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Antibiotic Use On Small Farms

» April 1st, 2014

Praising the FDAs move to address the overuse of antibiotics to promote the growth of domesticated animals, the Times editorial board wrote:

Medical experts have long been concerned that rampant overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — to speed the growth of cattle, pigs and chickens and to prevent disease among animals crowded together in unsanitary conditions — is stimulating the emergence of bacteria resistant to treatment by some of the most important antibiotics used to treat humans.

The emboldened text above highlights a major oversight in our thinking—and the editorial board’s thinking— about antibiotics and animal agriculture. They are not just used in industrial settings where confinement is the norm. They are also used by small farmers to prevent disease of domesticated animals who are not crowded together but, because of their freedom to move and natural sociability, interact often enough to spread disease. In a way, this should be common sense. Small farmers have more invested in every individual animal and, as a result, are quick to seek prophylactic solutions when the faintest sign of sickness becomes evident.

Consider this account from a chicken farmer writing about her birds on a popular forum:  ”Been treating [the mysterious disease] really well, but, I am out of Gallimycin [antibiotics that fights respiratory disease], till my order comes in! I am giving the 4 really bad ones LA-200 [another antibiotic] injections, and injections to the other sick pen. I have terrimycin [yet another antibiotic] in the water now, as well as Probios. I am also terrymincing everyone else as a precaution. All are getting Vet RX [compound that treats worms and colds] at the moment too.” (1) As for concerns over the perpetuation of resistance, “I am questioning if giving her the same antibiotic a second time might perhaps be ineffective? (may even lead to resistance in the organism causing this?).”(2)

It’s important that consumers become aware that the problems that we assume are endemic to factory farming happen on small, nonindustrial farms as well.

(1) Smoky73, April 5, 2008 (3:52 p.m.) thread starter “Aye, I am fed up with the weather causing sickness,” backyardchickens.com April 5, 2008: http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/topic/10764/Aye-I-am-fed-up-with-the-weather-causing-sickness. Accessed April 28, 2013.

(2) Eprinex Questions,” various backyardchickens.com  thread started on April 19, 2007 (907 a.m.): http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/reply/28271/Eprinex-Questions#reply-28271. Accessed April 29, 2013; dlhunicorn, November 3, 2006 (3:41 p.m.) comment on halo826’s thread starter “I have a very sick hen too…please help me again,” November 3, 2007: http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/reply/30124/I-have-a-very-sick-hen-tooplease-help-me-again#reply-30124. Accessed April 29, 2013.

 


 

 

Rattlesnake Roundup

» March 31st, 2014

Sweetwater, Texas has a less-than-charming tradition of letting loose village folk into the foothills to gas innocent rattlers out of their dusty dens before slaughtering them with impunity. The dubious rationale for this springtime massacre is to grant locals an exclusive bounty on the venom, skins, and meat that endow these sleek creatures with a modicum of economic worth. Some advocates insist that, without these ritualistic killing sprees, the citizens of Sweetwater would find themselves at war with a plague of serpents.  Back on planet earth it’s sinister proof that barbarism begins at home.

Media coverage of this annual affair typically tends toward a pandering patois of local color and hayseed mockery. There’s too much weirdness at play not to write the piece as a bemused outsider stuck in yokelville. Duck Dynasty and Bounty Hunter comparisons thus abound alongside snippets of crankiness over carpetbagging urbanites and their effete environmental notions. Rarely if ever are the interests of, say, the snakes mentioned, much less the ecological role they play in these arid ecosystems.

That said, the Times obligatory piece on this year’s roundup was mixed. Manny Fernandez certainly gets off on the wrong foot when he identified rattlers not by their scientific name or ecological significance, but rather as “a creature that bites and frightens ranchers and others” before making the unlikely claim that West Texas is “as infested with western diamondback rattlesnakes as New York City is with rats.”  Nor did it help matters that he then indulged the lazy trope of “outraged animal activists”— crazed maniacs!—raising holy hell over such venomous villains.

What saves the piece, and actually makes it a decent example of animal writing, is Fernandez’s decision–despite his mention of “outraged” animal lovers–to couch his article in the sober testimony of wildlife experts. He quotes Kristen Leigh Wiley, a curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, as saying, “The behavior that occurs at the traditional roundups is animal abuse. Just because it’s a rattlesnake and not any other animal does not mean that it cannot experience pain or suffering.” Likewise, a Dept. of Wildlife official says, “I liken this to fishing with dynamite. It’s about a means of take, a means of collection.”

