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I have tried for a week to write this piece subtly, or coyly, or with a charm and a wit that would bond myself to you the reader. Either I don't have the skill or the facts are too distressing to soften.

Anyway, despite my best intentions, none of it came out feeling genuine. So I'll just say it and you can do whatever you want with what I say—but please know I tried.

A MEATING OF HEARTS AND MINDS

June 4/2006 4:57 PM

If even some of what I've read and witnessed over the last fifteen years is true, every year many billions of animals are killed after months or years of incessant, human imposed suffering and cruelty. These animals feel all the same pains, fears, longings and confusions as our house pets.

I'm talking here about the animals of factory farms, slaughterhouses, science labs and tanneries.

These animals are systematically hung up alive by a hind leg, gaffed up by the throat, scalded, occasionally skinned while still conscious, pushed down conveyor belts to slaughter, fried to death with electric shocks in the anus, endlessly caged, left in darkness, forced to have inedible products poured down their throats and into their eyes, forced to give birth, forced to produce milk, bludgeoned, shocked, drugged with steroids and antibiotics, crammed into cages that cripple paws, teeth, tails, beaks, health and spirit—and soul if you believe animals have souls—and then slaughtered for a Big Mac, a chicken Caesar, foie gras, L'Oreal mascara or some fancy-coloured fur trim.

These are the brutalized animals we eat and wear. The difference between these animals and our pets is not what they feel, but what we feel about them.

An estimated nine billion animals are killed in American slaughterhouses and factory farms every year.

Worldwide, well over 30 billion chickens are killed for meat every year.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of different cattle are mixed up in every fast food hamburger patty.(i)

This essay is not a single-minded call to give up meat—although that (or even eating less meat) may be the most immediate and effective political statement against this unmitigated cruelty.

Rather, it is a suggestion to ask ourselves if we need to buy dead animals that have been abused and slaughtered under unnecessarily tragic conditions.

"When you see the inside of a turkey broilerhouse, you begin to entertain grave doubts about European civilisation."
—George Monbiot, The Guardian

I've probably lost a lot of readers by now. It's difficult to not turn away or feel threatened or judged by these thoughts (or consider what is required to make a shift towards less cruelty).

As a dear friend of mine—who is a Christian, a carnivore and a man who relentlessly pours his heart into helping the people of Africa—said to me with a smile, "But meat tastes so good."

Speaking of Africa, I recently co-directed a documentary called Uganda Rising, which deals with the inhumane suffering inflicted upon the children (and people) in the north of that forgotten country.

Many scenes are intensely graphic and heartbreaking. But it is during a traditional forgiveness ritual of the Acholi people, in which two lambs brought as reconciliation gifts are killed with a knife that slices the conscious animal's chest, that the crowds react with the most audible discomfort—and that lamb had a good life!

Then after the film these same crowds—including me—walk to restaurants in leather shoes, eat relentlessly abused animals that are now steaks and sausages (as we loosen our leather belts) and drink dairy from abused cows—yet we don't make the connection.

Slaughterhouse animals are killed in myriad ways and for some their entire existence—not just two ghastly minutes in a forgiveness ritual—is one of suffering, deprivation and cruelty.

***

When my niece Maddie was three, she and my sister Kate (her mom) were shopping at Safeway. Passing the meat section, Maddie suddenly asked, "Why is Uncle Pete a vegetab...a veggie—why doesn't he eat meat?"

My sister replied, "I think he doesn't like the cruel treatment of the animals."

My niece said, "That's why I'm so glad we only eat this Safeway meat."

Maybe that's the whole problem: perception—and the link just hasn't been pointed out. After all, the unimaginable amount of animal suffering that occurs never occurred to me until I read John Robbins' Diet For a New America nearly twenty years ago now.

Like a desperate animal, the book clawed at me to understand that my food choices supported a degree of suffering that would be criminal in most any other context.

And forget self-righteousness. I'm having significant trouble avoiding dairy produced in the factory farm system, although the effects on the cow are intense: pathologically swollen udders, forced pregnancies (babies taken and raised for veal), forced use of steroids and antibiotics, forced confinement where hooves, body and spirit are crippled, and finally slaughter for meat when they are no longer economically viable as milk producers.

Cows have supported human life for millenia, yet an unsustainable system leaves us thinking we have to either give up dairy or be part of the problem. How about a well-treated cow as an alternative?

I also wear leather: a belt, shoes I bought in Paris, and I have a secondhand wallet my girlfriend gave me with "Always remember, never forget" stamped onto it.

