saying that for you this animal is Nothing. You are Everything. Since animals have no protection against us, our words, and our lies, we can say and do whatever we please about our reasons for debasing them and making their lives miserable.
While it’s distressing, though not surprising, that a person like Mark Zuckerberg is killing animals for pleasure and publicity, it is much more distressing, and harder to overcome, the oily sanction bestowed on him by influential animal welfare representatives who seems to bond more closely with Zuckerberg than with animal rights activists and people who really do care about animals, not just in the abstract and bureaucratically, but genuinely. We’re chided that we should consider Zuckerberg’s behavior to be, not cruel, but somehow admirable and worth imitating – to help the animals, of course! “[I]f every American were to adopt Zuckerberg’s approach – or even just witness, if not participate in, what happens to farm animals – you can bet there’d be many fewer animals suffering on factory farms.” I’d bet otherwise, or maybe there would just be a lot more [in]visible blood everywhere, since the moral status and use of animals as edibles would still be exactly the same.
Why oh why did a 16th-century British observer write of the animals raised for food on those nice English “family farms” and estates: “They feed in pain, lie in pain, and sleep in pain.” And this was the life experience of these animals before they were dragged off to slaughter, and before factory farms.