These quotations place a fair-minded framework around the bungled justifications offered in support of killing thousands of rattlers with infusions of unleaded fuel. “It just helps thin out the population,” says one supporter of the roundup.  “The rattlesnake roundup is our ways and means,” says another.  Yet another:  “If you’re into the Bible, snakes have intimidated people from the beginning, and I don’t think that’s changed to this day.” Fernandez’s decision to juxtapose this pap with the assessment of wildlife experts helps keep the reader’s focus on the fact that animals and their ecological significance, if not their inherent right to exist, are at stake amid this rhetorical lunacy.

Other strengths in this piece include the mention that the snakes are slaughtered “in front of the men, women and children at the event,” that the roundup has over the decades killed “enough dead reptiles to equal the weight of a small locomotive,” and that many of those who condemn the event “oppose not only gassing, but the roundup as well.” It’s understandable to want the writer himself to lambaste the roundup for its senseless brutality, but it is, of course, a news report, not an opinion piece. Even so, Fernandez lends supporters of this senseless slaughter a fair share of rope to do themselves in.

Grade: B-

Pigs Suffer On Small Farms, Too

» March 29th, 2014

*A version of this piece was written for the Dodo which, if you’re not reading, I hope you will start doing do. 

In October 2013, the animal protection organization Mercy for Animals released hidden-camera footage taken on a big Minnesota pig farm that supplies cheap pork to Walmart. The video captured piglets being whacked to the ground headfirst, workers castrating pigs and docking their tails without anesthesia, and sows crammed into gestation crates so small they couldn’t turn around, among other atrocities. For consumers concerned about how animals are treated in contemporary agriculture, these macabre scenes offer further proof that it’s impossible to care about animal welfare and eat conventionally produced meat.

Revolting as these scenes were, the underground footage dished up old news. Exposes of animal abuse on factory farms have been invading the public’s comfort zone since the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975. But, for all the rhetorical outrage that ensues, the collective response among conscientious consumers has not been a significant transition to veganism. Instead, consumers have generally chosen to continue eating animals.

The only difference is that, having rightly demonized factory farming, they now source their meat from small, non-industrial farms—operations promoted as more welfare oriented and ecologically viable. This imperative has become a motivating tenet of the emerging “foodie” movement, generating considerable enthusiasm among leading food writers while even enjoying an added dose of hipster cred.

The underlying motivation (or at least one underlying motivation) to make this switch is certainly a noble one—namely, an interest in improving living conditions for farm animals. But the decision to support nonindustrial alternatives is, for all its popularity, rooted in an unexamined assumption. That is, there’s an untested belief that if an operation is not a factory farm then, by virtue of that nonindustrial status, it offers a meaningful alternative to the industrialized status quo. But what if this basic assumption is wrong? What if small animal farms hide large problems? What if animal agriculture, by its nature, cannot be “humane” in a way that would honor the meaning of the word?

Before exploring these questions, it’s necessary to consider the moral implications involved when discussing the human-pig relationship. A sentient animal is a sentient animal. of course. Farm-dwelling critters experience and understand suffering and, as a result, are deserving of moral consideration. But I have a thing for pigs.

Porcine sentience is rooted in an exceptional level of nonhuman intelligence. This intelligence is reflected in pigs’ everyday behavior. “They get scared and then have trouble getting over it,” said the University of Bristol’s Susan Held, who studies the emotional lives of swine. “They can learn something on the first try and then it’s difficult for them to unlearn it,” she added. Her findings have bubbled into the mainstream media. “They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known,” NBC news recently said of pigs. All farm animals are somewhat cognizant of harm being done to them. But there’s a case to be made that pigs are especially sensitive to the emotional suffering they endure on the rough road to becoming bacon.

So, for those committed to knowing where their food comes from, for those who want an authentic “farm to fork” experience, it’s critical to understand exactly how the reality of life on a small pig farm can quickly run counter to the virtuous qualities we’ve naively entrusted it to embody.

It’s often noted that pigs raised on pasture don’t have their tails docked. This cruel practice pricked the conscience of Michael Pollan when he was researching “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Visiting a free-range farm where pigs were comfortably cavorting as pigs, Pollan admitted that he “couldn’t look at their tails (which were intact) . . . without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production.” Nice sentiment. But Pollan failed to note something critical: on the free-range farms he so admired, a more consequential form of mutilation is commonplace. Pigs are affixed with septum rings.

The reason for ringing a pig’s nose is simple enough. Left to their own devices, pigs will shred the landscape. In Animal Husbandry Regained (2013), John F. Webster explained that “There is no doubt that sows . . . will reduce any pasture to the status of a badly ploughed field.” As a result, farmers who talk a big game about allowing pigs to be pigs interrupt the free-range fantasy with septum rings.

