When The Hen’s Henness Trumps The Racoon’s Raccoonness

» January 28th, 2014

Pasture proselytizers mouth the mantra all the time: they are allowing their animals to indulge their animalness. The pigness of the pig. The henness of the hen. The cowness of the cow. All that jazz. It’s a line that goes over well with consumers who, while perversely wanting the animals they eat to have been happy, are ultimately just interested in the meatness of their meat.

Beyond this disconnect, there are other problems with a pasture-based farmer thinking that the environment he’s fabricated for his animals will be experienced by his animals as natural. Call it the Joel Salatin impact. You provide space and let the animals loose, rotate the critters every now and then from one pasture to the next, take pictures on sunny days–and then call the arrangement natural and charge a premium. Write books. Cash in.

But what’s natural by human standards might not in the least be natural to the animals. For example, hens without access to low lying branches and dense foliage become stressed.  Left out on a pasture without access to forests, their cortisol levels increase. They’re stressed. But that’s not what we see. We can’t see their fear. Most farmers don’t give a flying cluck–if they did they wouldn’t slaughter them. They just want the scene to look as it should: natural.

It’s normal for those who care enough about animals not to eat them to be chided for “anthropomorphizing.” But isn’t the decision to put animals on pasture, to uncage them, and let them roam under the assumption that “that’s what I would want” also due to a form of anthropomorphizing? If so, we need to defuse the anthropomorphizing charge by noting that anyone who thinks about animal welfare automatically anthropomorphizes. Moreover, after acknowledging that all welfare concerns come from an anthropomorphic instinct, we need to draw a distinction between thoughtful and selfish anthropomorphizing.

Thoughtful anthropomorphizing doesn’t require a Mensa membership. It simply requires recognizing that we would rather not be exploited and eaten while our caring killers profit from our death. And, in turn, neither would animals. Thoughtless anthropomorphizing, by contrast, is essentially shortsighted, self-serving, and, most of all, selective. And it’s driven by the fact that a farmer owns an animal for the ultimate purpose of profiting from her body. This interest in an animal’s body ensures selective and destructive anthropomorphizing.

The selectivity of pasture based anthropomorphizing is perhaps most evident when small farmers–who share their opinions extensively at backyardchickens.com and other similar forums–go to great lengths to anthropomorphically project a set of seemingly compassionate desires on their animals (they want space, warmth, companionship, etc) and then, at the same time, not only eventually kill those animals, but kill other animals that attempt to interfere with his anthropomorphic love.

It’s one of the most conspicuous cases of arbitrary moral thought you’ll find, but if you ever want to hear an fathomable depth of bloodthirsty hatred, listen to a pastured chicken owner express his feelings for raccoons, hawks, snakes, coyotes, and even dogs. What’s strange about this vituperation is the fact that one reason that animals are pastured is to approximate more natural experiences. Isn’t predation natural? And why should the anthropomorphic instinct not be extended to raccoons? What about the racoonness of the raccoon?

The upshot of these inconsistencies is pretty simple: a well managed pastured-based animal farm is a constructed environment every bit as complex as a factory farm. At what this means is that ethical vegans cannot be condemned for anthropomorphizing, but only praised for doing it with moral consistency.

18 Responses to When The Hen’s Henness Trumps The Racoon’s Raccoonness

  1. The whole “I gave them a sort of, kind of natural life before I slaughtered them for money so it’s ok” is pure bullshit.
    You are a gem James McWilliams. :)

  2. mynamefluffy says:

    This is just more of the same, sadly. Whether we are talking about racoons, wolves, coyotes or even mustangs, if any animal interferes with the revenue stream (i.e., the farmed victims), then they must be exterminated. No one else can kill their animals except them. THEY OWN THEM. This goes back culturally and religiously to a place that is way too complex for a post comment. But, with a nod to the previous post discussion, it harkens back to the time when animals, women, and minorities were property of the powerful white male establishment. We’re still working on women and minorities, although the enslavement now is much more subtle (the enslavement of poverty rather than outright ownership). Animals unfortunately have a long way to go. ~Linda

    • Mountain says:

      “the enslavement of poverty”

      That’s hilarious. A study in the Harvard Business Review said women controlled 51.3% of the wealth in the U.S. in 2009. A separate study estimates that number to rise to 66% by 2030. Women also outlive men by 5 years.

      Nothing says slavery like more money and a longer life.

      • mynamefluffy says:

        Women outlive men for reasons that have nothing to do with income. Higher income people of either gender live longer than the poor.

        Your statement about women controlling 51.3% of the US wealth says nothing about how women are doing as a group. That just means that the percentage of wealth is split evenly between genders. When we consider that the top 1% of the wealthy have 40% of the wealth, the gender breakdown is small potatoes compared to the difference between the wealthy and the poor.

        The reality for non-wealthy women (i.e., most of them) is very different. For example, 41% of US women are either poor or on the brink of being poor.

        “Poverty is a women’s issue. Nearly six in ten poor adults are women, and more than half of all poor children live in families headed by women. Poverty rates are especially high for single mothers, women of color, and elderly women living alone.”




        • Mountain says:

          “41% of US women are either poor or on the brink of being poor.”

          36% of U.S. men are either poor or on the brink of being poor, by that same definition. Not exactly a massive difference.

          “Women outlive men for reasons that have nothing to do with income.”

