The Orwellian Distortion of “Humane”

I think one of the most horrific things about industrial animal agriculture is that, by any measure of decency, it’s so horrific. What I mean here is that it exists on such a deep level of hell that virtually any other approach to raising animals for food–such as so-called sustainable animal agriculture–looks comparatively angelic. Making matters even more troublesome is that industrial animal agriculture is so firmly entrenched as the dominant mode of production that any alternative–again, so called sustainable animal agriculture–comes off looking like a savior, a knight in shining armor, or at least a prodigal son. In reality, though, it’s more like a Trojan Horse.

The human mind responds well to dichotomies. Industrial agriculture is super bad. Non-industrial agriculture is thus super good. This is an easy distinction that, for most critics of agriculture, is beyond dispute. The problem, though, is that the dichotomy is false. Terribly false. It exists not because of an objective difference between industrial and “sustainable” agriculture. Instead it thrives because of what consumers choose to see. And what consumers choose to see depends deeply on a question people in the sustainable food movement simply won’t talk about: what rights do farm animals have?

Ethical vegans build their worldview on the back of this question. We believe animals deserve some level of moral consideration. The extent of that moral consideration will always be an open question, but at the least ethical vegans believe that animals are worthy enough not to be intentionally killed so we can eat their bodies. Omnivores routinely call this idea radical. I call it common decency. I call it humane. It is through this humane lens, moreover, that I view the non-industrial farm raising animal products.  And what that lens invariably highlights is how similar that good farm is to the bad farm. “Humane” and “arbitrary death” don’t go so well together.

Take another look at the short film “Free Range” (above) and you’ll get the point. The film’s perspective is tilted in such a way that the small farm looks eerily like an industrial one: on this bucolic farm chickens are still grabbed by the legs, jammed into stacked crates, stuffed into a neat row of cones, and, as if on an assembly line, summarily killed. They’re tossed in scalding water, thrown into a centrifuge to be plucked, and hung up like articles of clothing. They’re cleaned and sold. It all happens on a smaller scale, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same.  This is what the humane perspective reveals. This is what you see when you think animals matter.

 Advocates of small-scale sustainable animal agriculture do not believe that animals have a right to their own lives. They believe animals are here for our use and exploitation. They thus see something altogether different.  When they look at a small animal farm, they see happiness. They avert their gaze from the murderous similarities and, instead, relish sunny skies and happy animals frolicking in green pastures. They support these farms because “the animals are treated with dignity.” Sure. Because when you believe animals can justifiably be killed whenever a human craves their flesh you don’t stop to ask: can arbitrary death ever be dignified?

Interestingly, these people also call their perspective humane. When I hear this term used for small scale animal agriculture I’m reminded of the comedian Louis CK, who likes to joke that he often imagines himself doing something virtuous and, even though he never actually does the virtuous act, feels smug satisfaction for even having the thought.  This is what supporters of small scale animal agriculture do. They see what they want to see, ignore the underlying and ultimate reality of what they witness, and feel good about themselves for even caring about animals at all. They do this as they “give thanks” over their happy meat.

The paradox here is almost worth smiling over. Small scale animal farms can only be considered “humane” when the consumer adopts an inhumane perspective. In other words, it is only when the consumer reduces a sentient animal to an object worthy of commodifying that he can call the system–a violent system–that does the objectifying “humane.”  To call this trick of the mind “better” than industrial farming is not only far-fetched, it’s a distortion of the values advocates of sustainable agriculture so earnestly claim to seek.  One reader recently noted that I allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the better.” In light of what I argue here, I’d put it differently: I allow compassion to be the enemy of self-deception. As do all ethical vegans.


Out of “Luck” and All the Wiser: Horse Abuse and What We Can Learn from It

The Times has done an admirable job lately covering the horse abuse that took place during the filming of the HBO series “Luck.” Several horses died of cardiac arrest during filming. The set’s lead horse handler–a veteran in the field–has been accused of overworking horses unprepared to race while injecting them with heavy doses of painkillers to encourage their performance. All in all, it looks like conditions for the horses were miserable. HBO has cancelled production, at an enormous economic cost.

PETA, an organization that typically comes under considerable heat from many animal rights activists (including me), used its considerable resources to obtain documents confirming this widespread negligence. For this I commend the organization.

The “Luck” incident, whether charges are pursued or not, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the broadest intersection of veganism and animal rights. Many vegans think squarely in terms of diet. From this perspective, the abuse that horses suffer on a movie set might seem to be the farthest thing from our noble choice not to eat animal products. In actuality, the two actions are deeply intertwined.