The welfare implications of this procedure shouldn’t be downplayed. Not only does nose ringing cause temporary pain; it condemns the pig to a lifetime of severe discomfort. Whenever she roots, which is constantly, her nose gets hit with a sharp sting. One farmer, writing on the Free Range Pork Farmer’s Association website, explained that, “a farmer will put (pierce) their snout with a copper ring . . . right in the tender end of their nose, so when they are tempted to root, they bump that ring- causing shooting pain.” Webster notes how “denial of foraging behavior is profoundly frustrating” for pigs. At least tail docking on factory farms only causes temporary pain.

If the idea of mutilating a pig’s snout creates a sense of discomfort, imagine castration without anesthesia. Joni Ernst has. Ernst, a Republican senatorial candidate from Iowa, currently appears on a television advertisement bragging about castrating hogs on the farm where she grew up. This prerequisite for political success, she claims, will enable her to “cut” budgets in DC. Never have the genitals of a farm animal been so politically persuasive.

Whatever the politics of Beau Ramsburg, owner of Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he shares Ernst’s enthusiasm for hog emasculation. He explains, “castration is an absolute necessity for all male pigs, regardless of production system or philosophy.” The reason is due to “the overpowering muskiness” in boar meat—also known as “boar taint”—that results if boars remain intact. As for the option of using anesthesia, the American Veterinary Medical Association (which opposes un-anesthetized castration) explains, “On-farm use of anesthesia is rare due to a range of economic, logistical and safety issues, both for the pig and the herdsperson.” In other words, like nose ringing, castration without anesthesia is another business-as-usual practice that small, pasture-based pig farms almost never reveal to consumers paying a premium for “humanely raised” pork.

When forced to discuss the matter, pig farmers will downplay the traumatic impact of this procedure. Jennifer Small, co-owner of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York, insists that slicing open the piglet’s scrotum and yanking out his testicles doesn’t hurt all that much. She told the foodie blog Grub Street, “My husband castrates them and I have to admit I was very surprised that as soon as you put them down they’re running around like nothing happened.”

The AVMA, for its part, doesn’t quite see it that way. It writes, “Surgical castration involves cutting and manipulating innervated tissues and if anesthesia is not provided it will be painful as reflected by elevated blood cortisol concentrations,high-pitched squealing,and pain-indicative behaviors, such as trembling and lying alone. Some behavioral indicators of pain may persist for up to five days.” Farmers speaking off the record are inclined to agree with the AVMA. In a forum for pig farmers, one owner, discussing castration, advised: “make sure Mama Pig is secured in her stall while you’re castrating the piglets and wear ear defendors [sic].”

A final way that nonindustrial pig farming reflects rather than contradicts the hard reality of factory farming involves slaughter. Small-scale pig farmers who want to retail cuts of pork must join their factory farmer counterparts in slaughtering their pigs in one of the nation’s 616 USDA inspected hog slaughterhouses. Many of these slaughterhouses are industrial. Some are not. The ones that are not are much more attentive to pig welfare. Large slaughterhouses, though, can slaughter as many as 1,400 pigs an hour. The deathblow begins with an electrical stun gun (or “stunning wand,” which knocks the pig unconscious), followed by throat slitting, bleeding out, and scalding. Humane slaughter violations are routine, as the speed of slaughter makes consistently effective stunning-wand application and throat slitting especially difficult to achieve. Pigs are often bled out while regaining consciousness or even while fully conscious.

An extremely small percentage of pig farmers can avoid the horrors of the big slaughterhouse by slaughtering their animals on the premises. In the case of on-site slaughter, they sell the whole carcass—or a large section of it—to locavores with deep freezes. Under these circumstances, the most common way to render the pig unconscious for bleed out is a .22 rifle. Needless to say, precision in this situation can be equally, if not more, inconsistent than with the slaughterhouse’s stunning wand.

Interestingly, though, it’s the aftermath of these off-the-industrial-grid events that say the most about them. On CNN’s “Eatocracy” blog, managing editor Kat Kinsman recounted her experience witnessing an “ethical slaughter” of two pigs, Porky and Bess. Observing the two farmers right after the slaughter, Kinsman was moved by the fact that both men were crying. When one of them calmed down enough to speak about the kill, he was “still wiping them [the tears] away and was slightly choked in tone.” This was no anomaly. Farmers cry a lot over killing their pigs when, as one farmer put it, “you’ve kind of made pets of them.”