          Maybe, but mostly they outlive men for much the same reason men consistently out-earn women: men are far more likely than women to work in dangerous, highly stressful jobs. Or, to put it another way, women choose safer, less stressful jobs more frequently than men.

          The most dangerous jobs in America are dominated by men, and 92% of on-the-job fatalities are men. Obviously, being killed on the job shortens one life significantly. Chronic stress isn’t as dramatic as a workplace fatality, but it shortens one life just surely as smoking or a poor diet. And, oddly enough, when you look into the most stressful jobs, they are also dominated by men. Likewise, when you look at the least stressful jobs, you find far more women than men.

          Looks a lot more like freedom to choose than it looks like enslavement. But, what do I know? I just grew up in poverty.

          • mynamefluffy says:

            I don’t dispute that the most dangerous and physically stressful/demanding jobs are largely still done by men and that can affect longevity.

            My original point re: the subject posed by James was that at one time, woman, minorities, and animals were considered property of white men, and sadly, some people still seem to want to dominate women and minorities. Racism and sexism are not gone – better, but not gone.

            I was trying to make the connection that the domination of animals is connected to a legacy of humans dominating other humans, and unfortunately for the NH animals, that particular attitude will be among the last to go. ~Linda

          • Mountain says:

            To say that women, minorities, and animals were considered the property of white men is misleading for two reasons.

            One, they were never considered the property of white men in general. Rather, they were the property of one particular person, almost always a member of the ruling class. This member of the ruling class was typically a man, but not always. In Europe, this member of the ruling class was typically a white man, but throughout the rest of the world, it was usually a non-white man who owned slaves and animals.

            Two, white men were the property of European lords long before minorities were. The entire basis of feudalism (the system by which most of Europe was run for hundreds of years) was peasants (white men) serving as feudal serfs (slaves, basically) to feudal lords (slave owners, basically). When Europeans conquered parts of the New World, they implemented slavery not because of racism, but because it was how things were run back home in Europe. Initially, they enslaved the native peoples, but when they died off from smallpox, they replaced them with people stolen from Africa.

            Point being, racism and sexism are beside the point. They exist, just as irrational prejudice against “others” exists everywhere (expressed on this blog as irrational prejudice against Republicans, gun owners, southerners, and Tea Partiers). In a system based on force, people (or animals) will be enslaved and killed whether or not the ruling class is racist or sexist. Conversely, without the backing of force, racism and sexism are nothing more than superstitions that hurt no one but the people who believe in them.

  3. Mountain says:

    –”Isn’t predation natural?”

    Of course. But isn’t competition with, and even hatred of, our fellow predators natural?

    –”And why should the anthropomorphic instinct not be extended to raccoons?”

    Because the farmer doesn’t have a relationship with them. In a scenario where a farmer thinks of chickens like family or friends, of course he’ll be upset with anyone who tries to harm them. Even if he only thinks of the chickens as property, he’ll still be upset with anyone who tries to harm them, just as he’d be upset with anyone who harmed his house or his car.

  4. Mountain says:

    “Left out on a pasture without access to forests”

    You’re right, of course, that open pasture isn’t an ideal environment for chickens. Like pigs, they evolved as jungle and woodland creatures. They do enjoy digging around in grass, but they want shelter to be close at hand.

    • Mountain says:

      Also, I don’t think any of the chickens at Polyface Farm are left on open pasture. The laying hens are moved in an egg-mobile, which provides substantial shelter, both within its structure and beneath it. While the shelter provided isn’t ideal, I doubt the chickens at Polyface are highly stressed by it. A much bigger issue for Polyface is that Salatin still provides chicken feed, which makes it financially unsustainable to keep the hens once their egg-laying declines. I assume he kills them after 2 years or so.

      The chickens raised for meat aren’t raised on open pasture, either. As far as I know, they are confined their entire (short) lives in mobile structures that are moved every day. Mobile, group confinement is a lot better than solitary, static confinement, but it’s still confinement.

  5. Elaine Brown says:

    What if human characteristics and behavior actually exist in animals even if there were no humans? Thought and emotion may well exist in animals whether humans attribute it to them or not.

    In the case of horses for example, horsemanship and horse care is in the midst of great change from very ancient “expert” methods and opinions about the horse to what is referred to as “natural”. This is a case of changing anthropomorphism, is it not?

    Whether humans attribute their emotions and behaviors to animals or not, these emotions and behaviors may exist nevertheless.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      I think this is exactly right. Based on what we are learning about some of the larger mammals, such as elephants, dolphins and whales, and of course, other primates, it becomes clear that animals of many species are capable of complex emotions and behavior guided by it. Anyone who as cared for a dog, cat, horse, or other companion knows it too. Anthropomorphism IMO is just another way arrogant humans make the NH animal world about them. It’s not necessary or appropriate, as each species has its own “whatever-ness” and needs not to be compared against the yardstick of the almighty human.


    • Elaine, I argue that evolution predicts exactly this, and the burden of proof lies with those who argue the contrary.

  6. Ted says:

    Meat eaters care about the well being of the animals because it’s their well being that produces meat that is more nutritious and more delicious. If giving the animals a horrible life would produce more nutritious and tastier meat, then it would be the best way to go. The farmer who treats his animals very well and then has them slaughtered is doing something extremely ethical: providing people with nourishing food.

  7. Michael Simonds says:

    one more thing , ask me about predators …and I’ll say ” they gotta eat too” I can live with a couple loses….just don’t want to loose the whole flock or herd.

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