Posts Tagged ‘Texas

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-

A Killing Machine?

» June 15th, 2013


It’s not a particularly fun exercise to get inside the mindset of a “big game” hunter, but every now and then some news item or other sends me there. This creature, usually a white and balding and middle-aged male, has reached a juncture in life where bagging a large animal in the wild has come to bear on nothing less than personal identity politics. The act of killing—killing, not photographing or in any other way innocuously witnessing—is central to some seemingly necessary narrative of toughness, self-sufficiency, adventure, and the loony idea than real men keep doing, moving, acting, winning, conquering. The aqueous victim of this contorted sense of the meaningful life is entirely innocent of the hunter’s psychological carnival but ends up, nonetheless, on the news, dangling from a hook, as a prized manifestation of the hunter’s needly little id explosion.

It happened the other day, this time with a mako shark and a human being named Jason Johnson. Johnson, from Mesquite, Texas, caught a female mako off the coast of Huntington Beach, California. The shark weighted 1,323 pounds and was 11-feet long, measurements that exceed the existing record—a 1,221 pounder caught in Massachusetts in 2001—by a healthy margin, and thus dimensions that turned Johnson into a rockin’ media star basking in his 15 minutes. Reports highlighted Johnson’s heroism, noting how the shark fought for her life for over two hours and pulled a quarter of a mile of line out of his rod’s reel. Johnson, by contrast, touted his own above-board bravado: “Any wrong step and I could have went out of the boat and to the bottom of the ocean.”  What a man.

According to 2013 statistics, roughly 100 million sharks are killed every year by the Jason Johnsons of the world. Most sharks are killed for their fins, others to compensate for their hunters’ flagging manhood, but either way : the large-scale decline in sharks is causing environmental havoc, upsetting infinite ecological balances of power we cannot and do not want to see. David McGuire, director of California-based protection advocacy group Shark Stewards, reminded readers of this inconvenient point at the very end of an obscure news report, saying, “People should be viewing these sharks as wonderful animals that are important to the ocean and admiring how beautiful they are” rather than “spilling their blood and guts.”

Johnson’s assessment was a bit different. It drives home not only the greatest irony ever uttered about a man who killed a shark, but it provides evidence of how, for so many killers, there is only one balance of power that matters: humans over non-humans. Johnson, proving intelligence is not one of the hunter’s strongest suits, explained of the beautiful creature he tortured for two hours, killed, and lorded over: “This is definitely a killing machine.”



Slaughterhouse 1,100: The Emotional Impact of Killing Animals

» December 6th, 2011

This piece takes bits and pieces from previous posts, reworks them, adds something new, and will be published as a magazine piece in February 2012. 

There are approximately 1,100 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, about seventy of which are in Texas. Most of them are located in rural hinterlands such as Mineola, Muenster, and Windthorst. The majority of these operations both slaughter and process animals, thus employing thousands of workers whose job it is to turn a constant stream of live creatures into a commodified array of profitable by-products.

A farm animal entering the front door will reach the exit about nineteen minutes later. It will do so not only as familiar chops destined for domestic meat counters, but as pelts bound for Turkey, lungs sent to dog-treat manufactures, bile for the pharmaceutical industry, caul fat (the lining of organs) for many Native American communities, and liver destined for Saudi Arabia (which, go figure, distributes cow liver globally).  There’s no question that these operations are models of efficiency.

They’re also hidden sites of suffering–and not only for dismembered animals. The literature currently emerging on the psychological affects on humans who work in slaughterhouses is startling. It’s often said that consumers are disconnected from the meat we eat. Rarely noted in this common observation is the fact that the slaughterhouse is a site of unfathomable connectivity. Indeed, the most intimate and bloodstained bond between humans and the animals we consume transpires between nearly voiceless slaughterhouse workers and the completely voiceless animals they’re employed to kill.

The results are devastating.  Slaughterhouse employees are not only exposed to a battery of physical threats, but the psychological weight of their work erodes their well being in quietly tragic ways. As one former abattoir employee attests:

The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit [where the hogs are killed] for any period of time– that let’s you kill things but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around in the blood pit with you and think, “God, that really isn’t a bad looking animal.” You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up to nuzzle me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them. . . .I can’t care. 

“I cant care.” It will come as no surprise that the consequences of this emotional dissonance include domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety. As slaughterhouse workers are increasingly being treated for PTSD, researchers are finally starting to systematically explore the disturbing results of killing sentient animals for a living.

At the University of Windsor, the criminologist Amy Fitzgerald has found a strong correlation between the presence of a slaughterhouse and high crime rates. One might object that the increasing presence of a poor, working-class, largely male population might also cause an uptick in crime. Fitzgerald, however, controlled for these possibilities by comparing her data to counties with comparable populations also employed in factory-like operations. It was the abattoir, she concluded, that stood out as the lone factor most likely to have spiked the crime statistics. Workers, in essence, were “desensitized,” and their behavior outside of work reflected it.

Humans eat meat. A freaking lot of it. The average American consumes 212 pounds of it a year. I’m going to guess this figure is higher for the everyday Texan. Naturally, in places such as Austin, there will always be a conspicuous percentage of consumers who buy animal products sourced from small farms and think themselves absolved from all this messiness. But the hard truth is otherwise.

The vast majority of “humanely” sourced animal products are slaughtered and processed in the same industrial slaughterhouses that provide animal products to fast food joints.  Even farms that employ mobile slaughterhouse units–USDA approved trucks that will come to the local farm and kill on site–are equally implicated. As one mobile slaughter worker noted of the tiny moving slaughter-mill in which he worked, “It functions the same as any livestock facility, except it is much more condensed and put on wheels.”

Animal products these days are sold with a story–the animal was humanely raised, it was cage free, it was free ranged, it’s hormone free, it was pasture fed. Whatever. The bottom line is this: she was killed, she was a sentient being, she did not want to die, and the person who killed it so you could enjoy her with a bottle of Bordeaux and a side of arugula has been forced to declare, “I can’t care.” This story, needless to say, won’t make it onto the label that’s designed to make us pay more and feel better about the animals we eat.