If You Take Civil Rights Seriously, Don’t Make A Joke Of Animal Abuse

Civil-Rights-LawIt’s a fairly well-worn assertion that the behaviour of spree murderers often relates to them torturing or killing small animals in their earlier years. It’s been shown that numerous serial killers got started in their chosen profession by offing a few local pooches and maybe microwaving a cat or two.

For some time now there’s been a worrying increase in the level of violence used against domestic animals by law enforcement officers in the USA. These individuals have casually unloaded on everything from family dogs to a litter of feral kittens dispatched by an officer whilst consoling a group of traumatised children with the comforting news that he was sending them all to ‘kitty heaven’.

Some people might say that in the same way as serial killers become inured to violence, some US police departments have developed a similar offhand attitude towards lethal force.  If you can kill a small animal with apparent impunity, how does that feed into your behaviour when you’re confronted by a potential felon?  Certainly some of the video evidence seems to suggest that a shoot first and then shoot another 14 times pattern of behaviour is emerging.  In my opinion it points to a police service that’s becoming more out of control by the day.

As an animal rights advocate, I can’t help but see this as a part of the landscape of what many are now calling the American Spring. When the use of firearms against defenceless animals becomes commonplace, it puts the apparently unceremonious shooting of Michael Brown into a rather different context.  You can’t help but watch the video above and relate it to the equally distressing use of firearms in situations like this or this.

vicksdogsIt’s depressing though that some well known black entertainers don’t share the same outrage against members of their own community displaying the same gateway behaviour. Comments from a few years ago made by such black luminaries as Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, around the time of the imprisonment of the former football star Michael Vick, have been re-surfacing lately as part of moral relativism argument about the treatment of black citizens.

Vick was jailed over dog fighting charges in 2007 after the Bad Newz Kennels investigation, where he was found to be behind an illegal dog fighting ring and closely involved with the animal abuse inherent in that pastime.

[Edit – I’ve since been informed that Vick was actually prosecuted for tax infringements surrounding his business activities – possibly relating to dogfighting – and not for operating the Bad Newz Kennels themselves]

During one charming video vignette referring to Vick’s imprisonment, Mr Rock suggested that raping his dog would be OK by him, while fellow stand-up Steve Harvey explained in some detail how he thought Vick’s treatment of dogs was somehow justified because of the police shooting of a Sean Bell a couple of years earlier.

In some ways I agree with Harvey. There is a huge disconnect if the abuse of animals is treated as more important than that of a human being, because it’s not. It’s equally as serious. Both abuses should have been treated in the same way and the perpetrators prosecuted.

Of course the comments made during his stage appearance were deliberately intended to shock. He was quite rightly angry and wanted to convey that to the audience. His shouts of “F*** them dogs!” certainly got him plenty of whoops and fist pumps, probably in same way some unreconstructed comedians would have got a standing ovation for an easy-win racist gag 40 years ago.

But the premise that some forms of violence and abuse are acceptable, or not serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, is just the same argument being tacitly forwarded by those defending the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

It’s a the familiar proposition of prejudice. You count for less because you’re the wrong colour, the wrong sex, the wrong religion, the wrong sexuality, are disabled, or have more than two legs and a penchant for lampposts. It’s a phenomenon known to animal rights campaigners as speciesism, and it’s every bit as pernicious as sexism and racism. There’s even a movie about it.

speciesism_sticker-p217264424060693690qjcl_400The right not to be victimised or belittled because of your race, sex, religion or physical form is something most civilised people have accepted as a given. That expectation of respect and the freedom to live your life in peace should not be determined by the colour of your skin any more than what genome you happen to belong to. Once you accept that the value of a life fits somewhere on a sliding scale, you leave your own life open to be placed on that slippery slope by someone who maybe doesn’t share your opinion of it’s worth.

Animal rights today are probably where civil rights were 150 years ago. Those treating the subjugation of animals as a joke now would do well to remember that. After all, as we’ve seen recently in the USA, as well as in many other parts of the world, de-humanisation and the suppression of empathy are the facilitators of intolerance and prejudice.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” I’d say that time was overdue.

Headless Chickens and Mechanical Cows

A busy noodle bar in the heart of Oxford was probably not the best of places for me to loudly expound an admittedly radical proposal to deal current attitudes towards food production in our modern world.