Considerable evidence thus suggests that pigs—and humans—experience undeniable suffering on nonindustrial farms, so much so that, should concerned consumers take this suffering seriously, it would surely influence their dietary choices. From the perspective of transparency, such suffering can be hard for even the most vigilant consumer to identify and appreciate. The visual trope of bucolic agrarian bliss has become a convincing mainstay of small-scale pork promotion. Strip it away, though, treat small farms with the same sober skepticism we apply to factory farms, and you might find yourself in agreement with the forthright nonindustrial pig farmer, Bob Comis, who runs Stony Brook farm in Schoharie, New York. “What I do is wrong,” he writes. “I know it in my bones, even if I can’t act on it.”

“Someday,” he concludes, “it must stop.”

The American Scholar and Animals

» March 26th, 2014

It is one of the sublime pleasures of blogging frequently and seriously that I can wake up to enjoy a debate in the comment section over hog testicles. I’m not being facetious here. As The Pitchfork evolves, as readers become more entrenched in the discussions, the quality of the site’s content ages like a fine wine. This year in particular I’ve started to realize that The Pitchfork is no longer “my website.” It has become a community effort. I’m humbled to be part of such a smart and ongoing discussion about animals, ethics, and veganism.

Reflecting on my recent piece in The American Scholar, I’m made aware of how many of the ideas in it have roots in this blog, how many formulations owe a direct allegiance to my readers. I’m also made aware of how the argument put forth in the piece has so far been conspicuously ignored by the food reformers who it critiques. I’m fairly certain that it has reached the in-boxes and twitter accounts of leading Food Movement figures, but I’m equally certain that, under no pressure to do so, these figures will probably treat it like an apple sold at Walmart. That is, not worthy.

This is all savvy backdrop to a crass request: please push the piece. Tweet it. Facebook it. Etc. And so on. Rarely do I write something that I think really deserves to hit the bullseye of a discussion. But this is one of them. The arguments in it are designed to incorporate animal ethics into larger policy discussions about food reform. What can hope from the future of food if the core interests of animals are ignored? I’m never thrilled to come to this blog and ask readers for a promotion, but every now and then I feel compelled to do so.

Thanks so much.

-James

Slicing and Dicing Animal Ethics Into Insignificance

» March 24th, 2014

There’s an non-waste ethic infusing foodie culture these days. Emerging from an earnest 1970s-emphasis on “reuse, reduce, recycle,” this ethic is used like a “get out of jail free” card.  In order to justify the unnecessary suffering and death of sentient animals, you just use the whole animal. You’ve thereby done right by the environment, animal ethics, and, of course, your precious palate. Win-win. And win!

It’s due to this freshly dusted and repackaged ethic that the adventurous diner has heretofore unprecedented options. He can skip the traditional pork chop and eat Wilbur’s testicles. Bad-ass chefs–and, really, have anyone else noticed how utterly badass celebrity chefs look these days?–pride themselves on carnivorously-inclined menus littered with entrees that incorporate the strange viscera of dismemberment. You get a sense that the animal you are eating was not only killed, but sliced and diced and vivisected as if he were a medical school cadaver.

Which, of course, he was. And that brings us to the rub. When an animal enters an industrial, USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, his corpse emerges 19 minutes later as not only as chops destined for domestic meat counters, but as pelts bound for Turkey, lungs sent to dog-treat manufacturers, bile for the pharmaceutical industry, caul fat (the lining of organs) for Native American communities and liver destined for Saudi Arabia (which, go figure, distributes cow liver globally). Oh–and as a hog testicle sampler for a clean $11.99 at a savvy little Austin spot teeming with culinary virtue.

Point being: those seeking to use the whole carcass as a measure of their ethical status as meat-eaters are trapped in yet another contradiction. To eat low on the hog they must rely on the very institution that epitomizes the complexity of industrial agriculture: a slaughterhouse. Naturally, some backyard warrior could hack his own primal path to self-sufficiency, but to make the by-products of slaughter commercially available–and what else is animal agriculture ultimately about?–all cravings for “pig face” (not making that one up) must cede to the industrialized abattoir equipped to undertake the requisite dismemberment. The only alternative–mobile slaughterhouses–lack such capabilities.

This might seem to be a peripheral message. But it’s in fact a symptom of the larger contradiction that’s at the core of the push to produce “humane” animal products. Repeatedly, the rhetoric of this movement exceeds the reality. It’s as if everyone interested in reforming the food system jumped on a bandwagon–one that promised having and eating cake–before noticing that it was careening downhill and the road was about to end. How many more crashes will we have to witness before this movement comes to its senses and takes a more thoughtful toe-path to reform?

 

Center for Biological Diversity Connects Diet and Animal Extinction

» March 21st, 2014

Mainstream environmental groups in the United States have almost categorically refused to promote veganism. This refusal is not only maddening, but it’s ironic, given that the environmental benefits of reducing animal consumption are well known and uncontested. My own attempts to engage with mainstream environmentalists on the issue have left me totally befuddled at the myopia that underscores this omission. But what else is new.

