On Fishing and Entitlement

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A few weeks ago, I was sitting out near the man-made lake by the building where I work.  The lake is home to a number of extremely large koi, large enough to swallow your small child whole.  This particular day was “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day” and a father was walking along the lake with his daughter (who was not eaten by the fish) and a co-worker.  The man pointed out the koi to his daughter.

“See those really large fish?  They get that big because they don’t let people fish in this lake.  So the fish just eat and eat and eat because there’s no one there to catch them.”

I was a little taken aback by this.  The tone he said this in wasn’t one of, “See how happy fish are when you aren’t screwing with them?”  It was more of, “Fish need us to catch them and eat them so they don’t get so huge.”

This sense of entitlement is pervasive among omnivores defending their meat eating.  From the brutish “If we’re able to kill them, we should be able to eat them” to the awfully assuming “God put them here for us” to the it-stopped-being-clever-when-it-became-a-bumper-sticker “God wouldn’t have made animals so tasty if He didn’t want us to eat them,” the underlying theme is that it’s our right as The Mighty Humans to eat what we want, when we want.  We see it when there’s a backlash against a foie gras ban when restaurants that fight against these bans are looked at as freedom fighting heroes rather than purveyors of the most obvious of cruelties.  It’s a very different case from being entitled to use animals because we need them to live: we don’t.  We just want to eat what we think is exotic or what tastes good.

I think that feelings of entitlement are also behind the “they need us to [hunt/milk/catch] them or else they’ll [overpopulate/burst/get huge]” arguments that frequently come up.  In a sense, those arguments are saying, “We’re doing them a favor, so we should be able to eat them.”

I wanted to say to that guy, “Trust me.  Fish definitely don’t need us to catch them.  Just like cows don’t need to be milked and deer don’t need to be sniped.”  Alas, I think my comment would have fallen on deaf ears.  And it might have gotten me thrown in the lake.

Pigs

Reading through PigProgress.net, “Your Portal On Global Pig Production,” is a strange experience.  Their blog ranges from mundane things like “pellets vs. meal” to “Salmonella testing – is it going to cause a problem for you?” and discussions about piglet tail docking.  They have a section on gestation crates and feature ads for companies that make “agri-housing” for animals (lots of images of chicken buildings and pig buildings therein).  Overall, though, the tone of the site is much tamer than similar ones from other industries.

What baffles me, though, is their “pigculular news” section which features supposedly off-the-wall stories about pigs, but which really ends up reinforcing the idea that pigs are smart, sentient beings.  It surprises me to no end to see the industry promoting stories like “Pet dog cares for discarded piglets” and “Piglets take on art world.”  Of course, they also have unfortunate stories like “Alabama boy, 11, kills giant pig” and “Pig bladder helped man regrow his fingertip,” but overall, the tone of the stories are the type you might expect to find on an animal rights blog.

Very weird.

Worthy of Respect

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All animals are worthy of our respect and maybe stories like this one out of Alaska will help others begin to grasp that.

A 50-ton bowhead whale was caught off the Alaskan coast last month.  In him was a very old weapon fragment that experts used to place the age of the whale at between 115 and 130-years-old.  A hundred years ago, this whale survived a shot by whale hunters and roamed the oceans for a century, wearing the weapon fragment like a badge of honor.  Bowhead whales can live to be 200-years-old, making them “perhaps the most aged animals on Earth.”

Unfortunately, this particular whale met his match last month when hunters killed it with a similar weapon, which is described in the following terms:

The 49-foot male whale died when it was shot with a similar projectile last month, and the older device was found buried beneath its blubber as hunters carved it with a chain saw for harvesting.

“Harvesting” is one of those terms that should limited to grains and vegetables, not sentient beings.

According to the article, whales are a primary source of food for Alaskans and a hunting quota has been renewed to allow 255 whales to be killed by ten Alaskan villages over a five year period.

On Infighting, Welfarism, Rights, and Abolition

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Preface

Before I get into this, let me preface by saying a few things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues over the last nine months.  I’ve started two or three posts on the issue and have ended up abandoning them because I didn’t know which direction I was going to go with them.  In fact, I still don’t know.

While I consider myself an animal advocate, I don’t feel like I’ve delved very deeply into the animal rights “movement.”  That is to say, I don’t have a day job at one of the national organizations, I haven’t attended demonstrations, and I don’t spend a lot of time doing letter writing campaigns.  All of these are good things, but based on time constraints and other considerations, I have to choose different ways to advocate for animals (like this blog).  As a result, this means I can still view arguments between national groups and well-known activists with somewhat of an outsider’s eye.

It’s never ceased to surprise me that any group, no matter how small or how niche, will always break down into in-fighting at one point or another.  One cause that I’ve been involved with for years has split into a number of factions because of disagreements and personality conflicts, this despite the fact that the cause is a disease that only affects about 50 people in the entire world.  So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that a lot of people working together for the same core reason — the animals — will often disagree on the best way to help.