The sideways looks being thrown my way by fellow diners didn’t register with me directly as I proselytised on the merits of my somewhat mechanistic vision for the future of meat and dairy production.  As I rambled on, I did eventually become aware of the slight shuffling on the bench next to me.  My dining companion’s uncomfortable shift of gaze every now and then also gave me a clue that the idea wasn’t exactly going down with those scoffing the chilli beef ramen next to me.

I’m not usually that insensitive.  Perhaps it being the end of a busy day was to blame.  Perhaps the unpronounceable Japanese  beer had gone to my head.  Or perhaps I was past caring about their sensibilities.

Those of you who have bothered to read my previous, somewhat sparse, offerings (it’s been a busy year) will know that I’m 99% vegan.  In fact I’m probably 99.5% now as I move finally to banish eggs from my diet.  I’ve done away with whole eggs now, and avoid most things that contain chicken ovulations, save for the occasional bit of Quorn that I wish they’d sort the recipe out for.   But my one downfall is still mayonnaise, they just haven’t come up with an edible vegan alternative yet and during the period in my dietary epiphany where I was banishing dairy from my plate, I turned to its silken charms as an alternative to butter.  My fully vegan partner has tried all the various alternatives, and so by association have I.  They all taste like industrial lubricants to me, and yes I have tasted a few of those for reasons I won’t go into here.  Anyway, lets just say I’m as near a vegan as dammit right now and hope to be the full Monty within the next few months.  So all you died in the wool veganistas out there can stop tutting and sharpening the pitchforks.  I know, I’m a bad person.

I have once again, as is my custom, digressed….

The inspiration for my idea came from one of numerous videos doing the rounds right now of ducks and geese in the process of providing an essential ingredient for that rare(ish) French inspired delicacy – pate de fois gras.  For those who aren’t familiar with this delight, it’s a fatty slab of meat paste made principally from goose or duck liver which has been enlarged beyond any passing acquaintance with normality by a continual force feeding process known as ‘gavage’.  In olden days this was traditionally carried out by farmer’s wives, jamming the unfortunate goose between her ample thighs and forcibly inserting an implement resembling a cross between a funnel and a coffee grinder down it’s gullet.

This was at least the image that was being sold in the early 90s, the last time I visited the south of France where this practice was being promoted as a delightful local custom.  There were a large array of postcards depicting the scene showing cheerful, ruddy cheeked daughters of the soil, dressed in the obligatory national costume,  turning the handle on these devices, grinding the feed straight into the animal’s gut, bypassing it’s understandable reluctance to cram down three times it’s body weight in feed on a daily basis.   The ultimate goal is to fatten the liver to anything up to 10 times it’s normal size for use as the principal ingredient in the pate.  At that time the practice was billed as being harmless to the geese and not at all unpleasant, even though it quite plainly is.  Effectively the animal is given the liver disease hepatic lipidosis or ‘fatty liver’ more commonly seen in clinically obese humans.  There are many complications associated with such a condition, not least the prospect of liver tumours.  MMMM!  yummy.

Feeding time

Feeding time

As with most such foodstuffs, an increase in the market for foi gras could only be achieved by making it cheaper, which in turn necessitated an increase in production and a decrease in costs.   As a result both geese and ducks now have their internal organs pressed into service in factory farms where the cumbersome hand grinder has been replaced by an industrial feeding nozzle hanging from the ceiling, attached to a large hopper of feed.  The aforementioned videos show workers ramming this pipe down the necks of the birds and administering a carefully measured dose of food.   In some places the birds are kept loose in small pens and have to be grabbed by the workers first.  Their terror of the feeding pipe and what one can only imagine is a frightening and, at best, uncomfortable process is plainly apparent.  They flinch and duck trying to get away from the inevitable thrice daily ritual.  It’s a pitiful sight.  A spectacle only eclipsed by other scenes in windowless factories where the poor animals are held closely confined in small cages with only their necks and heads sticking out.   Workers move along the assembly lines going about their business with practised detachment.  It’s done quickly and without much ceremony.  After all there are thousands of ‘production units’ in this facility, there’s no time for niceties.  The birds eye the feeding tube with the same obvious dread, but this time they have nowhere to run.  They can only thrash around and fruitlessly try to avoid what’s coming.  Many of them have signs of injury probably sustained during these struggles.  In one particularly harrowing image a bird has part of it’s lower beak snapped off.  It hangs at a grotesque angle, as redundant an appendage as the rest of it’s body, save for it’s precious liver.  In the final scenes of these videos we see the birds killed, often in an inhumane and matter of fact way.  Their supposed painless dispatching bungled, many of them suffer to the end.  An end you’re glad to see bring some release from a miserable existence.