Years ago I approached 350.org and asked them if they’d consider officially promoting veganism as a viable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was told that it wasn’t something they were really all that into. What I suspect they really weren’t all that into was losing donors who cared about the environment but didn’t want to be told they had to give up eating animals to help achieve the organization’s goal of reducing carbon output to 350 ppm. Not realistic, they suggested, which is a rather odd stance to take for an organization that wants humans to restructure their fundamental relationship with the natural world.

Enviros that do address the meat issue will often resolve it through an appeal to the “land ethic,” arguing that humans can eat meat so long as they acquire it in a way that maintains as much as possible the earth’s natural balance and harmony. If there are too many hogs, kill em and eat em. Too many jellyfish in the sea, ditto. This ethic certainly has its appeal, but not only do I find it unrealistic–we suck at getting it right–and not only does it ignore the rights of animals not to be shot or netted, but the ultimate logic of the ethic demands that we begin by hunting humans. So, well . .  yeah.

All this is a long way of saying that it’s nice to see at least one environmental group–The Center for Biological Diversity–address the meat issue with forthright advice. “Eat less meat, save more wildlife,” it explains. “Pledge to take extinction off your plate,” it adds. Their effort is part of “an earth friendly diet campaign.” It’s a step in the right direction, one worth watching and encouraging. Learn more here.

 

 

Darwin and Meat

» March 20th, 2014

I published a version this piece almost three years ago in the Atlantic.com but wanted to repost because a) I find myself even more wedded to its message now than then and, b) many recent readers of The Pitchfork may not have seen it. I’m hoping to have fresh content up tomorrow. 

-JM

 

“No age has ever been more solicitous to animals, more curious and caring,” writes Matthew Scully in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. “Yet no age,” he continues, “has ever inflicted upon animals such massive punishments with such complete disregard.”

Scully highlights one of the more troubling paradoxes at the core of modern life. Humanity proves its love for animals on a daily basis. We lavish an abundance of affection on companion animals, work tirelessly to protect endangered species, and donate generously to shelters and welfare organizations.

At the same time, we treat animals with unfathomable disdain. We wear them, experiment upon them, hunt them, render them into cosmetics, and, most notably, eat them. Making matters even more disturbing, we rationalize all this behavior as perfectly normal. I

Humans are the only animals capable of untangling this paradox. To be sure, non-human animals possess innumerable skills that we lack, but—as far as we know—they don’t have the cognitive gifts to think abstractly about relationships among species. For us to ignore this challenge would be a grave failure. Unfortunately, the most influential voices in the so-called “food movement,” concerned as they are with both taste and sustainability, disagree, even though they are in a position to push this paradox to the center of public debate. They view the ethics of slaughter as an issue best to avoid, or to dismiss with pithy one-liners (“I didn’t rise to the top of the food chain to eat plants.”)

What, after all, is to be gained by questioning one of humanity’s most habitual acts? What benefit is there in alienating one’s loyal base of omnivore followers? Why muddy the waters when you can win friends and influence palates with the latest brisket rub? With few exceptions, popular explorations of meat production and consumption studiously skirt the essential concerns underscoring our ingrained habit of killing animals to satisfy our tastes.

Sure, food writers trip all over each other to express their righteous outrage over the many evils of factory farming. Wonderful. But not a single one has decided to take a shot at reconciling their outrage—an outrage that ipso facto acknowledges that an animal has inherent worth—with their promotion of heirloom birds, grass-fed beef, and fried pork bellies cut to perfection by “artisanal” butchers.

The fact is, what’s being butchered here is logic. Thinking, talking, and writing about meat almost necessarily evokes a wildly emotional response. But what’s required right now isn’t emotion, but reason. The food movement has taught us to doggedly investigate every facet of our food system. This noble imperative has led to an admirable increase in public awareness about the source and quality of everything we eat. But our collective effort to vet the food system of any and all abuse ironically slams on the brakes when reason get too close to the brink of animal rights.

Nonetheless, I wonder what we might discover if, somehow or other, we careened over the edge and seriously explored, in the popular press, the ethics of animal exploitation. What if we discussed the moral and legal rights of animals with the same level of detail we bring to discussion about where to find the best prosciutto? Perhaps the most intellectually jarring conclusion we might reach is that our current philosophical justification for dominating the non-human world is embarrassingly antiquated. In fact, it’s rooted in ancient ideas that ignore both Darwin and the science of genetics.