The ethical principle underscoring the decision not to eat animals centers squarely on the reality that animals are sentient, capable of suffering, and deserving of the right not be arbitrarily exploited. If this set of assumptions–assumptions that confirm our  humanity– is the basis upon which we reject animal-based foods, it must also be applied to other realms of life, including entertainment, clothing, cosmetics, and most cases of medical testing.  No ethical vegan can avoid suffering. But she should not, to cite obvious examples, wear leather or attend a circus that uses animals.

From a non-vegan perspective, the “Luck” case is also useful.  Non-vegans are routinely outraged by stories such as the recent “Luck” tragedy (hence why would the Times bother?). It’s worth asking why. Why do so many animal-eaters find these stories deeply disturbing? Typically what non-vegans will say in response to such a question is an articulation–however inadvertently– of why they should go vegan. They may not know that they are making such a case, but they are. (Which is why I’m happy to make the connection for them.)

“No animal deserves to be treated that way,” a non-vegan friend of mine said after hearing about the horse abuse. She’s right, of course. The underlying implication, though, is that the animal has moral worth. It has intrinsic worth. It is worthy of human moral consideration. My friend agrees with all these claims. “So then,” I asked, “why do you eat animals?” She explained that she only ate animals that were raised with dignity and given a quick and painless death. Plus, she added, as if following the sustainable food movement agitprop script, “I always give thanks.”

Herein lies a “teachable moment.” I wondered: On what basis do we think we can separate welfare concerns from an animal’s interest in life? There is no rational and moral basis for this separation; the latter is subsumed in the former. To be concerned about an animal’s welfare is–whether we act on it or not–to believe that we have no right to take that animal’s life for unnecessary purposes. To say that welfare considerations end at an animal’s dignified death is fatally inconsistent logic. You cannot agree that a life has meaning and then justify ending it because you happen to be hungry or want to sell the animal’s body parts and excretions to make a profit.

So, with the cancellation of “Luck,” we all have some thinking to do, connections to make, and a lot to learn.

“Just One Bad Day at the End”: Why “Sustainable” Animal Farming is Still Cruel

I’ve been getting a lot of hate mail lately. The bulk of the ire comes from the good folks in the sustainable food movement. They want to know why I insist on wielding my pen (as it were) to take down the good guys–the farmers who are trying to “do things right.”

My answer is simple. What the supposed good guys do is ultimately just as morally depraved as what the industrial producers do: they “harvest” animals, and in so doing cause immense unneeded suffering to feed us food we don’t need. They objectify a living, sentient being and, more often than not, seek to profit from that objectification. Worse, they then cover up their action in the veil of environmentalism. So that’s why I wield my pen to expose the small animal farms for what they are: a place that kills animals that do not want to–and do not have to–die. I go after the good guys because what the good guys do is rotten.

Evidence for my point hits hard in this 10 minute film made by Neel Parekh. Note the tired, formulaic rhetoric used by Kim Alexander, and then note how reality trumps rhetoric around the 5:24 point in the film.  (Oh yeah, and happy “International Respect for Chickens Day.”)

“Every Twelve Seconds”: Timothy Pachirat and the “Politics of Sight”

The cover of Timothy Pachirat’s haunting new book,  Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, is a photograph of a blood-stained slaughterhouse worker shown from the waist down. While the temptation might be to interpret this image as a sensational eye-catcher chosen to sell books, it’s something else entirely–it’s an apt visual metaphor for the contents of a magisterial study, one that the author wrote based on several months of full-time employment in the bowels of a Nebraska slaughterhouse.

Pachirat’s signal achievement is to show–really show–in detached but vivid detail the calculated methods used to protect slaughterhouse employees from the psychological weight of their actions. That is, to ensure that the elemental nature of their work is never quite acknowledged, never quite seen. Much as the slaughterhouse attempts to engineer individual animal identity out of the picture, so the worker on the book’s cover has his individuality erased. Instead of the face of a worker, instead of an expression that we can see and read, we–many of whom eat the products that come from this anonymous scene– get a generic rubber apron and boots, splattered with the viscera of animals that have also been “de-animalized.” The affect is poignant.

The erasure of identity pervades Pachirat’s account. “In the chutes,” he explains, “each of the cattle has its own unique characteristics: breed, sex, height, width, hide pattern, level of curiosity, eyes, horns, sound of bellow.” Then comes the cold mechanism of slaughter. The animal is stunned and stuck, shackled and suspended. This process, according to Pachirat, “seems geared to stripping them of these unique identifiers in order to begin the process of turning living animals into homogenous raw material.”