Now I try hard not to be a preachy almost-vegan, so my apologies if any of this is a bit graphic.  The above description isn’t there as an attempt to shock or appal anyone who eats meat,  I assume that anyone with any vestige of humanity, omnivore or herbivore, would be sickened by it anyway.   No one wants to see suffering in any creature.  No one who exists within the bounds of what we would call ‘normal’ anyway.  Although I must admit that if you could bring yourself to eat foi gras after seeing one of these videos I’d probably not have you on my Christmas card list.  No, this is an extreme example of the life of a food animal.  It’s one that touched me more than many I’ve seen, I think because the poor bird has absolutely no life outside of its daily regime of abuse.  Maybe also, because of all animals, a bird is usually characterised as having the most freedom.  Geese in particular fly great distances every year around the far reaches of our planet, usually in large social groups, how much more then does it’s life of usury confinement symbolise?

Foi gras is still something that few people eat, so I doubt that many people reading this will be complicit in any of the above mistreatment.  Nevertheless it represents a reduction of existence that many of our fellow creatures live out as their place in the national food chain.  Most of them don’t have lives as bad as a cooped up, three times a day tortured, bird but they are all restricted and used to varying degrees,  and most of them don’t live out a full life term.  To me that’s a shocking reality that I don’t want to be a part of.  You, dear reader, will have to make up your own mind and I hope you will at least give it some thought.

But what these images did bring home to me in a crystalline form was the reductionist nature of animal husbandry.  The fact that a food animal’s wants, desires and its thoughts are secondary to it’s existence.  Something in most cases to be dealt with as a side issue, perhaps only as a practical necessity in keeping it alive and productive.  Or maybe that just makes those involved in the process of looking after them feel better about what they do.

So what is my brilliantly simple idea to end animal suffering in the food chain?  My answer to the dichotomy between fair treatment of animals and the need for industrial quantities of flesh and bodily excretions demanded by the world?

Well… it’s animals without heads.  More to the point, without brains or a higher nervous system.  Being headless would probably cover both of those requirements adequately, but if the old noodle were retained for aesthetic or practical reasons, I wouldn’t argue.  The idea would be for animals to be engineered, either genetically or in vitro to be born headless or brainless, kept alive by artificial life support systems until their bodies and/or organs are ‘ripe’.

cow

I’ll admit it’s an extreme, somewhat bizarre idea, but it’s also a pragmatic one.  I’d also argue that it’s not much more radical than what we have now.  If you boil down the processes involved in intensive meat and dairy farming, is it any more extreme than the numerous mechanisms and contrivances that are now used to produce animal derived food?  From the milking machine to the veal crate – the mega dairy to mechanised abattoirs that can kill tens of thousands of animals a day.  Hasn’t the nature of the animals themselves become irrelevant as they’re reduced nothing more than an integral part of a production machine?

In which case why not isolate the parts of the animals needed for the production process : their bodies?  A food animal’s brain is redundant, except as a part of what keeps it alive.  But we now have the technology to circumvent that, as we do all the time in hospital coma wards.  With no brains animals aren’t sentient, with no sentience there can be no pain, no fear, no boredom, no missing of a life they’ll never have.  This would be the ultimate cruelty free meat or dairy.  No need to fudge your sensibilities with claims of ‘organic’ or ‘free range’.  Just plug the bodies into life support systems, pour the feed in via tubes and maybe use some kind of artificial stimulation to build muscle tone.

There are already plans to create meat in vitro.  Basically animal muscle grown in vats which would apparently be indistinguishable from that carved from a once living body.  Even so, phrases like ‘Frankenstein meat’ abound with many a hardened carnivore vowing never to touch the stuff.  Non-sentient meat would be the perfect solution.  Especially in cases where the body parts required are not muscle but other tissues such as liver or kidneys or excretions which can’t be grown artificially.

I accept that as a society we’re very unlikely to ever become universally vegetarian by choice, let alone vegan.  Man has eaten meat for millennia.  It’s attraction is obviously a part of the human condition.  As a former meat eater I understand why the majority of the population crave it.  So rather than wait for whatever social change is needed to bring about a shift in attitudes and diet, why not use our other obsession, that with technology, to take suffering and guilt out of the use of animals for food?

And if while they’re at it, some boffin come up with an egg free mayonnaise that tastes like, well mayonnaise,  that would be nice too.