I was about 8 years old when I watched, in the company of family, the 1991 comedy film City Slickers. For those of you who haven't seen it, it deals with three urban dwellers who try to escape their mid-life crises by taking part in a rural cattle drive, presumably to find some perspective on things. Traversing dangerous terrain, the three men and cattle herd eventually arrive at their destination after negotiating a dangerous river, where one calf really struggled to make it. For me, the film could have ended there. My young mind took great comfort in knowing that through some kind of interspecies harmony, both man and cow had arrived safely. It was to my absolute shock and horror that the closing scenes revealed that the herd were to be slaughtered for meat. Whilst I sobbed inconsolably, I remember my brother trying to tell me that the cows in the movie were some kind of 'celebrity' cows that would never be harmed. Beside the fact that I didn't believe such reassurances, I was way too emotionally involved in the story to accept such an ending.
Dominion to Factory Farms
The type of relationship we have with animals is probably best described as a bi-product of our ability to exercise power over them; an evolutionary facet of our transition from hunter-gatherers to civilisation. But it's a relationship that's been revisited and examined time and again throughout history. The Book Of Genesis (1:20-28) dealt with the question by giving humans 'dominion' over non-humans. Hence, the Bible supposes that God put animals here for us. Later, the French philosopher, Descartes, on similar lines, concluded that animals are lesser than humans because of their supposed inability to reason.
Nevertheless, even the most fundamentalist human societies did begin enact laws to reduce the suffering of animals. In Puritan England, legislation was introduced to curb the practice of bloodsports, which were widespread in the 17th century. The Puritans interpreted man's dominion over animals as one hinged by responsibility. Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Kant opposed animal cruelty because of it's effect on human relations with each other; the idea being that indifference to animal suffering would reduce our capacity to empathise with human pain. By the 19th century, a more rounded concept of animal protection was beginning to emerge. In 1822, the Irish MP, Richard Martin, secured the introduction of legislation that outlawed the the ill-treatment of farm animals. In one of the earliest prosecutions under the law, Martin, seeing that the magistrates were unmoved by the plight of a donkey who had been beaten by a costermonger, decided to parade the injured animal in front of the shocked court. Seemingly, it wasn't until the court was actually confronted with the suffering animal that the case was taken seriously. Martin was later involved in the creation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an organisation who's members developed the concept that animals have rights.
By the 20th century, there had been a dramatic emergence in new attitudes toward animals and how they should be treated by humans. These attitudes weren't always always a product of general benevolence. For example, it was the Third Reich that passed some of the most progressive animal protection legislation. Hitler himself espoused the virtues of vegetarianism and would often try dissuade meat-eaters with accounts of his visit to a slaughterhouse. It is said that, whilst watching films depicting moments of animal suffering, Hitler would cover his eyes until he was told it was over. Nazi ideology removed the hierarchical barrier between humans and animals. Instead, it looked upon wolves and eagles as second only to Aryans, with rodents and Jews making up the bottom end. In effect, the Nazi's protection of animals was founded on the notion that 'subhumans' would take their place in the reception of unspeakable barbarity.
Since the Second World War, animal rights movements have grown in tandem with the marked increase in animal testing and industrial farming. Some groups like the Animal Liberation Front, advocate direct action in the pursuing an end to animal exploitation. The late 20th and early 21st century has also seen efforts by food manufactures to placate the growth of vegetarianism. The championing of free range animal products and the idea of 'humane meat' demonstrate new attempts to placate human concerns over animal treatment. So the idea that we should treat animals better isn't at all new, nor is it going away.
I live in Kilkenny, a medium sized town surrounded by a well developed agricultural industry. My mother comes from a farming background and my father used to work for Glanbia, a leading dairy company that also produces meat. Nevertheless, whilst understanding the concept of food from animals, I was never really exposed to it. When I think of it now, I wonder that this might not have been purely circumstantial. As the City Slickers incident illustrates, I was always fairly sensitive about animal welfare. The common sight of cattle trucks on the roads always solicited a turning in the other direction, as I didn't want to look at the cows sticking their heads out from behind the bars as they were taken to their deaths. My concerns weren't limited to human treatment of animals. I still find it difficult to watch nature programmes that document one animal hunting and killing another. However, it was the contrived and mechanic slaughter of animals by people that troubled me the most. This was consolidated by my sister's vegetarianism. It was her lifestyle choice, which I think was more taste driven, that made me aware that animal slaughter isn't necessary. And that today, we do it just because we can.