Even death amid this violence is somehow erased. Perhaps the most compelling evidence pointing to the purposeful avoidance of slaughter’s emotional toll is this harrowing fact: on the kill floor, nobody really knows exactly when a cow dies. Cows are stunned and stuck, hung and dismembered, but the actual moment of death during the flow of this macabre conveyer belt is often impossible to pinpoint.

Evidence of death’s ambiguity and elusiveness comprises some of the book’s most terrifying moments. Animals might appear to be dead but workers will often find a cow “hoisted by its hind leg . . . kicking and swinging wildly.” It’s not unusual to discover that a cow, before reaching the “knocker,” “struggles off the belt and begins to run around the kill floor, panicked by the blood, vomit, and sight and smells of the stunned and shackled cows dangling overhead.” Cows can even get to the dismembering stage while still alive. Pachirat: “The tail ripper, the first leggers, and the bung capper will begin cutting into a cow’s tail, right rear leg, and anus, respectively, while the cow is still sentient.”

Understandably, workers don’t want to confront the moment of death, they don’t want to feel implicated, and the logic of the slaughterhouse design reflects this desire not to know. “Only a few see the cattle while they are alive or are in the process of being killed,” Pachirat continues, “and an even smaller number are actively involved in the killing.” Plus, there’s the fact that “the act of killing itself is divided into more stages, which are also out of sight of one another.”

This book is important. Very important. I’ll be writing more about it in future posts. For now, buy it, read it, and share it with anyone who thinks they’re at peace with eating animals. After all, what Pachirat shows without telling, is that every time we eat animals we promote suffering that, should we confront it directly, we’d deem entirely unacceptable.

“Perhaps the Only Ethical Meat”?: The “Ethicist’s” Finalists

The finalists are in for the New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” contest seeking an essay justifying the choice to eat animals.  While there’s little doubt in my mind that two of the judges– Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan–will (based on their previous work) find most of the chosen answers adequate, I’d be shocked if the others– Peter Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light–allowed these often thoughtful, but consistently speciesist, accounts to see the light of day. The exception, of course, may be the call for in-vitro meat, which I’ve included below.

The other finalists can be found here:

 From “The Ethicist”:

I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years

My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater. He loved sitting at the elevated gourmet table (“gourmet” actually meant something back then) at the fanciest hotel in Sydney to take his evening meal.

He hung up game until it “ponged” to high heaven and enjoyed local meat dishes: wild boar in Switzerland, giant crabs on Easter Island and, in the Persian Gulf, sea turtles whose shells he pierced so that he could stake them at the water’s edge, keeping them fresh until they were popped into the pot.

His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that “wretched bother” in a time when ethical issues were raised only by “a handful of Hindus and Grahamists.”

He taught me, the animal lover, to enjoy meat, too. It did not occur to me that while I would never dream of using a firearm to dispatch a deer or a duck, the specialty butcher’s package, with blood seeping through the paper, came from animals who knew what hit them, who saw and smelled it coming, their hearts thumping in their chests, their eyes wide with fear.

I busily ate my way through the animal kingdom. My father and I hunted for mollusks — mussels and winkles — on the rocks around the Cornish coast. We relished organ meats like liver and kidney and even tripe, which my mother cooked reluctantly for us, a hankie covering her nose. We picnicked on raw triple-ground steak, smashing it messily into the palms of our hands, and mixing in, with our fingers, a raw egg, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If peckish, I would make a sandwich from the roast beef drippings congealed in a pan left in the larder.

Is it ethical to eat meat? Some 40 years ago, I took a long break from eating any animals, but soon I will be able to eat meat again without any qualms, without worrying about my health, cruelty to animals, or environmental degradation. That’s because this autumn, 14 years after it was just a gleam in the eye of the Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, the very first laboratory-grown hamburger is to make its debut.

Dr. Van Eelen, while a prisoner during World War II, had been badly treated, but what bothered him more was the abuse he saw meted out to animals destined for the guards’ tables. He was determined to find a way to reduce animals’ suffering, and eventually, he and the scientists he inspired all over the world succeeded. It is thanks to him that I can return to the table with my lobster bib tucked into my shirt front, my conscience clear.

In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.

“A chicken murderer in training”: The Chilling Reality of Slaughter


What follows in this entry is deeply disturbing. It’s the account of three roosters being slaughtered at Narrow Path Farm (location unknown). Especially disturbing is how a young boy witnesses, and then is taught to celebrate, a horribly botched slaughter.

