Most Westerners today only encounter animals – aside from pests, or their own pets – in packages at the supermarket or at the end of a fork. Hence discussions about animal rights often begin with the question of the morality of eating them. Traditionally, the answer most cultures gave was, “it’s okay as long as you can catch them.” Human beings have evolved with the ability to eat meat – compare our relatively narrow waist to the massive trunk of the gorilla, housing the huge gut necessary to digest its all-plant diet. Most people have eaten meat when they could, and increasingly, they are able to. In his essay on the “animal-industrial complex,” the social critic Richard Twine describes what has been called the “meatification” of the global diet, pointing out that in recent decades meat consumption has been increasing at more than twice the rate of population growth. Industrial meat production is an environmental disaster, resulting in needless expenditure of energy, greenhouse gas emissions, waterway pollution and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is an ethical disgrace, characterized by indifference to the animals’ welfare at best, and needless, random cruelty at worst. About all that can be said for it is that there is no risk that cattle, pigs or chickens will become extinct, unlike the forest apes whose habitat is shrinking while the remaining individuals are hunted for food.
But there is nothing inevitable about the production and consumption of ever greater quantities of meat. Precisely because we are humans, we can control our appetites and transcend our – the only word for it is “carnal” – desires. Even hunter-gatherer cultures such as the Mentawai of Indonesia, discussed in Jet Bakels’ essay “Animals as Persons in Sumatra,” recognize that killing and eating an animal has a different moral weight than picking a fruit off a tree. The slaughter of a pig involves an elaborate ritual and an incantation: “Dear pig, please do not feel angry because we now have to kill you. Please remember how well we fed you all your life.” The animal is rubbed with a bundle of magic leaves to appease its soul. Then the Mentawaians eat the pig.
Without going to the extremes of incantations and magic leaves, many Westerners who do eat meat are trying to escape the clutches of the animal industry and seeking an emotional, even spiritual, connection to their hamburgers. A simple step is to buy organic, free-range meat, dairy and eggs. That’s unquestionably better for the environment, more humane for the animals, and arguably is better for you. Some consumers are going a step further. In “Deindustrial Domestications on the Coop Tour,” Molly Mullin discusses the growing “backyard chicken” movement by middle-class urban and suburban families who raise small flocks for meat and eggs. This group runs the gamut from people hoping to make a small difference in the environment to those “who begin keeping chickens because they expect zombies to arrive” and destroy the economy. A decade ago, one backyard poultryman said, keeping chickens was an exotic novelty even in Portland, Oregon; today it’s almost expected.
Or you can be like Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, who announced in 2011 his intention to personally kill any animals he planned to eat, and had already dispatched a pig and a goat – a stance chef Dan Barber of New York’s famed Blue Hill restaurant called “an incontestably moral act.” [link] (Zuckerberg abandoned his experiment in hands-on slaughtering the following year.) The idea that killing your own dinner ennobles its consumption, or that the animal is somehow honored thereby, is also popular with hunters. They can become quite rhapsodic about the primal experience of confronting a deer down the barrel of a rifle, pitting man against beast on the beast’s own territory – although the point would be more convincing if the animals had guns to shoot back with. Sport fishermen increasingly practice catch-and-release, a practice which allows the fish to live. Almost certainly, though, the experience of being impaled on a hook and yanked from the water is painful and frightening to fish. And, to state the obvious, that is not the practice of the commercial fishing industry, which is driving the stocks of some species below sustainable levels and killing species that are not even used for consumption. [link]
In fact, one could make the opposite argument: that a wild animal has an independent right to existence, while humanely treated livestock, which exist only because humans bred and raised them, have a lesser moral claim. At the end of the day, though, dead is dead, and death is something all sentient creatures fear and avoid. You wouldn’t eat a human being. Many wouldn’t eat a dolphin or a chimpanzee or an elephant or an octopus (once you realize how intelligent and potentially self-aware they are). Many also wouldn’t eat a dog or cat or a parakeet. Is the life of any other creature less valuable?