It wasn't until my teenage years, during my discovery of punk rock music and the ideals amongst it, that I realised that there was a well established culture of vegetarianism that opposed animal consumption on more ethical grounds. This philosophy endorsed vegetarianism and in particular, veganism, as an extension of a general belief that it is fundamentally wrong to impose one will at the expense of the welfare of another. It equated animal freedom with that of humans, arguing that sentient suffering is essentially uniform. These ideas, whilst appealing, seemed extreme in the context of my surroundings. We ate meat every day; the music I listened to wasn't enough to undo that, not whilst it was confined to rhetoric anyway. It was then, with real unsettledness, that I listened to the track 'Purina Hall of Fame' by the Canadian band, Propagandhi. The song opens with a thirty second documentation of the sound of a sow been beaten by workers on a factory farm. The haunting scream of the animal was enough for me to fast forward every time the song came on. The inevitable visualisation of the event didn't quite match up to my eventual viewing of slaughterhouse footage on the internet these past weeks, something I've avoided doing for years. The reality of seeing defenseless animals been beaten in the most heinous ways is enough to cement my decision in becoming a vegetarian. Of course, I don't believe that all people who work in slaughterhouse's are as psychopathic as the workers in the videos, it's just I don't want anything to do with anything that even remotely resembles such scenes. If only the closing scenes of City Slickers documented the cattle's last moments in the abattoir, I might have followed through on my eight year old threats of refusing to eat meat. Enough is enough. If this has been been at the back of my mind for most of my life, it's time I started acting like it.
A Reasonable Emotionalism
It is then
with a certain amount of emotion that I have made the decision to stop eating meat. This has made me consider how wise my decision is and how I might be blinding myself with my own subjective views on right and wrong. The doubts I have about vegetarianism have always been th
ere and it's only now that I really have to challenge them.
The notion that vegeta
rianism is a defiance of the natural order of things is one such concern. For a long time, I thought there was no point worrying about animal slaughter because it was merely a reflection of nature. I was being faithful to the fact that we are the planet's dominant species by dutifully eating meat.
It's true that a large part of the heritage of human dietary habits is the consumption of animals. But human dietary habits can hardly be classified as infallible in a world where McDonalds is King and diabetes is rampant. However, it has been forwarded that the size of our brains could be directly tied to our meat-eating tradition (it has also been suggested protein rich nuts could have been more influential). But, even if that were true, what does it mean?
The basis of evolution is that a species is anything but static, that we survive and prosper on our ability to change and adapt to the world around us. Such change is apparent to anyone who compares today's world with that of before. The flat earth, divine right of kingship, religious dogmatism, slavery, racism, sexism and homophobia are all examples of previously held assumptions that have been challenged and lessened by our scientific and intellectual development. And is it really absurd to suggest that the darker side of humanity has something in common with the norm of animal genocide carried out on this planet every single day? Right now, as I write, and you read, conscious beings with fully functioning emotions and nervous systems are being terrorised and butchered so that we can eat food that we do not need to. It's making less and less sense every time I think about it.
It's been three weeks since I stopped eating meat. To call it a lifestyle change would be a dramatic overstatement. It's been too easy a change to qualify it as such. As such, I can see how my contribution to the reduction of animal suffering is only the smallest of drops in the ocean. Having taken the first step, I have already started thinking about what's next. The glue in my runners, my leather belt, the milk in my tea; living a cruelty free existence is a tough prospect. And have I properly considered that medical advancements may hinge on testing on animals? Even if many of the world's most threatening diseases thrive on the lifestyle that we choose to adopt.
And then there's the social implications. In such an economically sensitive time, asserting that an industry that provides livelihoods to so many people is ethically unsound is a big statement. Yet the issue at hand seems so much bigger than economics (if anything really is). Besides, to single out the meat and dairy industries as the 'evil' profiteers in this whole affair would be arrogant. Our treatment of animals is more of a cultural question. It's about a fundamental issue in our lives; how we treat other living things. The distant prospect of a cruelty free existence may only be attainable in a painfully slow recognition that there is something inconsistent about seeking understanding from a world where we impose such immeasurable suffering.