"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eating Meat, Bambi, And Little Bo Peep

“Is that Bambi in the freezer?”, my niece asked her mother.

Her older brother had indeed shot a deer the day before, skinned it, butchered it, and distributed it to friends and family in Paradise Valley. The issue was not the meat itself. Hunting was not a sport in western Montana, and the meat lockers on South Main Street were filled with harvested deer, elk, and antelope. Few families shopped for meat at the IGA.

Yet, from my young niece’s perspective, the venison in the freezer was indeed Bambi; for she had grown up like all little children in a world of fantasy where animals were sweet and cuddly.

She slept with a stuffed raccoon named Racky and brought Bayou the Teddy Bear with her to school every day. She never could square hunting, meat, Mommy’s roast, and Bambi.  There was something wrong in the mix, and it was Bambi.

“Danny should never have killed Bambi and put him in the freezer”, she said to her mother. “Bambi loved to play in Paradise Valley.”

What could any mother say to that? It had to come one day – the end of innocence, fantasy, and happy illusion – but that didn’t make the transition any easier.  She patiently explained to her daughter that it was not Bambi in the freezer, but meat for the family table.  It was no different from the meat people bought in the supermarket.  “Like Bessie The Cow”, her daughter replied, “Or Thumper the Rabbit”.

My sister realized it was no use.  Her daughter was on the cusp of logic, but not quite there.  The images of Bambi, Bessie, and Thumper would be around for a while longer.  So much the better, she thought..

“Get rid of them all at once”, her friend Marge told her. “And include Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny well.  Get it over with quickly.  Like ripping off a bandage.”

Of course she would never do that, thought my sister.  Cruel and unusual punishment to deprive her daughter of her sweet dreams all at once.  A childhood Armageddon.  No, she concluded.  Better to let Jennifer work it out, and decide on which side of the pasture fence she stood.

What if schools taught children where meat came from? wonder some progressive educators. If children realized how chickens were raised, pigs slaughtered, and meat butchered, they would certainly be more sympathetic to vegetarianism, easing the pressure on the planet, instilling a respect for life, and encouraging better health.

Editors at The Federalist (11.21.14) explored the issue and not surprisingly encountered a range of positions:

Recently, a teacher in Idaho found himself in hot water after killing and skinning a rabbit in front of his tenth-grade biology class. The instructor was attempting to show his students “how food gets to the table,” but the graphic, visceral lesson upset some parents.

Walking into a classroom unawares and seeing a bunny get its neck snapped would be shocking and scarring for anyone, one editor remarked. Such a harsh disruption of the sanitized, safe classroom setting would require a lot of sympathy on the part of the teacher.

The problem is that in order to determine how the story of meat is to be told, one has to first answer why it should be told at all.  The Pro-Life movement feels that graphic images of dead fetuses will help promote its cause.  Anti-smoking advocates have long pushed for photographs of deformed and disfigured cancer victims who have lost their lips and throats. Radical vegetarians would certainly back the demonstration of the Idaho teacher – the more brutal, gory, and unpleasant the better. 

Animal rights activists would argue that there is no way to varnish the truth about poultry pens, slaughter houses, and animal suffering. Environmentalists who understand the power of iconic images know that a dead, bloody rabbit can do more to deflate demand for meat than scenes of waving grain. 

Hindus might wince at the sight of a dead rabbit, but such a dramatic display might encourage ahimsa, the universal respect for life in all its forms.

If there is no political purpose behind the demonstration, then why do it at all? Why unnecessarily bring blood and gore to the dining room table, spoil Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years? One of The Federalist editors remarked:

My cute little 14-year-old daughter came to us and said she wanted to kill something. After briefly panicking, we listened and she really felt like if she was going to eat meat, and she really believes in eating meat, that she should be willing to know and understand the gore behind it. It was kind of morally important to her.

All well and good, but moral lessons should surely focus on man’s inhumanity to man. There is enough moral impropriety reported in the daily news to fill a hundred textbooks. Moreover,human beings have killed and eaten meat since we came out of the trees. Ten millennia of living as part of the food chain, eating and being eaten, without giving it a second thought. 

Moreover, physical anthropologists have concluded that eating cooked meat allowed for the human brain to expand in size, capacity and potency. The massive jaws necessary for grinding, mashing, and chewing great quantities of fibrous vegetable matter limited brain size and growth.  Meat provided energy, protein, and nutrients in a simplified, efficient form. It still does.

In other words, there are no moral lessons to be taught. Most people take the words of Genesis to heart and stop there. “Man shall have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Nowhere is there an injunction to be kind and caring. In fact there are more burnt offerings and lambs slaughtered for ritual sacrifice in the first five books of the Bible to fill an entire volume. Observant Jews take care in the slaughtering of animals because of Biblical issues of cleansing and purity not out of compassion.

Thanks to our democratic, pluralistic society and its many differing points of view, there is no way that any of the beliefs referred to above – moral, spiritual, or environmental – will find their way into public schools. There is a time and place for the expression of radical beliefs, and it is not there.

An objective course in economic ecology – the relationships among resources, demand, and consumption – is a good thing; for it will present students with a rational, critical look at intensive vs. extensive farming and ranching, comparative nutritive values, international markets for food, and other issues relevant to food consumption. Such a course would enable students to come first to logical conclusions about the distribution of food sources; and would provide the foundation on which they can add their own personal, religious, or other subjective judgments.  No dead rabbits are required.

Personally I have never been persuaded that animals have souls.  Not only is the Bible quite clear on this subject, but a ‘celestial barnyard’, as a pastor friend once put it, was definitely not a place where he wanted to spend all Eternity.

The Law of Tooth and Fang is more brutal than any Kansas City slaughterhouse. Hunters aim for a clean kill and deliver a coup de grace before the animal can suffer.  Slaughterhouses sever the spinal cord of animals to kill them ‘mercifully’.  Lions on the veldt rip open bellies, eviscerate their prey, and feast while the animal is still alive.

I am quite happy, therefore, to fill my shopping cart with chicken thighs, lamb chops, ribeye, veal kidneys, and every other part of any animal available without giving a second thought to how they were raised, slaughtered, butchered, and packaged.  As I cruise the aisles of Whole Foods I am only thinking of how I am going to cook them.  Last night, for example, I made a tagine with lamb shoulder, Moroccan spices, and oranges. It was delicious. And at least until I finished shopping, I didn’t think once of Little Bo Peep.