Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eating Animals: All or Nothing or Something Else - the second chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

In the second chapter of his book "Eating Animals", Foer looks at a conundrum that was first brought to my attention in middle school French class. This was of course the revelation that the French eat horses. The room full of 13 and 14 year olds was of course perfectly aghast. "Horses?! Surely you must be joking?!!!" To which our teacher, sensibly enough, responded, why is that so different than eating a cow? The best answer we could conjure up was that you can ride horses, and they're pretty. Of course we couldn't really come up with an answer, because there is no real answer.

We are talking, more broadly, about why different cultures choose different animals as OK or not OK to eat. Here in the US, for the most part, we accept cows, pigs, lambs, chickens and a few other birds, and a variety of sea life as perfectly normal food. But talk about eating goat or whale or monkey and we're kind of like, wha? And we pretty much freak out at the idea of eating horse, or, heaven forbid, dog or cat. Even just in the one country though, being the "melting pot" that it is, differences arise. Those of the Jewish culture who follow kosher dietary laws don't find pigs or shellfish to be acceptable food at all. I live in Queens, where many of my neighbors think nothing of eating goat - I know this because of the whole, skinned goats hanging up in butcher shop windows. Some people in some parts of some states are happy to eat wild animals like possums, pigeons, and snakes, or body parts such as cow tongues, chicken gizzards and necks, and pigs' feet and ears, that many so-called omnivorous city folk would lose their lunches over.

Go international, and things get much wilder. Plenty of countries do in fact eat dog. And really, why not? Because they're smart, and loyal, and know their names and do tricks? Any pig owner will tell you that this all holds true for The Other White Meat. And of course the Hindus think us downright blasphemous heathens for eating cows. Monkey brains are a delicacy in many parts of the world. Some find the meat of the orangutan to be quite tasty - so much so that poaching is a threat to the species. The birds that we choose to eat (chickens, turkeys, pheasants...) are no less intelligent or complex than the parrots and other birds we bring into our homes, name, love, and treat as family members - they just have a good amount more breast meat.

As Foer puts it,
The French, who love their dogs, sometimes eat their horses.
The Spanish, who love their horses, sometimes eat their cows.
The Indians, who love their cows, sometimes eat their dogs.
What does all of this tell us? That the decision of which animals we eat vs. which animals we love is essentially arbitrary.

Foer begins his second chapter by making an argument for eating stray dogs rather than letting them be euthanized, ground up, and fed to what we consider to be "proper" food animals. (Didn't know that's what happens? Well it is.) This is classic satire, a la "A Modest Proposal", except that it is infinitely more plausible as dogs, in many places, are eaten, whereas we've pretty much successfully killed off all of the human cultures that think it's alright to eat each other, even when it's just their way of mourning.
The inefficient use of dogs - conveniently already in areas of high human population (take note, local-food advocates) - should make any good ecologist blush.
Ha! Well if animals are here for our use, the man's got a point doesn't he? And if they're not... well you tell me.

Foer continues the chapter in comparing factory farming to war. The analogy is fairly apt, particularly when he draws it out with the example of fish. We could even use a much uglier, particular word: genocide. For the simpler term "war" indicates an enemy, someone fighting back. To an outside observer, it would indeed appear that we are doing our damnedest to simply rid the planet of, say, tuna. We go after these animals with a vicious, no-holds-barred methodology that leaves pure devastation in its wake. But they're just so darn tasty mixed up with some mayo and celery!

Many, many people want to believe that fish are somehow different, somehow special. (Or less special, maybe. For a very brief period I was one of them. Given my roots, I wanted to believe that the livelihood of so many from the place my family comes from could not have grown so tainted. Alas.) We often call these people pescatarians. Regarding this, I will quote two things.

Industrial fishing is not exactly factory farming, but it belongs in the same category and needs to be part of the same discussion - it is part of the same agricultural coup. This is most obvious for aquaculture (farms on which fish are confined to pens and "harvested") but is every bit as true for wild fishing, which shares the same spirit and intensive use of modern technology... Once the picture of industrial fishing is filled in - the 1.4 billion hooks deployed annually on longlines; the 1,200 nets, each one 30 miles in length, used by only one fleet to catch only one species; the ability of a single vessel to haul in fifty tons of sea animals in a few minutes - it becomes easier to think of contemporary fishers as factory farmers rather than fishermen.
No reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog's face. Nothing could be more obvious or less in need of explanation. Is such concern morally out of place when applied to fish, or are we silly to have such unquestioning concern about dogs? Is the suffering of a drawn-out death something that is cruel to inflict on any animal that can experience it, or just some animals?
Food for thought, har har.

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