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Spare the horses, kill the cattle

February 17, 2014

Let us take a moment to compose an epitaph for Marius the giraffe.

Oh Marius, though I barely knew you, I am sorry that you become meat for lions. Much as I don’t have any moral feeling about giraffe incest and I see that your death was unfair, you should know that your carcass filled the belly of an animal that has no choice but to eat meat. Had you been living in the wild, you may or may not have been caught and eaten in much the same way. I hope, and believe, your suffering was lesser than that of the millions upon millions of livestock animals that are kept and consumed worldwide each day. Since you are technically a Danish national, I won’t be saying anything about the Evil Danish and Their Practises.

Now that that’s over, let’s take a moment to talk about the Evil Danish and Their Practises. Or the Evil Chinese and Their Practises. Or the Evil Japanese and Their Practises. Or the Evil Romanians and Their Practices. Just so long as we can avoid talking about the British and our practises.

What’s the main issue about Marius the giraffe and his slaughter? The fact that he was in a zoo, perhaps, and people knew him. This makes the whole thing not about the animal, as it should be, but once again about humans. Marius the giraffe was kept in captivity just as Dave the giraffe is kept in captivity in London zoo. The lions in the Danish zoo are much the same as the lions in London zoo. The ideas that make a zoo are universal; your first question, when something weird happens in a zoo, shouldn’t be “What’s wrong with that country?!” but “What’s wrong with zoos?” or more broadly: “What’s wrong with the way we, as a species, see other animals?”

The artificial environment of a zoo will encourage practises we think of as being strange and unpleasant. The idea that a lion kills a baby giraffe and eats it in the wild doesn’t bother us as much, so long as we aren’t seeing it. We are more bothered by the concept that a human being could intervene, playing God and choosing which animals will live and which will die, based on our own ideas about what is convenient for us. In that sense, a zoo is no different to any other environment in which animals are kept. Livestock are kept routinely in the conditions that best suit their owners, not them.

Quite apart from being a vegan and disliking our general attitude towards animals, I get very hot under the collar about the undercurrent of blame culture, scapegoatism and lack of cultural understanding that goes into our highly selective view of how animals should be treated, within the confines of them remaining as tools for human use.

Moving away from Marius and into other news, the royals have been irritatingly prevalent in certain free London evening newspapers because Dashing Charles and his Overgrown Tots have decided that Poaching is Bad. Let us congratulate them for their daring. I would honestly rather have read that said Sue, a waitress from Cardiff, thinks that Poaching is Bad. At least I can be reasonably sure that Sue doesn’t move in the social circles that routinely take part in hunting.

The difference between hunting in Britain and poaching in Africa is purely on a results basis. The result of poaching in Africa is that some species of animals have become endangered. The result of hunting in Britain is not quite as catastrophic. But I am not a person who thinks that everyone’s behaviour ought to be judged by the effect that it has, because this essentially absolves people who happen to be have been born into privilege from any kind of responsibility. Being born a British Royal means that you don’t need to hunt from the earth to survive, you can simply have one of your minions breed the animals you wish to kill for your upper-class twit of the year sporting event.

The royals are quite happy to put their face and money to a cause across the seas, but as with most people, the concept of making any significant change to their day-to-day lives turns them white as a sheet. It is easier to criticise and pledge to change the actions of a far removed group of people, for the good of a far removed group of animals which we can rank higher in our estimation, not because they have any intrinsic value in relation to their level of consciousness or intelligence, but just because their exoticness makes them interesting to us. Never mind that to an African poacher, an elephant is hardly exotic.

If you’re living in Africa and you poach, you do it for money where opportunities to make it are scarce. We like to have someone to blame and if it’s not the African poachers, the Chinese buyers are the obvious choice. While it is true that the people rich enough to buy and sell Rhino horns are more to blame that the people who source it for them, to think of it as a Chinese problem is to be extremely narrow minded.

Rhino horns and other Chinese medicines sell for two reasons, both of which can be easily generalised to the entire world population: one, alternative medicines are based on superstitions and an inability to understand placebo and inability to recognise negative evidence; two, selling and buying animal products is so far removed from the process of acquiring them that those who do so are emotionally and intellectually distanced from it.

Which brings us right back to home sweet home. Things like acupuncture and homoeopathy seem perfectly harmless asides to conventional medicine. They genuinely help some people, thanks to the placebo effect. Yet, the broader effect of thinking in superstitious ways stretches further than the harmless. Our culture of “acceptance” (complacency) towards all forms of belief, plus our culture for thinking of animals primarily in terms of their usefulness to people, leads us to take to less harmless ways of warding off evil spirits – or the modern equivalent, germs. There is nothing new about this, though the forms have changed. Few people keep rabbit’s feet  and I have never known anyone to smear lamb’s blood above their doorway.

But goat sacrifices continue abroad and other less obvious variations occur right here. The badger cull, for example, was about protecting our dairy industry. If you like, you can make economic arguments for protecting the dairy industry and they will be partially valid, though not totally convincing; no successful industry needs continuing financial backing from outside sources in order to survive. There is more to it than that. Our dependency on milk and dairy products has become a superstition in its own right.

In a world where people constantly doubt and sneer at the advice of doctors and nutritionists (mainly because no one likes to be told what to do), why is it that the handful of people who question the All Powerful Effects of Dairy are thought to be eccentrics? Kids are fed milk in school, milk is what you’re supposed to put on your cereal, you should have a glass of milk in the morning or at least one a day. Slowly, some of us are starting to embrace soya and nut milks, but an extraordinary amount of effort goes into promoting animal products like yoghurt, or egg, lean red meat or fish.

Notice how different this is to other products. No advert you will ever come across will suggest you eat “more bread”. It will always be “Kingsmill wholemeal” or “Waitrose own”. Adverts like these are for particular products and encourage you to buy from that business. Their motivation is an obvious one, typical of a capitalist society and hardly the most harmful example of it.

By contrast, encouragement to eat animal products comes from all sides, from unnamed sources (no GP of mine has ever directly told me to eat any of these things). A cynical person might say that this is proof that the industry struggles to make enough money even with the extraordinary amount of these products we buy and eat, or that there is a nation-wide conspiracy to get people to eat more of this stuff in order to keep the industries going because we are not imaginative enough to figure out how we might go about changing the economic landscape of this country so that it is less dependent on livestock farming.

I say there may be an element of this, but that there is an underlying complication; we perceive an almost mystical effect of animal products and their advantages, partly because of tradition. To me, insistence that you should drink milk every day sounds like an old wives’ tale, akin to eating crusts to make your hair curl. I don’t know who is telling me this and why, so I trust it no more than I trust any other baseless superstition or religion. Yes, I’d say eating animal products is a religion; people believe in it, they defend it, they get angry over it and their anger is misplaced. It is something which is hard for people to let go of even when the advantages of it live in their own minds and not the physical realm.

In a world full of vegetarians in the medial profession and nutritionists who can’t agree, it would take some arrogance to say that there is certainty in the benefits of meat eating. The best you can say is that we have not departed from our animal eating tradition long enough or seriously enough to possibly gauge the effects and we are not willing to try because we fear the possible negative effects of change and constantly doubt the positive ones.

My second point was about disassociation. Very, very few people here in Britain milk cows or slaughter animals. Indeed, slaughtering animals is so traumatic to see, filming inside abattoirs is not allowed. Clearly, if your average person could see what went on in there, they would feel sick to their stomach. You can anyway these days, of course; a lot of undercover footage has been filmed, though understandably no one wants to see it (including me). Yet, when people do see it, they quickly forget about it if their desire for meat is strong enough; the culture of dissociation is so strong that we can easily put to the back of our minds what we have seen and revert back to the habits of a life time. I expect it is ingrained in our psyche to disregard information that might make our lives more difficult. We seek the path of least resistance.

The fact that habit plays a huge part in our eating habits can be seen by the recent horse meat scandal. Since I’ve already had a pop at the royals, now might be a good time to tip the hat to one of them as well. Princess Anne caused a bit of controversy a while back by suggesting that horse lovers should eat horse meat, because horses raised for meat would have a better life than those reared for racing. I’m not pro raising animals for meat, but if we will we insist on keeping animals as tools, the better their life, the better in my mind. In that sense, I thought she had a point. I also would have thought that a meat-centric society might have jumped all over a new reason to laud keeping animals as meat.

But no, this was set against the back drop of the horse meat scandal. Everyone was so utterly freaked out to learn that their lasagne had traces for horse in it (that’s not over – recent mince has had traces of rabbit bone). I never understood this. Why should meat eaters care particularly what meat they are eating? It was such a raw reaction of disgust, even though there is nothing wrong with eating horse and several countries do it. The issue has to do with culture and our automatic gag reaction to eating anything that is foreign to us; normal, but not logical. Because it is not logical, we must hastily think up some justification for our judgement call.

The usual justification is one of consciousness; if eating humans is “wrong”, not because it grosses us out but because we are depriving a human of life, any being shown to be of higher intelligence must be off the menu. Horses may come under that bracket (the “may” is good enough for the justification, even though horses really aren’t all that bright). Following this idea, the Japanese get attacked for killing dolphins, despite that fact that the group of people most against dolphin killing will almost certainly be Japanese, since it is an issue that affects them and is relevant to their society more than any other.

But the question of whether one “should” kill or eat dog, horse and dolphins has absolutely nothing to do with the nature of the animal, despite what we may tell ourselves. Nobody really knows how intelligent cattle are, mainly because we do not want to know. If we found that cattle were as intelligent as dogs, it would throw up an enormous ethical dilemma for those of us who exercise some logic with our ethics. Though such a thing is doubtful, let’s not pretend that we have the slightest idea of the intelligence of other animals. It has taken us a while even for wildlife experts to figure out that our common back garden crows are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. It has taken even longer to publicise, perhaps because those working in media considered it uninteresting or unappetising to the public taste.

We don’t eat crow, but if we did, this knowledge would not change our behaviour with any great speed. We would find some other justification, or simply deny what is set out in front of our eyes. We are too attached to our traditions, particularly those surrounding sensory input, like taste. Taste cannot be undervalued as a sense. It’s a wonderful thing which causes problems because it has such a powerful hold over us. Like with many other enjoyable acts, eating is stimulating enough that we seek to eat the tastiest foods as often as we can with little regard for our health or the wider effect on the planet. It is a hard habit to break, just like keeping hold ideas born out of superstition and tradition is a hard habit to break. It is simply necessary. Until we recognise that, humans will forever to slaves to pleasure, not these beings of higher consciousness we claim to be.

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From → Animal Rights

One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on iliketowritewhatithink and commented:
    This is something my son, Adrian, wrote after Marius the giraffe was slaughtered in Copenhagen Zoo. The staggering lack of logic at the outrage over this and the complete indifference to what happens daily to other animals in the agriculture sector is mind boggling. All killing is wrong, not simply the killing of some animals we happen to like, for no reason except some arbitrary decision based on what appeals to us.

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