Friday, August 1, 2008

A New Look at a Farm Boy

I sat down during lunch today to read over the New York Times. I tend to cheat quite a bit at reading the Times. What the paper chooses as its highlighted articles I read and then I tend to always hit the most emailed articles. This is always an odd selection: never about the war in Iraq, but rather personal health, money management and the home decorating story. This is what America reads, or at least what readers of the New York Times read.

The article that hit me today was Nicholas D. Kristof ' A Farm Boy Reflects'.

The title intrigued me enough to check it out. Essentially he writes that animal rights in the form of improved conditions for farm animals is gaining ground around the world. His experience growing up on a farm taught him that animals have personalities and are closer to humans than we think. Even so, he continues to enjoy eating meat.

On the surface this sounds nice. It tends to make everyone feel good about themselves. You still get to eat meat. You can enjoy it and take pleasure in it. Legislation around the country advancing the living conditions of farm animals is a good thing. Everyone is happy.

I have a distinct problem with it. Kristof talks about how his family raised geese, would slaughter them one by one and how it was a sad thing as the remaining goose-mate would cry and holler as its mate was being decapitated. This lead his family to donate the remaining geese to the local park because they were incapable of continuing this practice.

The problem is that he has fallen into the classic city view of farm animals: that they are pets that are murdered. In no way was this man a 'farm boy' as a child. The geese are not humans and should not be given charactoristics that are more aplicable to your aunt Lois. We have entered into a social contract -- we slaughter meat for our nutrition, the animals loose in this deal, we benefit. The animals in question certainly have a presence; they look at us and come to us when we feed them, but to put emotions on them, to me is ludicrous.

If our only contact with animals is our house pets -- dogs and cats, than we would naturally assume cows, pigs, sheep and geese to be similar. The contract is, however, different. Household pets live with us, there have been domesticated and there is no untimely slaughter for them. We keep them for their companionship and not for their protein. We develop an emotional bond with our dogs and cats.

Kristof has confused these two contracts; he and his family created a bond with the family geese. It was admirable, but they ceased to be farm animals at that point. His family realized it and released them from their bonds.

My recommendation is to treat farm animals as such. They should of course be well raised: properly housed, properly fed and properly slaughtered. There is no expectation that they will not be slaughtered for their meat. To think of them as large pets that live on farms is folly, especially while one is chewing on a big hunk of steak as they pontificate about the rights of animals.


  1. Kurt,

    Having operated a small diversified farm for 15 years just west of Yosemite in my somewhat distant past, I have sympathy with you regarding those folks who conflate domestic pets with farm animals. When working the in fields passersby would comment, and occasionally scold, when they saw my horses sweating as they pulled a mower or rake on a hot day. They tended to “pet-think” without thought to the years of breeding that went into creating 2,000 lbs of pulling power. I never doubted those horses “felt” that all was right in the world when they were put in harness and taken to the field.

    But where you and I might disagree is I don’t see much difference between domestic and farm animals. All animals that have entered into a “cross-species contract” with humans have gained something. If not individually, at least collectively. At some point in evolutionary history, species such as dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc entered into an agreement with humans, where they offer their work, meat, eggs, milk, companionship, etc in order to enlist humans to help them carry forward their DNA. Large horses, such as my Percherons, would never have continued to exist without human help. The same goes for small dogs like Chihuahuas.

    People like Kistof, who tend to anthropomorphize the animals that have entered into this contract and use their human-ness as the justification for ethical treatment of animals, seem to miss this point. If we break the contract with these animals, they will cease to exist as a species. To go a step further, if we break this contract, we are being cruel to the animal collectively and sometimes individually. To not milk the cow, work the horse, work the boarder collie, love the lapdog, is to be cruel to that animal individually. To not manage the lives of chickens, geese, cows and hogs is to be cruel to the species. For me, the ethical treatment of animals is to honor the cross species contract. How we do this, matters a lot. We have to arrange it so the cow can do its “cow-ness” thing: graze grass. Chicken to graze and hunt bugs. Hogs to wander and root. Pet and groom the housedog. And when it comes to the end of life, slaughtering meat animals or euthanizing non-meat animals, we should do it in a humane way that is stress free.

    Take Care,

  2. hi kurt,
    love to see your blog ^_^


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