Saturday, May 06, 2006

Evil Animals and Meat-Eating

Birds are supposed to be afraid of people to the point where you can't get within several feet of them. In a cafe in Austin, however, birds steal food directly off my plate, with me sitting one foot away from the action:

Cafe Mundi VIII

Cafe Mundi XI

Cafe Mundi XII


Bird behavior actually played a key role in ending my vegetarianism. For a few years, I was a pretty strict vegetarian who believed that killing animals was murder.

Living in San Francisco, the birds in my neighborhood started to go insane. Everything had been normal for several months, living there. One night, at about 3 am, the birds started chirping together, loudly enough to keep me up. It sounded like hundreds of birds squawking away. This happened several days in a row.

A few days later, I walked down the street and spotted a small, black bird perched on top of a lamp post. It seemed to be eyeing me. I walked past the lamp post, and then realized I had entered the bird's "territory." It swooped down, got within inches of my face, and let out a loud, threatening "caw." I moved swiftly out of the bird's territory. The bird returned to its original position, having won the interchange.

One final incident led to me thinking differently about animals. Walking down the street, in the same neighborhood, I stepped accidentally into some birds' territory. I felt thin, sharp needles scratching me behind the shoulder. I looked, and it was a bird clawing me. Another small, black bird swooped in and clawed at my hair. These two birds continued to claw and peck at me as I ran from them. I eventually realized that the only way was to cross the street--through traffic--and get out of their assumed territory. Only when I was fully across the street did they stop the attack.

Yes, I know...















(Image from http://hitchcock.tv/)

That movie was actually based on a true story, and it also happened in California.

Over the next few months, I started to wonder if the birds' willingness to attack human beings--animals much larger and stronger than they are--had anything to do with the animal-friendliness of the city. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I made a decision: human beings deserve to be the dominant species, and we have the right to uphold that status. I began to eat meat again.

I'm not the first person to turn against vegetarianism after seeing the vicious side of small animals. Here's a relatively famous story about Ben Franklin:
...vegetarianism was short-lived for Franklin. About a year into the diet, he saw a fisherman haul up a fish at a Boston dock and gut it, only to find another fish inside of it.

"Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you," Franklin said at age 17 in one letter.

Not a perfect analogy, since the birds did not eat me.

The question becomes: if you are convinced that animals are basically evil and that we need to maintain our dominant status, but don't want to hurt animals excessively, how do you walk that middle-ground? My way is to eat meat, but only buy the free range stuff from Whole Foods and to never eat veal. Good enough for me.

38 Comments:

Blogger Ann Althouse said...

And check out how the bird went right for the junk food.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you.

What a quote!

My husband bought a small squid from the oriental market once to make calamari. When he cut into the squid, there was a tiny little squid inside. I refused to eat the poor mommy and baby squid. I think I may have actually shed a tear.

Of course, it turns out that squid are egg layers and carniverous to boot.

7:18 PM  
Blogger John Althouse Cohen said...

I don't know how you made the leap from "We're dominant over them," to "We have the right to kill them."

7:20 PM  
Blogger Ron said...

The blue jays and squirrels engage in a tong war when I throw out old bread for them. The jays sit and scream at the squirrels when they move in on the food, and sometimes that works! But older squirrels? They just ignore the jays...

7:22 PM  
Blogger paulfrommpls said...

I think you can make an argument that the basic motivation behind an organization like PETA is actually immoral, in that it is an attempt to separate humans from reality, at least that part of reality that involves tragedy and necessary death.

Just because inhabitants of a PETA-based world wouldn't involve themselves in animal death doesn't mean those animals don't suffer and die. The PETA world would just be refusing to take part in or acknowledge life as it is.

And in fact that same insistence on illusory purity is part of what gradually made me look through squinty eyes at left politics.

Now it's Saturday night and I gotta go check out the new "club your own baby seal" cafe in town.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Bissage said...

I could be wrong, but I think that's salsa and I think those are House Sparrows.

If so, then what we having in the making is truly Satan's smart bomb.

8:00 PM  
Blogger PatCA said...

Animals kill each other for food--don't you watch National Geographic--so why can't we? Nature is a pretty ugly business. Eating is all part of the Circle of Life, as they say in the movies. Coyotes (privileged by the eco-activists) are so bold in CA that we can no longer let domestic animals (those unworthy brats!) or small children outside unsupervised.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Finn Kristiansen said...

Not a perfect analogy, since the birds did not eat me.

That made me laugh for some reason.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Wickedpinto said...