As Paul Waldau reminds us in Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know, it was Aristotle who, more than 2,000 years ago, codified a rigid typology of life based on a fundamental distinction between humans and animals. His typology had roots in the book of Genesis. In the Aristotelian worldview, humans transcended an atomized sub-human world in which every species served a distinct role in the service of humankind. Under Aristotle and the Old Testament, using animals was more than okay; it was our cosmological duty. “Nature,” Aristotle wrote in Politics, “has made all animals for the sake of man.” For Christians, of course, that role belonged to God.

But Darwin and Mendel, with their theories of evolution and genetics, put an end to this self-serving fantasy of dominion. They did so not only by scientifically situating humans in the same category as non-humans (animals), but by undermining the assumption that humans, as Waldau puts it, are “the pinnacle of and reason for creation.” Today, enlightened neo-Darwinists embrace the idea that shared genetic heritage—and often profoundly similar genetic structure—between humans and non-human species confirms the interrelatedness and continuum of all animal life. And this, as I see it, changes everything.

 When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon us to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do. By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding.

Embedded within this Darwinian turn is a closely related development. Whereas humans have historically assumed their superiority over non-human animals on the basis of our supposedly unique ability to think and feel, the field of cognitive ethology—the study of non-human animal minds—is making it virtually impossible to maintain this stance. As the evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff says in The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding our Compassion Footprint, we “consistently underestimate what animals know, do, think, and feel.”

Examples of animal intelligence, consciousness, and thoughtfulness abound. When cognitive ethologists discover that (to name only a few cases) Caledonian crows are better tool-makers than chimpanzees, or that monkeys teach their children to floss, or that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, we can no longer blithely dismiss animals as driven by “pure instinct.” To the contrary, we have an obligation to contemplate the fact that non-human animals (especially higher ones) make conscious choices, experience genuine emotion, and might even (as in the case of elephants) have the mental and emotional wherewithal to seek revenge. In short, they have interests. To reject these findings—findings that have been fully established with relatively little investigation—would be, as Terry Tempest Williams puts it, “the ultimate act of solipsism.” Humans would be the ones following instinct—the deep-down instinct that says we’re inherently superior.

Admittedly, a systemic analysis of animal rights can be an extremely disorientating experience. Questioning the basis of animal exploitation bears directly on virtually every aspect of our lives: what we wear, eat, apply to our skin and hair, and so on. To duck these issues—to steer clear of any confrontation with Darwin, Mendel, or the field of cognitive ethology—is not only intellectually disingenuous. It denies to the billions of animals we kill every year a fair assessment of why we treat them as we do.

Update

» March 16th, 2014

It was a busy month of writing here in Austin and I thought I’d highlight some of my recent work, for those who might be interested. My story, “Loving Animals to Death” takes on the moral conundrum of claiming to care about animals while killing them. It’s the journal’s cover story. In a different vein, there’s this piece on the ecological promise of micro brewing–also a cover story. As readers know, I have a deep passion for the work of Cormac McCarthy. Here is a piece I wrote for the literary journal Conversation Quarterly. Finally, my recent article in Pacific Standard (I think the title is ironic–I didn’t write it) takes on one of the more half-baked articles I’ve seen in a while. I hope you find the ideas in these articles edifying.

JM

Notes on a Rainforest (part II of II)

» March 16th, 2014

 

As a species sharing the earth with others, humans have every right to integrate our lives into the rainforest. However, led as we are by the frontal lobe, we bring to this environment our own unique set of possible contributions. Consuming the oxygen generated by endless primary growth, we may not be able to camouflage ourselves, emit a noxious musk, or carry twenty times our weight, but we can contemplate the most responsible way to minimize our impact on finite natural resources. Granted, that choice might have meant avoiding taking a jumbo jet to San Jose, followed by a puddle jumper, to reach this place. But curiosity has its costs. And, if we can walk out with a clearer notion of our relationship with other animal species, maybe there will be some offsets.

And what would a clearer notion of our relationship with animals look like? Perhaps it’s best to answer the question by imagining what it won’t look like. Few people from the developed world would enter a rainforest and think, “ah, lovely day to slaughter and eat a spider monkey.” Jungle creatures might be enmeshed in a web of violence but the humans who peek into it rarely feel compelled to participate (weirdly, we’re more comfortable bringing exotic animals back to terra cognita and killing them on home turf).  I would even guess that there are plenty of humans who would justify eating animals on the grounds of “it’s a dog eat dog world” while, at the same time, balking at killing the javelinas that trudge through the underbrush of the world’s densest garden, serving an ecological purpose that we can barely understand.

