“Ooga Booga”: I Take on a “Critic”

Here is a piece that recently ran in “CHOW.” It’s an article

opposing an article I wrote against backyard slaughtering. My

comments will follow. Here is my original piece:



From Chow:

The Unthinking Man’s Case Against Backyard Slaughter

 Writing for The Atlantic, James McWilliams offers a passionate argument against a new locavore rallying cry finding a voice in Oakland, California: deregulating animal slaughter so that urban farmers can kill their own chickens, rabbits, goats, and other edible creatures.

McWilliams’s essay against backyard slaughter (and, to some extent, animal husbandry in general) is cleanly written, emotive—and almost utterly nonsensical. When you boil it down, it’s like this:

Anecdotes exist of urban farmers improperly slaughtering animals, and McWilliams renders one vividly, which I’ll paraphrase: “One time a poorly informed woman smothered a chicken! It took three minutes! Ooga booga!” There are also stories of urban farmers mistreating animals even before slaughter (more shotgun anecdotes via Google). Those poor animals!

This makes sense for about 30 seconds, until you consider: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals.

One of the many important differences here is that urban farmers have a presumed interest in getting better at humanely raising and slaughtering their charges, since many (perhaps most) are driven by principles of animal welfare. The industrial concerns, by contrast, have only one interest: shareholders’ value. Besides, are a few backyard farmers in Oakland really the issue for those who care about animal welfare?

Finally, I’ll let McWilliams’s closing “argument” stand on its own merits: “A final reason locavores should dismiss the Oakland initiative has to do with the psychological impact of killing animals that are kept as part of an urban household. How can we comfortably support a movement toward the local slaughter of sentient animals when we nurture and love 78 million dogs, 86 million cats, four million birds, one million rabbits, and one million lizards as companion animals?”

So, uh … what? We’d be bummed if we killed a creature that’s vaguely like another creature we like? And does McWilliams somehow think that by citing numbers of pets he’s making a logical case? This guy is an associate professor writing under the banner of The Atlantic, and yet this level of logic and research wouldn’t fly in an undergrad’s term paper. At least I hope it wouldn’t.

The widely ranging, incoherent nature of the piece raises a broad question: Is McWilliams’s essay merely an argument for large-scale vegetarianism on ethical grounds? That’s a radically different proposition than the supposed topic of his essay, Why We Must Not Let Our Neighbors Kill and Eat Their Ducks, and one not lightly undertaken.

Or is he shilling for agribusiness? In defense of McWilliams: probably not, since Big Ag’s think tanks would probably have equipped him with better ammunition than this shoddy stuff.

Personally, I have no duck in this fight, and I’m ambivalent about the issue. That said, if the best McWilliams can do to oppose Oakland’s backyard slaughter initiative is to cite a few disturbing anecdotes and a small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble about Fido and Mr. Whiskers, it might just lead a thoughtful reader to conclude: “Hey, how bad can this idea actually be?”


My Response:

1) The author dismisses my argument in part because my evidence is “anecdotal.” Well, of course it’s anecdotal. I’m writing about a quasi-legal trend that’s largely off the radar screen. The key for anyone trying to debunk my line of attack–using evidence of botched slaughters from published blogs to highlight the welfare problems of backyard slaughtering–is to somehow show that my anecdotes are misrepresentative of the movement as a whole. In essence, that they are exceptions to the rule of “humane” slaughtering. Given the many examples I have amassed of similarly “anecdotal” botched slaughters, this will be a very hard thing to do. I welcome the challenge. The other problem with attacking the use of anecdotes is that it prevents one from, well, using counter anecdotes. Recently, for example, a woman chastised me for using anecdotes and then sent me a video of her expertly slaughtering a chicken. In other words, an anecdote.

2) The author delivers highly-charged dismissals of my logic(“almost utterly nonsensical”), and then offers ideas that actually are utterly nonsensical. Take this quote: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals. This is a common response to my criticisms of small-scale slaughter, and locavores in general. The logic goes like this: yes, backyard slaughter can be bad, but industrial scale slaughter is worse;  therefore, we should support small scale slaughter. Naturally, this logic–the lesser of two evils–only works if the two evils are in fact the only choices. And of course, as the title of my blog reminds us, it is not.  [In a less potent example of the author’s own inconsistency, he writes that my article is “cleanly written” and then dismisses its “widely ranging, incoherent nature” while mocking it as a “small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble.”]

3) The article is a baseless screed against my own piece that ends, somewhat astonishingly, with the author declaring that he’s “ambivalent about the issue.” Whaaaa? Actually, the admission is telling. If he really is ambivalent about the issue, then he’s most certainly not ambivalent about ME. Which leads me to my last point. This article is a classic example of resorting to ad hominem rhetoric because the problem being posed is simply too difficult to resolve. I am ultimately asking backyard slaughter enthusiasts to justify the logic of loving animals, raising them well, and then killing them for food that we do not need. Start seriously thinking about that one. Or, like the author, you could simply toss off some quotable insults and declare: ooga booga!!



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to “Ooga Booga”: I Take on a “Critic”

  1. beaelliott says:

    ooga booga indeed! I was stunned myself when I read that your critic was “ambivalent about the issue”… If ever there was a time to err on the side of compassion – This truly would be be it.

    Backyard slaughter supporters are try to toss off killing as no big deal… But taking life is a very serious and malicious act – I’m grateful that you’re calling them on their false notions and self deceits.
    Thank you.

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