Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cruel world

Wandering through the Intertubes the other day, I ran across someone who said, approximately, that the thing that may strike future generations as most barbaric about early 21st century America is our wanton cruelty to farm animals.

I forgot who said that, but it came back to my mind when I was watching a documentary on HBO the other night about a corporate pig farm. An undercover activist took a job there so that he could secretly try to confirm a rumor he had heard: that the farm disposed of unmarketable hogs by hanging them with a chain.

He got the goods, all right: shots of pigs unable even to walk being dragged out of barns by their legs and strung up, kicking for four or five minutes before expiring.

That was the sensational shot, but the whole atmosphere had a sense of casual cruelty to it that made it hard to watch. Pigs were confined in pens so narrow they could not move about or even turn around. They could lie down only in their own filth.

Piglets were sorted and tossed into barrels like lumber, piled by the dozen on top of each other while still alive and squealing.

Why are we so mean?

I don't think I'm a polyanna about this sort of thing. I grew up in the country. We kept our own chickens and occasionally chopped off the head of one or two to make Sunday dinner. Farming isn't a PETA party.

But there was a certain rough justice in it. You couldn't call it a social contract because the animals didn't get to vote. But they did get certain compensations. If farm life is tough on animals, life in the wild is often even tougher. Farmers offered their livestock a steady, nourishing diet, relative safety from predators and reasonable accommodations. In return, the occasional animal became dinner. Farmers often felt protective, even affectionate, toward the animals they tended and sometimes slaughtered.

None of that was on display on this farm. The whole idea seemed to be to treat pigs as much like inanimate objects as possible, without the slightest hint of what used to be called humanity. It does seem likely that our descendants will look back on us someday and wonder what evil lurked in our hearts.

How's that bacon smelling?


Anita said...

The bacon hasn't smelled so good for me for a long time. I grew up in the country; I ate home-ground sausage from pigs my father and grandfather slaughtered and beef from cattle my father raised. I have raised chickens and helped in the slaughtering of them. But the cruel indifference of too many factory farms turns my stomach.

A few months ago, my father, who raises Brahman cattle in East Texas, was taking several cattle to the butcher for slaughter. One of the young bulls got his hoof caught between the panels of the wood on the bottom of the trailer; his leg fell through, touching the highway pavement. A passing motorist waved my father down to let him know of the situation. My father was heart-sick. He is seventy-six years old, too old to be "wrassling" bulls, but he worked to get that hoof back into the trailer--and was kicked for his trouble. It didn't matter to him that the bull would soon be dead and not long after that would be meat on his table. He cares about the treatment of his cattle while they're living. He knows their bloodlines; he spends hours caring for them up-close and personal, even petting them. That's the difference between a man like my father and the people on that farm who killed hogs by hanging them with a chain.

I think that raising animals in huge numbers (in tight spaces) and not having any real connection with those animals in a meaningful way encourages cruelty.

Dave Rye said...

I once had a rancher over to my home for dinner and realized after a half hour or so that he was the first guest I could remember who didn't like (in fact, love) my dog. Thinking about it later, it seemed to me that he considered it counter-productive to have emotional feelings toward an animal, that they were creatures with purely utilitarian purposes, period.

Maybe that kind of desensitization is necessary if you're in an occupation or line of work where slaughtering animals is a basic and frequent occurrence. I wouldn't know; I'm a lifelong urban guy (by Montana standards). If so, it's too bad, because the way we treat animals, and the way we kill them if doing so is necessary, says a lot about our level (or lack of it) of being truly human.

Any necessary slaughtering should be done as quickly and humanely as possible. The pig story makes me nauseous just picturing it in my mind. It is not only cruel to the pigs, but in my judgment a repudiation of the God who created them.

Ed Kemmick said...

David Crisp is one of only two people who don't like my dog. Not that I'm offended. He likes no dogs. I don't know what this says about him.

Mark T said...

Michael Pollan writes about this in Omnivore's Dilemma. He is not against slaughtering, and makes the point that animals can be treated well, and do not have to anticipate their death. So they don't walk around worrying about it. The shock and slash to the throat is a complete surprise, and death is quick.

But he does talk about basic decency. He wrote about a farm back east where animals were routinely slaughtered, but while alive, chickens got to feed and pick bugs up off the ground, cows got to eat their favorite grass, and pigs got to root around in fermented corn every spring - something they loved dearly.

It doesn't have to be inhumane, but we make it so because there are so damned many of us. There just isn't room to give each animal its space.

Dave said...

That was the story at that one facility -- and those responsible should be held accountable and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Personally, I suspect that the facility was part of one of the big agribusiness conglomerates; I doubt that a small (private) business would engage in such jackassery for the very reasons mentioned by Anita and Dave Rye, while a big corporation would be wringing every fraction of a cent out of the place.

JByrd said...

Pigs sometimes get their revenge. A while back a Pennsylvania farmer mysteriously disappeared. It took some time, but the cops determined he had had a heart attack and collapsed amongst his pigs, and, well....