I'm an urban child, in the MC had a friend from Marin, not far from SF. I went up and spent time at his place, and he had a guest room above his garage, for some reason I had to be segregated from the rest of the household, like I was gonna be chronicly masturbating all night or some such., anwyas.

I crashed out in the guest room above the garage, the little brother of my friend, didn't like the idea of killing birds, so he would throw the day old sour dough (no S, he would through the sour dough rinds on the ground) away from his car so he didn't have to worry about accidentaly runing into the birds.

The thing was that I was on vacation at a friends house, and he went to work at 4 o'clock in the friggen morning so I would hear these friggen birds chirping CRAZY LIKE!!! at 4 o'clock in the friggen morning. Give me Sirens at random hours anytime, cuz sirens fade, birds eating Damn tasty bread don't leave so easy. Then I had to leave the overhead appartment, I would have to fight the flying vermin to get into the house and plan my debouchery with my friend, at which point, I just wanted to drink and make fun of crazy rich people who lived in Marin County.

Sorry for the ramble, but I remember those damn birds, not to mention the horse that never got a workout (yeah a private horse, with a private paddy, paddock, area, whatever it's called) whinnying as soon as the youngest boy left, cuz the horse wouldn't get any treats.

INSANITY I SAY INSANITY is what I felt. Gunshots? fine, starts and stops. but whiny and complaining birds and horses are relentlessly evil sleep deprivers.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Wickedpinto said...

Oh, and in reference to the "dominant" and "we should kill them" thing.

I'm dominant over my (at the time) 4 year old second cousin, she was still able to hit me in the face with her plastic slide, making me suffer MUCH MUCH pain. and as for the birds? 40 of anything, is a losing proposition, if you can only kill one at a time.

The problem isn't the inability to kill the birds, it is the fact that people who don't have to deal with the side affects of making them equals are willing to create the sense of equality that those birds apparently posess.

9:48 PM  
Blogger John Althouse Cohen said...

I think you can make an argument that the basic motivation behind an organization like PETA is actually immoral, in that it is an attempt to separate humans from reality, at least that part of reality that involves tragedy and necessary death. Just because inhabitants of a PETA-based world wouldn't involve themselves in animal death doesn't mean those animals don't suffer and die. The PETA world would just be refusing to take part in or acknowledge life as it is.

I think a lot of PETA members would agree with you that simply maintaining your own personal purity by looking away from death is not worthwhile, at least not on its own. Their position is that there's a lot of animal death and suffering that is not necessary: Humans cause it, and humans have the power to stop it. Whether PETA is effective in stopping it is a separate question.

Also, groups like PETA are usually more adamant than anyone else in insisting that we not look away from cruelty to animals. That's why their materials often depict animals in cramped cages and so on. It seems very strange to suggest that meat-eaters are generally better than PETA members at confronting the grisly realities of how animals are treated.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Christy said...

Once had a seagull swoop down and pluck a french fry out of the gesturing hand of someone I was walking with. And a murder of Crows once cornered my cat in a Cherry tree.

Isn't it accepted now that our brains began to grow once our species began to eat meat? We are human because we are omnivores. What other permission do we need to eat meat?

10:55 PM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

John: Good point.

I'm not saying that we should eat meat because killing is inevitable in nature or that we should be the dominant species because we are the dominant species (that would be obviously fallacious). My point is that we deserve to be the dominant species on merit and that some form of animal domination is involved in maintaining that status. Where you should draw the line I leave pretty open to question. But given my conviction that basically all animals would kill me if they could and that I see them as closer to machines than to people, killing them using humane methods doesn't bother me the way it used to.

I know that you're looking for a rational argument that doesn't incorporate unprovable convictions. Yes, I can't prove to you that animals are generally soulless killing machines. But I have proven it to myself by looking deeply into the eyes of cats. There is no soul in those eyes. Nor is there a soul that I can see in the eyes of any animal.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Synova said...

PETA, it seems to me, would rather that animals never live at all, than live and die.

Because that's the goal... no enslaved companion animals, no animals raised for food. Better non-existance than the chance of an early death?

One the most effective genetic strategies for the continuation of a species is domesticated usefulness. Chickens in nature are nearly extinct. Get rid of the domestic (and feral) ones and chickens in nature are still nearly extinct.

And the truth is that enslaved animals, either pets or zoo animals or even farm animals, live far longer and far healthier lives than animals in nature. The fact that hardship for animals is caused primarily by people is actually fantasy.