***

I believe animals have souls—as soon as I look into their eyes, and see the glistening miracle of life shining back at me. Even if animals don't have souls, the freedom within the animal body is a wonder to behold—so different from so many body-loathing humans (God love us).

Perhaps it is this difference, in a sort of existential jealousy, that causes part of our indifference.

I exalt in watching animals trot around, gallop, waddle, saunter, swim and sprint. If not smiling, they're definitely huffing, sniffing, slobbering, playing and growling in constant pursuit of one of their highly perfected senses.

Animals unabashedly and unapologetically feel. When tortured and terrified, they squeal, writhe and cry out.

We really do have dominion over these creatures.

The willingness to witness their struggle gives these animals voice—they are heard through our compassion and mercy.

A person is tortured, prodded and degraded in order to produce information. An animal is tortured, prodded and degraded in order to produce food.

Choosing to oppose the mistreatment of factory-raised animals is to refuse to have torture inflicted in our name.

***

In a UNICEF documentary I'm writing about AIDS in Africa, Dr. Arthur Amman implores us to hear the suffering of those who have no access to relief of their own suffering—because those that do have access, can help:

"We can't look at [these people with AIDS] as numbers, we can't look at it as 40 million people HIV infected. We have to look at them as mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and children. These are individuals and they should be as real to us and remain as real as someone in our own family who is sick or is ill. We should have the same emotion—to have hope that something can be done and try to help where we can."

I'm certainly not the first to suggest a link between human violence against defenseless animals and human violence against people unable to defend themselves.

"For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love."
—Pythagoras (500 BC)

What was the difference between German and Jew? Could the German no longer hear and see the humanity and pain of the Jew?

Slave owner and slave? The same?

Colonizer and colonized?

Coddled family pets and terrorized animals raised for our consumption?

By buying farm factory food, our money finances slaughterhouse violence. Are we therefore unintentionally condoning this violence? If so, what other violence arises with our support but without our awareness?

Although I applaud all attempts to ease human suffering worldwide, I wonder if anything can really change until we consciously work to prevent the unmitigated, legislated, systematic, epidemic brutality against creatures that are unable to defend themselves.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), a Nobel Laureate for Literature, wrote it this way: "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, [life] is an eternal Treblinka."

My girlfriend gave me a secondhand leather wallet. Stamped on it was: "Always remember, never forget."

I'm so grateful there's still time to make choices.

 

Photo: Chris Wayatt

Notes:

(i) From Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation:

"If you bought a hamburger in the US 30 years ago, it would most probably have contained meat from one steer or cow, which would have been processed at a local butcher shop or small meat-packing plant.

Today a typical fast-food hamburger patty contains meat from more than 1,000 different cattle, raised in as many as five different countries. It looks like an old-fashioned hamburger, but is a fundamentally different thing.

Here is a partial list of what fast food and the fast-food mentality have recently brought us: the homogenisation of culture, both regionally and worldwide; the malling and sprawling of the landscape; the feeling that everywhere looks and feels the same; a low-wage, alienated service-sector workforce; a low-wage, terribly exploited meat-packing workforce; a widening gap between rich and poor; concentration of economic power; the control of local and national governments by agribusiness; an eagerness to aim sophisticated mass marketing at children; a view of farm animals as industrial commodities; unspeakable cruelty toward those animals; the spread of factory farms; extraordinary air and water pollution; the rise of food-borne illnesses; antibiotic resistance; BSE; soaring obesity rates that have caused soaring rates of asthma, heart disease and early-onset diabetes; reduced life-expectancy; a cloying, fake, manipulative, disposable, plastic worldview, the sole aim of which is to make a buck.

None of this was inevitable. The triumph of the fast-food system was aided at almost every step by government subsidies, lack of proper regulation, misleading advertisements, and a widespread ignorance of how fast, cheap food is actually produced.

This system is not sustainable.

In less than three decades it has already done extraordinary harm. When the fast-food industry is made to bear the costs it is now imposing on the rest of society, it will collapse.

The alternative to fast food now seems obvious: slow food. By ‘slow food’ I do not mean precious, gourmet food, sold by celebrity chefs and prepared according to recipes in glossy cookbooks. I mean food that is authentic, that has been grown and prepared using methods that are local, organic and sustainable.

Most slow foods are peasant foods.

Somehow mankind existed for thousands of years without Chicken McNuggets. And I’d argue that our future survival depends on living without them."

 

 

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack