I ate chicken today. Marinated in a tamari-based sauce, it was grilled to perfection and very tasty. Meat is hardly ever my meal of choice but a life without Parma ham is not a life worth living as far as I am concerned. And I am partial to the occasional duck breast. But, increasingly, I am finding it hard to justify eating living creatures, even as I accept that man was built to metabolize and process animal proteins.
I eschewed meat for 16 years of my life, and fell into a vicious circle of anemia – if I had to do it all over again, I would be much more savvy as to what other sources of proteins are available to me, instead of subsisting on piles of carbs and veggies. Still, I haven’t reverted to vegetarianism as I do feel better with my once or twice a week addition of meat or fish to my diet. The problem is, I can’t look away any longer and, every time I put blinders on, reminders are thrown into my path.
Speaking to director Kathryn Bigelow, who just made a short animated movie on the plight of elephants in the wild, Bill Maher pretty much summed up my feelings: “I have no problems watching violence on the screen perpetrated towards men. But I cannot watch animals suffer.” To those who criticize me and tell me I should worry more about fellow humans, I respond that how a society treats animals is a good measuring stick for its treatment of men.
I live in an affluent country where it is not inconceivable to eat meat three times a day without our bank account suffering any major setbacks. It wasn’t always so. When animals were raised on farms, in semi-freedom, and slaughtered when the time was right, most people of financial means would eat meat only once or twice a week, with poor people rarely seeing it, unless they also lived on a farm. Then new husbandry practices and super feeds were introduced and there was no turning back our meat gluttony. In the process, cows, pigs and chickens have been constrained to smaller and smaller quarters, often unable to move at all; forced to lay eggs or produce milk at an unnatural pace; force-fed antibiotics to stave off the diseases that living surrounded by excrement can bring about.
Much has been done in the EU and the States to alleviate these conditions but not nearly enough, mostly for economic reasons. California just enforced a law that requires chickens to have at least one square foot of space, and large producers, who have had six years to conform, are complaining and threatening that the price of eggs will increase dramatically. Temple Grandin has worked miracles in establishing non-scaring practices for a more humane slaughtering of cows but a majority of slaughterhouses still butcher cows, pigs and chickens in barbaric ways, often not even killing the animals instantly.
And what is a consumer to do? Believing labels portraying happy chickens is naive at best but that is what most of us have to appease our conscience, should our conscience need appeasing. I could buy meat from places such like Niman Ranch, and I would be assured that my steak lived a happy life and was fed clean grass before reaching my plate. But that would set me back sizable amounts of cash. And that is where the economics come in. In order to feed our gluttony and keep meat prices low (and profits high), the industry must adhere to tight quarters, abnormal feeding and fattening routines, killing stocks before their prime, all the while delivering us a sub-standard product. I bought a delicious free-range chicken at the farmer’s market a few months ago, a three-pound bird, small for poultry standard, with the average supermarket chicken weighing at least five. But wouldn’t you know it: the average chicken is not meant to weigh that much.
I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about abandoned dogs, poached rhinos and bleeding elephants but just because cows and chickens are not about to be extinct, it doesn’t mean they don’t suffer at the cruel hands of men.
The obvious solution, and the healthier one (sofabrother notwithstanding) would be to decrease drastically the amount of meat we consume. Yes, I live in fairy land. But fairy land is also where dreams are created before they turn into reality (and sometimes even legislation). Talking to Sylva Kelegian, a wonderful actress and all around wonderful human being who has dedicated years of her life to saving abandoned dogs, she struck a chord when she told me that “Saving one dog might not make a huge difference but it will make a difference to that dog” – and then continued – “but I realized that, as many dogs as I saved, it was just a drop in the bucket, and that is why I shifted my focus and my efforts towards educating and working to change animal rights’ legislation.”
My conversation with Sylva ensured that I would stop looking the other way, and I have spent the last few weeks reading up on animal rights in the United States, encountering even seemingly crazy theories like granting animals citizenship (not as far-fetched as you might think).
In her book “God Spelled Backwards”, Sylva quotes Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I couldn’t agree more.
Coda: the day after publishing this post, I woke up to a long investigative piece in the New York Times on the cruelty inflicted on farm animals in the name of science. It’s a great read, which you can find here.
Also, if you want to make a difference, Last Chance for Animals is a good place to start: the non-profit has grown from breaking a ring of pets stolen and sold to research labs to a powerhouse that combats animal cruelty all over the world.