Friday, October 26, 2007

The Death of Two Pigs

In the New York Times on Thursday (October 25) appeared an editorial by a farmer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who enjoys talking to his pigs and scratching them behind the ears and who anticipates the day, "very soon," when "a farmer and his son will come to the farm to kill our two pigs." He spends time with the pigs both because he loves being around them (pigs are actually quite similar to dogs in their friendliness towards trusted human friends) and because "taming them means it will be that much easier for the farmer and his son to kill them swiftly, immediately." He adds that whatever one might say about the treatment his pigs receive, it is much better than what happens to the animals that virtually every omnivore purchases at the supermarket.

The editorial brought me back to the ambivalence I expressed in an earlier posting about the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to ban the production of foie gras because of the cruelty entailed. If one is going to keep and kill animals for food, then I would certainly prefer that they treat the animals humanely and attempt to minimize the fear and pain experienced at the end. Indeed, I suspect that what bothers most people who object to the consumption of animals and animal products is primarily the horrific cruelty that animals suffer prior to death rather than the fact that the animals are killed for food at all. But, despite what this particular farmer says, the two -- killing for food and great suffering before death -- are hardly unrelated.

When we eat animals and animal products instead of taking advantage of equally healthy, plant-based alternatives, we have made a decision to treat the experiences of animals as infinitely less important than the experiences of human beings. Animals are, in this framework, and despite their sentience, "things" that we use rather than beings whose interests have weight. It is in this context that existing regulations of farmed animal treatment before and during slaughter barely nip at the heels of the brutality that animates modern factory farming. The primary goal is going to be profit, and humane treatment must not disrupt that primary goal.

In addition to constraining the potential reach of animal welfare regulations, the logic of keeping of animals for eventual killing and consumption provides a very strong incentive to erect an emotional wall between ourselves and the living creatures whom we breed and feed for slaughter and consumption. To do otherwise feels like betraying a friend, and this is why many people in this country find the prospect of slaughtering dogs for food morally horrifying.

This reality of animal welfare law and human nature makes the farmer who is kind to his pigs and gives them happy lives until the moment of death an exceptional phenomenon. He pays for and watches the slaughter of his pigs, but he still enjoys their company while they are alive. I am told that my grandfather was a ritual slaughterer -- a shokhet -- in a small town in Poland, and that he hated his job because he loved animals and played with them every day until it was time to kill them. His wife, my grandmother, had to force him out of the house each day to earn a living by killing creatures he loved. For most people experiencing feelings like his, self-preservation would eventually lead to one of two outcomes: one would quit his job and delegate slaughter to someone who does not care so much for animals -- this is what most omnivores who consider themselves friends of animals do in modern times; alternatively (perhaps because one cannot afford to quit the job), one would harden one's heart to the animals and stop nurturing them. There is much evidence of this second response in the taunting that goes on amidst the screams of the modern "kill floor."

My tentative conclusion is therefore that even if one believes that killing and otherwise using an animal for food is theoretically acceptable, provided that the animal's life is free of abuse and cruelty, the reality will rarely if ever meet that condition in the real world. As a result, the rare individual who meets this condition does not necessarily help matters for the animals. He may instead provide "proof" that eating animals does not subsidize tremendous cruelty, when in fact it does. He thus provides an illusory salve for the conscientious omnivore who wishes to pretend that the meat she buys at the market belonged to a well-treated animal.

Posted by Sherry Colb