I include this material not to be sensationalistic. Instead, I include to stress a claim central to my work: killing animals we do not have to kill hardens the human heart and perpetuates disdain for animals. Advocates of localized slaughter–DIY slaughter–like to claim that raising and killing one’s own animals creates heightened awareness of and respect for animals.  They talk about “connecting with their meat” and being “conscientious carnivores.” Well, here’s yet another example of what all that looks like.



“3 Roosters on Death Row”
While I was in Florida my dad called and gave us the news that Pigeon, my favorite chicken  had died.  Pigeon was the leader of the flock and the protector of the hens.  Whenever a rooster was being mean to a hen Pigeon would run over and cut them off.  Now, Pigeon is dead and there is no one to protect the hens.  Polly was getting attacked by the roosters and only has 2 feathers in her bottom right now.  That is why we killed 3 roosters.

It all happened yesterday.  Andie and I stayed in the house and watched TV. Dad, Mom, Shelby, and Cole killed 3 roosters.  In the the morning my dad and I let out the hens & left the 3 unlucky rooster’s in the coop.

After church the chicken slaughter started.  When my mom went to get chicken number one Morris escaped from the coop.  He took off like a rocket.  Dad went and got his gun.  You can guess what happens next.
My Dad tried a new chicken killing technique.  Instead of hanging the bird from his feet and cutting the head off (which got blood all over the barn) – Dad decided to cut off the head in the yard.  Dad put his foot on the chicken to hold it still and cut his head off.  He only did it once.  Why?  

Because it did back flips down the hill and into the woods.  Without a head.


Chicken still doing back flips – headless.



This is Cole while the chicken was doing headless back flips.




Here is a chicken murderer in training.



In this picture my and Dad and Cole were trying to get the skin off the first chicken.  They squished it and it said, “BOOARQ”.  It was headless & dead, but when you squeeze them they still make noise.  Cole said, “Dad, I think he said he doesn’t want to be dead.”

My little brother Cole now has 4 chicken feet.  Mom says chicken feet can be used to make soups. Our chickens feet are caked in poop and gross – I don’t think the soup would be very good.   My mom took the pictures of the chicken slaughter.


From Exploitation to Companionship: Urban Chickens Find Justice in Minneapolis

Advocates for animals take their victories when and where they come, be they big or small, real or symbolic, overdue or ahead of the curve. Last week, a decision in Minneapolis was a very big, very real, and very forward-thinking victory for urban animals—particularly chickens.

As Ian Elwood reported, the city’s new farming regulations dictate that “chickens are viewed by the city more like companion animals and less like livestock.”  Not only do clarified rules prohibit chickens (all animals, in fact) from being kept in community gardens, market gardens, or on urban farms, but—perhaps most importantly– they cannot be slaughtered within city limits. Commenting on the possible benefits that might accrue from this decision, Mary Britton Clouse, of Chicken Run Rescue, speculates that urbanites will adopt chickens “as companion animals” rather than as objects of exploitation.  Provided that most urban animal owners currently raise chickens for eggs and either kill them or pawn them off on shelters when egg production drops, any effort that encourages treating chickens like companion animals is welcome progress toward animal justice.

The reason behind Minneapolis’ change of heart involves the failure of the JD Rivers Garden Project. Designed to teach children the virtues of gardening, the program decided to add chickens to its urban farm.  What better way to teach children the centrality and supposed importance of animals to agriculture. Or so it was thought.  Instead of lessons in the subtleties of mixed farming, children learned that neglected chickens suffer.  Vandals destroyed chicken coops, thieves stole chickens, ramshackle coops made of discarded chain link fences made poor homes, and—when you get right down to it—these animals were implicitly deemed unworthy of decent protection. Over the course of a summer, children who were supposed to learn the beauties of urban agriculture absorbed the lesson that, in the end, these animals don’t matter.

What they witnessed was emblematic of what’s happening nationally. The trend toward keeping animals on urban farms is growing rapidly and cities lacking the foresight of Minneapolis are repeatedly being caught off guard by unintended (but easily predictable) consequences. The short-sightedness of the urban farm animal trend is manifest in the fact that the surrender of unwanted chickens, as Chicken Run Rescue calculates it, has gone up 800 percent since 2001. Craigslist now has categories for “poultry swaps”—code for “please take my chicken I’m done using her.”

The brilliance of the Minneapolis legislation is that it recognizes the basic truth that urban agriculture thrives best when it exclusively cultivates a wide range of plants for people to eat.  In Elwood’s words, “Minneapolis can serve as an example to other cities that are considering adding animals to their urban farming laws. The city has taken great strides toward achieving food justice, while encouraging residents to grow bountiful crops without putting animals in danger.”

A victory indeed.