A Most Painful Ambiguity

Some Reflections Upon Man’s Relationship With His Fellow Creatures

“One of the most cowardly things ordinary people do is shut their eyes to facts.”
C.S. Lewis

For nearly all of his working life, my grandfather devotedly farmed his 72 acres in rural Ohio. My Uncle Edgar labored away on his 82-acre spread approximately two miles away over two gravelly township roads. When the season rolled around every November 15, the two of them generously granted  permission for hunters to share their land. However, they insisted upon one stipulation, there could be no hunting of deer or quail, which they regarded  as “too pretty to shoot.”

I have pondered that conundrum for many years. While deer and quail were off limits, cottontail rabbits, fox squirrels and cock pheasants were fair game. My grandpa was the kindest and gentlest of men, and yet he pursued raccoon and possum, accompanied by his faithful black and tan hound Mitty, with nary a care. He also ran a trap line for muskrats and the occasional unwary mink who strayed his way. And, no thought was given to butchering day, usually on New Year’s, when the hogs that had begun the year as piglets were shot and processed into hams, tenderloin, lard, stuffed sausage, cracklings, and side meat before the sun set.

That small farmers lived hard lives of sunrise-to-sunset labor 365 days a year, did all of the unpleasant but necessary things in order  to survive is understandable. Grandpa, Uncle Edgar and others did what they had to do during the Roaring Twenties, when the economy did not roar for them and during the subsequent dark days of the Great Depression. A dollar earned from the sale of a muskrat pelt was a dollar that otherwise would not have been available. A pheasant roasting in the old wood stove was a meal fit for an emperor. And, to be fair, if most of us found ourselves in a do-or-die survival situation, we would resort to the consumption of nutritional sources that would make Bear Grylls gag.

That does not explain the contradiction evident in their sensitivity toward deer and quail or why it did not extend to muskrats, pheasants and rabbits. The dichotomy appears throughout the human story, perhaps extending deep into prehistory.

To many modern minds, the actions of small subsistence farmers of yesteryear may seem almost brutally pragmatic. Their concern for the welfare of their livestock appears selective. Why, for instance, treat the draft horse with kindness while consigning the hog to the  sausage stuffer?

One must eat in order to live, and in a state of nature animals devour one another with the greatest enthusiasm. The lion does not hesitate to bring down the terrified zebra for his evening meal, and the house cat proudly brandishes the carcass of the late mouse. I have more than once observed my dog  triumphantly toting around the mortal remains of the groundhog he has just dispatched.

I once had a great friend who was a veterinarian and a major beef cattle breeder. His view was that such creatures as cattle and hogs had no economic reason to exist other than to be converted into human food. The key word here may be economic. Certainly European wild boars and giant aurochs, ancestors of modern livestock, lived out their lives without being killed and processed by humans. That is, until humans drove many species to extinction. Economics had no bearing upon their existences. They existed because they existed, a vital element of the food chain. Saber-toothed tigers existed to eat wild hogs, and the hogs existed to feed saber-toothed tigers.

Wild creatures do what they do in accordance with their natures. While a nature film that includes a recently born caribou calf being torn and devoured by a pack of wolves, as its mother calls out in despair, may wring our hearts, the wolves are only being wolves, doing what wolves do in order to get by in a harsh land. Humans appear to be the only creatures capable of limiting their behaviors. We do a poor job of it.

While some may blanch at the coldly pragmatic processes of the family farm of today and yesteryear, and others may condemn the licensed hunter who lays in a store of venison for the winter, for pure barbarity and cruelty, nothing compares to the modern factory farm, industrialized, mechanized, ultimately unsustainable.