The reason for this reticence would surely have something to do with the altogether decent desire to avoid sullying “virgin” territory with our disruptive slugs of lead. But as I noted in the last post, decent as it is, the whole idea is bogus. As far as the human eye is concerned, there is no virgin territory. We are nature; nature is us. Now, I could stop right here and conclude that the “red in tooth and claw” carnivores are merely deluded by a jejune idealization of nature. Sure. Fine. But, as you might suspect, I think there’s a little more to the story.

To spend time in a rainforest is to realize not only our holistic connection with the bees and the trees, but also to appreciate our differences from the surrounding thicket. Guided by a long and embodied history of decision making, one that we sustain with storytelling and reflection, humans are able to negotiate the rainforest with a more abstract understanding of our species’ potential place within it. The wisest among us know not to project “mere instinct” onto the sloth and her many forest companions. We know there’s more to it, and that such a characterization, regularly belied as it is by animal ethology, is essentially self-serving.

But we also know that the sloth is not contemplating the ethical implications of unnecessary animal exploitation. Nor is she in any way considering the moral consequences of her actions. Instead, she’s contemplating how to take a poop and not get eaten by a jaguar (sloths are usually killed while defecating; it’s the only time they come down from the canopy). This distinction (not where we poop, but rather how we think) matters none when it comes to the basic moral consideration we’re obligated to grant to humans and non-humans. But it’s critical when it comes to our attempt to justify our dominance over, say, the animals that we have no problem killing and eating beyond the rainforest, back in the confines of “civilized” life, to eat food we don’t need.

Our cultural willingness to kill and eat animal unnecessarily while, at the same time, showing respect to the creatures that do violence to each other in the rainforest is a double standard that speaks volumes about our confusion vis-a-vis animals. It’s a confusion that persists because we fail to realize that, as we observe the rainforest, that we do so as human beings endowed with the capacity to not only act peacefully, but to make such a quest the essence of our being. Post-humanism notwithstanding, only humans can stand in the midst of violence and ask, “how can we structure our lives to minimize what’s so necessary for other species to stay alive?”

In other words, in the rainforest, where bloodshed is the norm, we can, however momentarily, step aside and seek solace in the human capacity for peace. I’m pleased that I’ve never had to fight to the death in order to have sex. I’m pleased that that I’ve never had to start a war with another clan in order to reserve a place to sleep and eat. I’m pleased that I don’t have to kill and eat animals. I saddened every time we forget that violence could, theoretically, be eliminated among the human species This is what the rainforest reminds me.  This is how it enhances my feelings for the potential of humanity to be decent.

Of course, you could interpret the violence as an easy green light toward aggression. But do note: to align ourselves with the violence of the jungle in order to justify eating animals is to accept moral behavior that, for most decent folks, is considered reprehensible. Endorsing the logic of the rainforest as a model for human behavior is to endorse the myriad forms of dominance that have marked the lowest points of human society: slavery, eugenics, indentured servitude, internment camps, and all the other ways that humans have ignored their better angels in order to further selfish interests.

And that would be a tragic lesson to learn from a rainforest that, through its violence, asks us for peace.

 

 

 

Notes From A Rainforest (Part I of II)

» March 15th, 2014

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Spending eight days in the Costa Rican rain forest tends to focus the mind on fundamental questions. Why do some animals emerge at night while others sleep? Why do we press our noses to tarantula holes while recoiling at a harmless snake? Why are sloths known for laziness when they happen to move with the stealth of a bobcat? How did a black and orange land crab that looks like a plastic Halloween toy make the evolutionary cut? By what means does a chunk-headed vine snake, all the width of a pencil, swallow a frog the size of ping pong ball?

These questions have answers. But, while touring the Osa Peninsula—a place that accounts for 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity—I didn’t have them. Which was fine. It’s an easy axiom to forget, but a lack of expertise enhances the power of observation. Pre-existing conclusions obviate the need to explore—be it an ecosystem, an animal, a tree’s ropy grid of interlocking roots—with innocence. Working from a baseline of ignorance, at least for those who find the world’s mystery worth pondering, improves the chances of seeing the world with fresh eyes and new thoughts.

As I was writing the last sentence, a dead roach dropped from the woody ceiling onto my laptop. It’s a reminder of sorts, evoking as it does the hard brutality of existence (albeit not exactly for me, surrounded as I am by a semi-open but luxurious eco-cabin that I’m guessing is dosed every afternoon with a corona of insecticides). But do note that this roach was not only lifeless. It also lacked at least three legs, part of its tail, and a head.