I’d like to think that every serious animal advocate is an abolitionist at their core: they want to see animal exploitation go away.  They’d like the world to be vegan and they want animal interests to be considered alongside human interests.  The differences start to arise when the methods to get there come up.

Welfare, Rights, and Abolition

Welfarists believe incremental steps are an important part of the animal rights strategy.  Encourage changes within the system to improve the lives of the animals that are slaughtered, educate people about the conditions at factory farms and hope that if these people move to organic/free range meat and eggs, it’s only the first of many steps they’ll make to ending animal cruelty in their lives.

Pure abolitionists believe that we shouldn’t spend time promoting or fighting for things like removal of gestation crates for sows or cage free eggs on college campuses.  They don’t view these as victories because any marginal gains for the animals are offset by the people that now feel content with eating their humanely-raised meat or cage-free eggs.

Should we spend our resources on welfare reforms?

The primary arguments for spending time and money on these reforms include:

  1. They cost the industry money.
  2. They reduce animal suffering.
  3. They are effective in getting people to give up animal products (which is, presumably, the real end goal).

So, do these hold up?

The first question is the hardest for me to answer, even though it probably can be calculated and stated somewhat definitively.  Yes, the industry spends money to defend against welfare reforms.  Yes, implementing the reforms initially will probably cost them money.  But in literature from national organizations, one of the benefits touted to the industry is that the changes will be cost effective and will, presumably, increase profits.

We also see the industry taking credit for these changes, using them as a way to say, “Hey, look at us.  We care about the animals.  Buy from us, we’re not evil!”

I suspect that it may cost the industry a little money up front, but I have a tough time believing that incremental welfare reforms will cost them much money in the long-run.  The industry has proven itself as extremely adaptable.  If they are forced to comply with one new welfare regulation, they’ll find another loophole to exploit that will make up for it.

Next is the reduction in animal suffering.  Yes, it is better that a sow can turn around rather than being jammed in a gestation crate.  And yes, it may be better that a chicken doesn’t have to stand on wire.  However, from people I know that have been to “free range” or “cage free” farms, they describe these places as every bit as bad as a battery cage operation.  There’s still almost no room to move, the birds are still debeaked, there’s still an unbearable stench, and the birds don’t receive any extra medical care.  I haven’t been to either a battery cage facility or a free range facility, so I’m forced to go on what others have told me.

So, while there are (from my perspective) marginal welfare gains from adoption of cage free or free range eggs, I’m a bit concerned by lauding these as a “victory.”  It reminds me of Chris Rock’s bit about men that brag, “I take care of my children!”  Rock responds, “You’re supposed to take care of your children!  What do you want, a cookie?”  The industry should be treating these animals better.  Do we really want to give them a cookie just because they’re mistreating chickens slightly less?

Do I think pushing for animal welfare is a waste of time and money?  I don’t know.  I mean, in some sense, when there’s all this awful stuff going on, shouldn’t we try and make it better for the animals going through it right now?  On the other hand, would a wrongly trapped prisoner want groups to mobilize their writing campaigns to focus on getting him a bigger cell or would he a want campaign that worked to get him out of jail altogether and keep it from happening again to someone else?

I realize this isn’t the perfect metaphor, but it’s how I’ve thought through this issue thus far.  Take from it what you will.

Lastly, we need to think about whether or not these incremental steps will help encourage people to move to vegetarianism or veganism.  Several years ago, I might have said, “Yeah, going organic/free range is a good first step.”  However, as I’ve talked to more people and read more material, I’m not convinced of this anymore.  One great example: this past Christmas, I had a discussion with a family member who was fully convinced that eating free range eggs was fine because “the birds are treated so well.”  The way I see it, we have enough trouble convincing the average person that eggs aren’t OK even though they “don’t involve killing the chicken.”  People already have to be convinced to not eat eggs.  If we also have to convince them that, no, free range isn’t really OK, it adds an added layer of complexity for animal advocates.

An even more disturbing trend that I noted in an earlier post is that of long-time vegetarians returning to eating meat because now they can feel better about it.  I don’t know the de-conversation rate we’re talking about here, but the fact that anyone went from ethical vegetarianism back to consuming animal products scares the hell out of me.  I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but it’s happening, which means that this idea of “humanely raised meat” may not be having the results originally hoped for in terms of being a stepping stone to veg*nism.

Marcus v.s. Francione

This weekend, I listened to the lengthy debate between Erik Marcus and Gary Francione.  I was looking forward to this because both men are passionate about animal rights, have a lot of common ground, and state their positions well.  I’ve got to be honest, though… listening to this “debate” (not really a debate since there were no time restrictions or moderators) was difficult.  Uncomfortable, even.

Reading reaction to the debate, I wasn’t surprised to see a wide variety of responses.  Some felt that Erik came across as ill-prepared for Gary’s onslaught.  Others felt Gary was rude by frequently interrupting and dismissing what Erik had to say.  Still others thought that Erik was the rude one by calling Francione a “fundamentalist” without having read his books.