Pigs are highly intelligent, sensitive creatures, in all probability as much so as the average Labrador retriever or lap dog. Pigs being herded to the slaughter know what is happening to them. The slaughterhouse is a scene of gore and horror. One wonders with what enthusiasm the average human meat-eater would enjoy his meal of ham, pork chops or sausage if he could hear the screams of pigs being led to the slaughter. Hogs are often beaten and whipped in order to force them down the production line. Some continue to be conscious when they are shackled upside down by their hind legs on the way to have their throats cut. While it has often been said that intoxication reveals what sobriety conceals, it seems that slaughterhouse work may sometimes reveal otherwise hidden sadism.

As cattle are converted into T-bone steaks and Big Macs, they fare as badly as hogs. The process by which veal calves make their way to your friendly local meat counter is especially cruel. Calves, particularly males on dairy farms because they will never become milk producers, are separated from their mothers at birth, kept confined in tiny quarters and fed a low iron diet in order to produce the pale meat desired by consumers, a result of anemia. Some are maintained in such a hellish state for three to five months. Then, on the appointed day, they all have their throats cut.

I once teased a friend who ordered veal in a restaurant that she was eating Bambi. In truth, Bambi’s friends who fell to the single shots of deer hunters suffered a kinder fate than livestock being led to the abattoir. In reality, the hunter who kills and processes his own meat may be ethically superior to the housewife who purchases a pound of burger at the local supermarket, giving no thought to how the beef was processed. Much like the busload of city children who arrived at a local dairy farm at milking time and retched out. “Yuck! I would never drink that stuff. We get our milk from the supermarket.”

And yet, lest I become too self-righteous, I remember one winter afternoon while I was serving at Jimmy Carter’s National Historic Park, that  I found myself conversing with two wild-hog hunters. Wild hogs are not native to America and are a threat to other creatures, sometimes including humans. With their rooting and predations, they are destructive to the entire local ecosystems. I advised the hunters to shoot them all.

Living an ethical life with regard to our fellow creatures is an often contradictory exercise. How do we deal with exotic species that are inimical to native plants and animals, wild horses, for instance. While I may have happily seen wild hogs vanish from the Americas, what about honeybees, also an import, having arrived in New Amsterdam with Dutch settlers.

There are those who plead not to be told of such unpleasant realities, optimists and other nasty folks who spend their lives denying dark truths. They are complicit in the daily outrages of the slaughterhouse, as are all of us who consume the products. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is just ignorance. Yesterday at a favorite restaurant, I ordered and enjoyed a delicious BLT. Considering the process by which the bacon may have been produced, I think I will order a veggie wrap next time.

In order to sanitize the stigma of eating goat meat, some producers have gone to changing the label. What would have once been goat meat is now sometimes labelled “chevron.” Anyone fooled? Once upon a time, my daughters raised 4-H goats. After the county fair, 4-H animals are typically sent to market. It would be both a challenging emotional and ethical experience to send a creature one has bottle fed from infancy off to the knacker to be converted into goat trail bologna. “Don Quixote,” a LaMancha goat, and ‘Wee Tristan,” named after the young veterinarian in the PBS series “All Creatures Great and Small,”  ended up living happily ever after  in the petting zoo at Ohio’s Malabar Farm State Park.

As for fish and seafood, I have been an avid fly fisherman since the age of thirteen. In recent years, I have justified my favorite pastime by arguing that I generally practice catch and release. I had read that fish have no nerves in their lips and feel no pain from fishhooks. More recent reading has convinced me otherwise. One must eat to live, always a conundrum. Is veganism, as some argue, the only truly ethical lifestyle? Even Jesus, one deduces, was on occasion a fisherman. Among the Apostles, St. Peter and his brother St. Andrew made their livings as commercial fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.

At the urging of animal rights groups like the Lady Freethinker organization, I find myself frequently signing on to letters protesting such cruel practices as the Asian dog meat trade. As far as effectiveness goes, I am aware that my signature is to be found on the subatomic level, about as consequential as praying for world peace or an end to global hunger. Still, one does what one can, even if it makes little difference. One does what one cannot bear to not do.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Lorin Swinehart
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