Hence the most unavoidable observation one makes in this environment: matters of life and death dominate. Nearly every moment for non-humans is dedicated to honing the strategies that evolution has bestowed in order to stay in the game and, preferably control it. In a rainforest, winners and losers are juxtaposed with rare intimacy. You wake up to spider monkeys mating with cold efficiency on a tree limb and end the evening shining a flashlight on a rainforest pond, standing stock still as a cat-eyed snake stalks and eventually kills a frog quietly trolling for insects. My decapitated roach offer mere italics to the obvious: as Tennyson put it, nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw.”

Yes, wild animals play. They frolic. They take time off from the preoccupations of survival to relax. But the specter of death—thoughtless but necessary death—is ever present. Even the seemingly benign snapshots of nature that we capture on our i-phones—snapshots with postcard appeal—verify the jungle’s ongoing juggling act of eating, mating, hunting, and hiding. The dramatic vibrancy of this teeming patch of biodiversity is the result.

Paradoxically, the violence looks peaceful.  A juvenile anole situates himself on a lone branch under the outermost leaf of the fig tree and you think “how cute.” But he does this not to look cute but to get a little shuteye while the vine snake, emerging from a day of slumber, stretches himself out like soft taffy to scour the tree’s interior for breakfast. It’s an enthralling moment, as we momentarily become omniscient narrator, seeing what the snake cannot. When the vine snake, wizened by trial and error, eventually adjusts to explore the exterior first, the lizard responds by going to sleep in the tree’s dense interior. But the move from the boroughs to lower Manhattan takes time, and the cost of relocation will be blood.

Still, we take the pic of the vine snake and paste it on our blog as the reason we came to the rainforest. Little do we know, as the friendly waiter serves us a cold glass of papaya juice the next morning, that we came to the rainforest not to witness the fullness of life, but rather to see, to rave over, the consequences of death.

It is also true that animals are frequently altruistic, loving, and maybe even endowed with a basic sense of right and wrong. But none of these qualities per se matters when you boil existence to its essence. In fact, it all adds up to one huge red herring. Animals cooperate for the sole reason that they are trying to avoid being killed while enhancing their own ability to kill. So ubiquitous is the law of the jungle that many species will even consume members of their own tribe. There is no censure or praise under this indifferent canopy. The fittest thereby survive and, as a result, the selection is as natural as it is amoral.

How these observations bear on humanity’s place in this jungle—as well as our justifiable behavior within it—remains a fascinating and hotly charged question. Many humans exploit nature’s bloody game of survival to rationalize a wonton exercise of dominance over the non-human world. It’s a jungle out there, we tell ourselves, and thus, to survive, we’ve got to cash in on our evolutionary success by tracking, hunting, killing and eating those members of the jungle that we can track, hunt, kill, and eat.

But we know that’s not quite right. I suspect that we assume this position not because we think we’re integrated into the rainforest in the way that a skink or toucan is, but because we are simply seeking an easy, species-specific excuse to steal the forest’s low hanging fruit. No viable human society, with the possible exception of an academic department, justifies its behavior according jungle rules.

To deny the veracity of this human/non-human relationship is easy—daily life is held together with too much selflessness and cooperation for us to entertain the survival of the fittest fantasy for too long. But doing raises a more difficult question. Untangling it must begin by exploring our understanding of wilderness. When we stand on the precipice of a rainforest, preparing to enter, how do we envision our place within it?

I imagine for some visitors nature provides yet another product to consume. They paid their money and, dammit, they’re going to see their monkeys. They take in wilderness the same way they cut into their Costa Rican steak at the end of the day. Others see themselves as preparing to enter virgin territory, respectful intruders into a mythically sacred and exotic place. But this conception is equally flawed, if for no other reason than the fact that they are there and, by their mere presence, sullying the virginity of the place. The whole notion of an untouched wilderness is thus about as realistic as the noise a falling tree makes when there’s no one there to hear it.

As a species sharing the earth with others, humans have every right to integrate our lives into the rainforest. However, led as we are by the frontal lobe, we bring to this environment our own unique set of possible contributions. Consuming the oxygen generated by endless primary growth, we may not be able to camouflage ourselves, emit a noxious musk, or carry twenty times our weight, but we can contemplate the most responsible way to minimize our impact on finite natural resources. Granted, that choice might have meant avoiding taking a jumbo jet to San Jose, followed by a puddle jumper, to reach this place. But curiosity has its costs. And, if we can walk out with a clearer notion of our relationship with other animal species, maybe there will be some offsets.

And what would that clearer notion look like? That will be the question I’ll address in my next post. But for now, let’s say—despite the endemic violence—that there’s no room in it for our unnecessary exploitation of the animals with whom we share this mysterious space. In that axiom, moreover, lies a powerful message about the way we eat, what we wear, and the products we use.