*Nature* is walking with my children and finding the shell of a baby turtle that had been eaten and wiping the tears from their little eyes and explaining that it might be sad for the turtle but it was very happy for the bird.

12:20 AM  
Blogger KnightErrant said...

Several years ago I was traveling in the Yukon Territory of Canada. I had the opportunity to speak at length with the Anglican minister in the village of Old Crow. He told the story of the time he tried raising rabbits. Long story short, the villagers were shocked when he cooked one of the rabbits.

This is a society that survives on meat, hunting and fishing. Yet, they do not understand the concept of raising an animal to eat it. If you care for an animal, domesticate it, you have a responsibility to it. To kill an animal you have raised for food is akin to cannibalism. Factory farms for cattle or chickens, to them, is as abhorrent as concentration camps are to us.

1:58 AM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

Can someone explain to me what is so terrible about some species gradually becoming extinct? Even though I'm on the pro-meat side officially, I don't get the argument that the meat industry should continue because species raised solely for that purpose would die out after the current ones lived out their lives.

2:55 AM  
Blogger LoafingOaf said...

Patco said: Animals kill each other for food--don't you watch National Geographic--so why can't we? Nature is a pretty ugly business.

For me it's not so much a question of whether animals are killed for food, but how. A pig should be able to live like a pig was intended until the point of slaughter, and the slaughter should be done with respect and as little pain as possible. It should be obvious to anyone with any sense of morality that the meat industry in America is barbaric in its methods and there's no doubt in my mind that eventually these methods will be outlawed and looked back upon by future generations with disgust. But people can go ahead and keep making their jokes about how proud they are that they couldn't care less about animals.....

Christopher Althouse: ...I see them as closer to machines than to people, killing them using humane methods doesn't bother me the way it used to.

You say this as if there's a huge gulf between humans and animals. You only can fantastize that this is the case because by an accident of nature the intermediaries between humans and chimpanzees went extinct. It could just as easily have been otherwise, and therefore your declarations based upon a supposed huge divide between animals and humans don't hold up. In any case, we're in agreement that animals should be treated humanely.

Yes, I can't prove to you that animals are generally soulless killing machines. But I have proven it to myself by looking deeply into the eyes of cats. There is no soul in those eyes. Nor is there a soul that I can see in the eyes of any animal.

A human is an animal and you apparently see a "soul" in a human's eyes. So why not a chimpanzee's eyes? Have you looked into a chimp's eyes? I don't believe in souls, so I think what you're really talking about is seeing intelligence and higher levels of consciousness. IMHO there probably should be more concern for animals that are more intelligent, aware of themselves, and able to feel pain. I guess that puts me down in the speciesist camp. PETA types bother me when they equate worms, lobsters, dogs, and humans.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

loafingoaf: I don't eat chimp.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Ann Althouse said...

"I don't eat chimp."

LOL.

On the eyes-soul approach to morality, what happens if you look into the eyes of another human being and see no soul?

6:59 AM  
Blogger 37921 said...

Some vegetarians believe that if we could just see how meat gets to our plate, we would all become vegetarians. I don't buy this argument, despite the fact that I can't bear to see an animal being slaughtered. I can't bear to watch open heart surgery either (they seem to show it all the time on the Discovery Health Channel) but I would certainly have it if I needed it.

7:22 AM  
Blogger MrsWhatsit said...

Christopher asked: Can someone explain to me what is so terrible about some species gradually becoming extinct?

Hi, Christopher. I'm no expert on this issue, but I do own and operate a dairy farm with my family. Dairy cows aren't primarily meat animals, but PETA definitely wants dairy farming gone along with all the rest, so I can at least tell you why I would hate to see them succeed in wiping out cows.

First off, it is very odd to take a position that says, we love these animals so much more than you do that we think they shouldn't exist. And you have to stop and think about how they would stop existing, the day after the laws were passed that wiped out livestock farming. They wouldn't just "gradually die out." They would suffer horribly right in front of our eyes, for a long and chaotic and wretched time, until, probably, people realized that the only humane thing left to do would be to slaughter them all en masse. This is good??

Cows are big. There are lots and lots of them out there. They are entirely dependent on human care, as they have evolved through centuries of domesticity. They could not possibly survive in "nature" as it exists today. It is hugely expensive to feed them, house them, and provide them with veterinary care. Nobody could continue to do that, once farming were abolished, so -- then what? Turn them all loose to watch them starve? Imagine the chaos, with cows in the streets getting hit by cars, half of their calves growing up into full-grown bulls charging people in their back yards and on the golf courses, huge dead bodies rotting everywhere . . .it would be horrific beyond words.

