Sunday, September 13, 2009

Farm Animals, Wildlife, Pets & The Culture Of Selective Compassions

Although I once avoided eating meat for years, I never lived up to Peta's vegan standards. That need not stop me from respecting their efforts, however. Even meat eaters can support improving conditions for food animals.

We can be cruel in our dealings with livestock and our choice of food animals seems nonsensical at times. As a child I sometimes wondered why it was okay to eat a cow but not a dog, or in some places, a dog but not a cow. It made me uneasy to realize that grown-ups, relatively good and kind people, were capable of being surprisingly unkind to the farm animals in their care.

In later years, a bold television show on the subject inspired me to write the following article printed in the Vancouver Sun over a decade ago:

"I TURN A BLIND eye, maybe you do too, at how the nicely packaged food items get into the meat section of our grocery stores. It's not so much that they are there that is starting to worry me but rather what happens to get them there.

Certainly our attempts to rise above the cold calculations of nature are noble. We evolved to where "survival of the fittest" is tempered by an urge to nurture the weakest among us.

Indeed, some pets spend their lives snuggled in laps of luxury. And we go out of our way to protect some select wildlife. Yet more than 400 million cows, pigs, chickens and lambs are slaughtered yearly in Canada. Mouth-watering segments of their bodies ease our appetites.

I do believe in usefulness. I would love to think my heart or kidneys could save a life if I suddenly died in a car crash. But what do we give back to the feathered and furry gifts of nature that we snatch too soon and too harshly from life?

Our selective compassion tells us that herding dogs and cats into a killing area, stunning them with bolts, stringing them up and cutting their throats while some are still conscious is wrong. But animals such as calves and lambs are viewed as property, like a coat or a car.

There are economic concerns for factory farmers who apparently, if more humane in their killing practices, would lapse into financial ruin. More humane treatment would increase the cost of meat. Religious idelologies play a role in some atrocities. There is also fear that delving into farm animal issues would mean abstaining from barbecued steaks forever.

Vegetarianism for the masses could be a reality in the latter half of the next millennium but it is a million miles from here. For many Canadians, not eating a hot dog at a hockey game is as extreme as chaining oneself to a tree. Even Oprah Winfrey who said she wouldn't eat another hamburger and k.d. lang who said beef stinks got in trouble for making animal-friendly remarks.

The best we can do is kill with kindness, starting with an admission that the common treatment of livestock is uncommonly cruel and we can do better.

To open our eyes to the travesties, Jennifer Abbott spent five years exploring and filming what happens before those juicy steaks land on our plates.

Her 1998 documentary on Canada's meat-production industry called, A Cow At My Table, examines agri-business practices, our relationship with farm animals, and the unquestioning way we eat them. Her close-up images show animals being affectionate with each other. The film is a mixture of interviews, excerpts from agriculture industry teaching and training films, early 20th-century silent comedies and slaughterhouse shots.

The trouble is that my outrage after stumbling onto a few seconds of Ms. Abbott's tape on TV is fading. There's a chance that the haunting moans I heard will grow faint and I will do what most well-meaning people do after seeing a shocking image -- absolutely nothing!"