Part of the reason I felt very ill-at-ease while listening to the debate was that I really wanted this debate to go well.  I’m friends with Erik and he was a big influence on me throughout my veg* journey, but at the same time, I find Gary to be an engaging speaker with very solid ideals.  And man, he’s a freakin’ fireball.  I’d love to see him go up against someone like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.  Or someone from the CCF.

Nevertheless, I found myself getting frustrated by the interruptions, the flow of the discussion, and the general tone from both of them.  And I think both participants felt the same way, as they sounded completely exasperated with each other by the end.

That said, while it wasn’t easy to listen to the debate, I encourage everyone to do so (if you don’t have time for the whole thing, listen to the first part — the second part involves a lot of going around in circles).  I think that even though these discussions may be uncomfortable and bring up a lot of strong emotions, it’s crucial that we talk.

One thing that’s baffled me has been the fact we have two very similar AR conferences: Animal Rights and Taking Action for Animals.  In recent years, national organizations have refused to participate in one of the conferences because SHAC supporters were on the same agenda.  Not the same panel, necessarily, but just at the same conference.  They didn’t want to be associated with the “extremists.”

As far as I’m concerned, we need to mobilize all corners of the AR movement.  Of course there are going to be disagreements and arguments, but for heaven’s sake, let’s talk about it.  Let’s take a look at things from all angles and honestly consider tactics, techniques, and ways that we spend our money.  Long-time activists need to hear new ideas and newcomers need to pay attention and learn from those that have come before them.

I realize I’m saying this as a relative newcomer to the movement that is very much still an outsider.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn and that my perspectives will change with time, but I get this feeling that we’re at a very important crossroads in the movement.  We need to respectfully sit down and discuss things on a level that doesn’t get personal.  One side shouldn’t say (or even imply) that the other is wasting their time.  Or dismiss the other’s opinions out of hand because it’s different.  Or ignore another viewpoint because it may seem too extreme or fundamentalist on the surface.  If we can form a real, honest dialogue that leaves egos and personal conflicts at the door, perhaps we can figure out where we really go from here.  I suspect there isn’t a simple answer.

Elsewhere

Here’s some more stuff to read/listen to, primarily with regards to the debate.  I haven’t gone through all of these, so this is as much a list for me as it is for you:

30 Days of Repulsiveness

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Today is National Pig Day, which as you might imagine has nothing to do with celebrating pigs for, um, being pigs.  Instead, food blog Serious Eats celebrates with features on Chinese Pork Butt, regional barbecued pork, and “pig chefs.”

Perhaps the most repulsive article, though, is 30 Days of Pork, which discusses a vegetarian’s return to meat eating by eating pig every day for a month. 

From the article (emphasis mine):

Ms. Kelso (right), a 34-year-old executive producer for an interactive ad agency in San Francisco, became a vegetarian while living with a vegan boyfriend. “He was adamant that his cookware not come in contact with any meat products.” Because she cares about animals, their welfare, and their ethical treatment, she said, she found it relatively easy to give up meat. But, she says, “I love the taste, so I was one of those vegetarians who would always try all the fake meats.”

It was after reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, however, that Ms Kelso was prompted to rethink her reasons for becoming a vegetarian—namely her interest in remaining true to personal ethics regarding the impact of food on the environment and society. The book, which came out earlier this year, follows four very different meals from source to table while assessing their ethical, economical, and social impact along the way.

“After reading it, I realized that I was in violation of those ethics even while being a vegetarian,” Ms. Kelso said. “Unless I drop out of society, live in the forest, and become a hunter-gatherer, I have an impact based on what I buy, no matter what it is.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole “conscientious omnivore” thing (and, somewhat related, the welfare v.s. rights v.s. abolition argument — that, I’ll cover separately) and the more I see things like this, the more the idea of being promoting “conscientious omnivorousness” bothers me.

Yes, it would be nice if people that ate meat started caring about how the animals were treating.  Yes, it would be nice if learning about slaughterhouses, dairy farms, and egg farms eventually led these people on a path to veganism.  And, yes, eating locally farmed meat may be marginally better than factory farmed meat (in the same way that punching someone in the face with your fist is better than punching them while wearing brass knuckles).

But, no, it’s not nice to keep seeing these articles about so-called ethical vegetarians that decide to go back to eating meat because now they can eat “happy meat” and have their conscience sated.  People like Kelso are drawing conclusions from books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Way We Eat that allow them to return to meat consumption with a clear heart, convinced somehow that eating animals is more ethically correct than not eating animals.  That’s some seriously shaky ground.

The article ends thusly:

While she says that she may go back to being a vegetarian (or maybe not), Ms. Kelso is looking forward to the holidays at home, where, she says, her father is awaiting her visit. “He’s obsessed with cooking and is very excited about the next time I go out and visit him. He’s already planning all his special meat dishes.”

*sigh*  I’m sure the pigs are all just as excited.