Meanwhile, dairy cows like being alive. I see them every day, and I'm telling you, they do. Cows don't enjoy the same things you and I do. They like everything to stay the same. They like lots of food and safety and comfort and predictability and calm and familiarity. If they get out of the pasture by accident, they hover anxiously near the gate, hoping that somebody will quickly let them back in.

Dairy cows, at least, are not suffering anything like the dreadful agonies that PETA and the organic milk marketers would like you to believe. A cow who is stressed and unhappy gives less milk and the farmer loses money -- so any dairy farmer with any business sense at all is working as hard as he or she can all day long to make his cows happy and comfortable. Pick up a few issues of dairy-industry magazines and count the articles on how to increase "cow comfort." You will find plenty! I am not saying there are no bad apples who abuse their animals or no practices that might become more humane -- of course there are. But overall, most farmers are in farming because they love animals and want to be around them, and on top of that, in dairy farming (and, I'll bet, in egg farming -- I don't know if it's true with meat) there is a powerful economic incentive to make your animals happy.

I can only speak from experience about dairy animals. But because of all the lies and misrepresentations I've seen from PETA and the organic industry about conventional dairy farming, I tend to be skeptical about the more horrific claims they make about the rest of livestock farming, too.

One last thing and then I'll climb down off the soap box. You said you resolve this issue by eating free range stuff and staying away from veal. Do some research about how most "free range" chickens are kept, and see if you think it's really very different from the rest of the industry. There is a whole lot of deceptive marketing going on in that business.

And as for veal -- you may not realize that one reason the veal industry exists is that half of all dairy calves are male. Not all of them can be used reproductively, so the rest must be used for such things as veal. In other words, the veal and dairy industries are entirely interdependent. If you don't want to be part of the veal industry, you will have to cut all dairy out of your diet, too. No more ice cream, no more cheese, no more yogurt. Simply avoiding veal is meaningless.

As others have already pointed out, when it comes to food -- which is really life and death -- purity is profoundly elusive.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Ann Althouse said...

MrsWhatsit: You just convinced me to buy some veal today! (At Whole Foods.) Also, that horrific scene of the aftermath of banning domestic animals: I'm picturing the movie.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous cameron said...

Drinking milk gives me gas so I put orange juice on my Cheerios.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Ann Althouse said...

"Parents: take your kids camping!!!"

Are you crazy? Those bears are killing machines!

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...

LoafingOaf,

... the slaughter should be done with respect and as little pain as possible. It should be obvious to anyone with any sense of morality that the meat industry in America is barbaric in its methods and there's no doubt in my mind that eventually these methods will be outlawed and looked back upon by future generations with disgust.

Actually, a fair amount of the cattle industry does try to be humane. Check out Temple Grandin's fascinating "Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports From My Life with Autism" (really).

4:48 PM  
Blogger Maxine Weiss said...

Vegetarianism:

Mary Tyler Moore has a good article that she authored in one of the previous months' issues of Oprah Magazine....where she says she refuses to eat anything with a face.

The politics are the least of it.

It's the health issues and the fact that we are facing increased pollution/toxins.

In the 1950s people ate red meat and processed foods were all the rage. Wonder bread, cheese whiz. But, you could get away with that back then, because society wasn't so polluted in other areas. Auto emissions, greenhouse gases, cell-phone radiation, etc..

Even the bad foods of the 1950s didn't yet have the high-tech chemicals and hormones that are being pumped into today's foods.

What you could get away with way back when........the balance has tipped.....and many people aren't getting away with anymore.

If the symptoms that people are reporting, and mysterious diseases (Autism) that come out of nowhere are any indication....

Eating more vegetables and organic foods is nothing more than a way of dealing with increased toxins from animal and processed foods.

People have used plant diets for centuries as a way of healing...and since nobody can afford the high cost of healthcare, healing through plant diets seems cheaper and more natural.

Soapbox soapbox. Not really, though. I think people should eat what they want. I hate having my insurance premiums increased because other people don't take care of themselves, though.

Peace, Maxine

10:12 PM  
Blogger amba said...

Why are animals "evil" for just following their instincts, filling their bellies and defending their territory? Because their interests interfere with ours? If they're evil then so are we, and we're much more imaginative and ingenious about it!

And why do you need animals to be "evil" as an excuse for eating them? Eat them, if you will, because you're an animal too. That's reason enough. (You're also being humane enough not to eat animals raised cruelly.) After all, one day, something or other WILL eat you.

11:59 PM  
Blogger amba said...

Also, Christopher: did you ever look that deeply into the eyes of a human (as you did into the eyes of a cat)? Did you see a soul there? Or just a little round hole full of darkness? (Yes, I know you're being funny and contrary to the cloying reverence for cats that fills the blogosphere like catnip-scented incense.)

Soul is revealed by behavior and expression. In isolation from the context of the facial muscles, the eyes of a human look pretty soulless. Animals generally won't look directly into your eyes because in their world that is a threat or a challenge. But they show soul in many ways. I had a cat who was very old, blind, deaf, and arthritic. The last few days of his life, he suffered a great deal as his kidneys were failing. (I didn't "put him to sleep" because I couldn't find a vet who would come to the house and didn't want to move him.) He was frightened. Death was coming for him and he couldn't hear or see. Another of our cats, who had always been rivalrous with Lucky -- they'd box with each other over food and sleeping spaces -- went over and lay down touching him. If that isn't soul what is?

If that isn't incense what is?

12:08 AM  
Blogger amba said...

Mrs. Whatsit: No, industrial egg farming is quite horrific.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

The food chain doesn't refer to grocery stores by the same name. Nor does it assign us to be the weakest link.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

amba: If you accidentally set one foot on my front lawn as you walked by, and my response was to rush at you, arms flailing, and shriek, "Get off my property!" then begin to physically scratch and claw at you, would you think I was evil? Or at least crazy?

6:42 AM  
Blogger amba said...

Christopher: They don't know any better. We have laws that we trust to let us enjoy our "territory" in peace, so we don't automatically suspect every passerby of being a potential raider and pillager. Birds are, in that respect, more machinelike than evil. Evil requires choice and intent, it seems to me.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

amba: So, they're either machines or they're evil. Can't machines be evil, though? Like The Terminator? Would it be wrong to eat The Terminator?

8:47 AM  
Blogger Sean E said...

Evil Terminator from the first movie? Dig in.

What about Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space? He wasn't evil, but he was annoying as all Hell. Would it be OK to eat him?

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"37921 said...
Some vegetarians believe that if we could just see how meat gets to our plate, we would all become vegetarians. I don't buy this argument, despite the fact that I can't bear to see an animal being slaughtered. I can't bear to watch open heart surgery either (they seem to show it all the time on the Discovery Health Channel) but I would certainly have it if I needed it."
A flip side of this is that some non-vegetarians, like me, actually prefer meat that we harvested (that's "shot") dressed, butchered, and packaged ourselves. To Maxine Weiss- venison has less fat that turkey breast and is good, red, meat. I like being in touch with the protein I eat, the responsibility for the death is mine and that isn't exactly a little thing. By processing myself, I don't have to worry about e. coli in the burger and the meat tastes better, too.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Uncle Mikey said...

The birds in Austin get fed a lot at outdoor eateries. El Arroyo has some of the boldest birds around, as do many other places.

And birds have attacked me, my dog, my 1-foot python (that I understand), and three of my friends, one so viciously that he fell down screaming. On the UT campus, there have been years when university employees cruise around setting off fireworks to scare them away, and may have shot some one year (that was the legend, anyway).

So yes, birds are for eating. How many Althouses are there, anyway?

2:24 PM  
Blogger Wickedpinto said...

Christopher Althouse said...
amba: If you accidentally set one foot on my front lawn as you walked by, and my response was to rush at you, arms flailing, and shriek, "Get off my property!" then begin to physically scratch and claw at you, would you think I was evil? Or at least crazy?


That is just some funny friggen imagery, reminiscent of the Friends episode with phoebe running like a crazy person. I actually laughed out loud, thats priceless.

along the lines of eating meat being immoral. Went to a cold weather survival course, and I'm not squeemish but I can't look at a rabbit without thinking he's cute. After I finished cold weather survival I thought "it's kinda disgusting to dress an animal, but 'rompers' (a joke name for the rabbit) was cute, but even tastier." Once you are hungry, and have gnawed on a few leaves for easy water without dropping your body temp, a good rabbit is nummy.

and I mean nummy.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Wickedpinto said...

John alt?

watch the penn and teller Bullsh!t about peta.

hypocracy is what it is.

Dont TEST on animals, don't KILL animals, don't USE animals.

Watch that episode of "Bullsh!T" and it isn't profound, but it is clear.

3:39 AM  

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