Loving Animals to DeathPrint
How can we raise them humanely and then butcher them?
By James McWilliams
Bob Comis of Stony Brook Farm is a professional pig farmer—the good kind. Comis knows his pigs, loves his pigs, and treats his pigs with uncommon dignity. His animals live in an impossibly bucolic setting and “as close to natural as possible.” They are, he writes, so piggy that they are Plato’s pig, “the ideal form of the pig.” Comis’s pastures, in Schoharie, New York, are playgrounds of porcine fun: “they root, they lounge, they narf, they eat, they forage, they sleep, they wallow, they bask, they run, they play.” And when the fateful day of deliverance arrives, “they die unconsciously, without pain or suffering.”
Comis’s patrons—educated eaters with an interest in humanely harvested meat—are understandably eager to fill their forks with Comis’s pork. To them, Comis represents a new breed of agrarian maverick intent on bucking an agricultural-industrial system so bloated that a single company—Smithfield Foods—produces six billion pounds of pork a year. Comis provides a welcome alternative to this industrial model, and if the reform-minded Food Movement has its way, one day all meat will be humanely raised and locally sourced for the “conscientious carnivore.”
Except for one problem: Comis the humane pig farmer believes that what he does for a living is wrong. Morally wrong. “As a pig farmer, I lead an unethical life,” he wrote recently on The Huffington Post. He’s acutely aware that he “might indeed be a very bad person for killing animals for a living.” Comis’s essential objection to his line of work is that he slaughters sentient and emotionally sophisticated beings. His self-assessment on this score is unambiguous. His life is one that’s “shrouded in the justificatory trappings of social acceptance.” To those who want their righteous pork chop, he asserts that “I am a slaveholder and a murderer” and that “what I do is wrong.” Even if “I cannot yet act on it,” he concludes, “I know it in my bones.”
THE FOOD MOVEMENT
Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Bob Comis. The carnivorously inclined Food Movement would like to keep it that way. With his confession of ethical transgression, he has strayed dangerously from the movement’s script. To appreciate the full impact of Comis’s defection, it helps to understand something about the Food Movement itself—a loosely organized but powerful coalition of progressive interests, or “a big, lumpy tent,” as the phenomenon’s leader, author Michael Pollan, calls it. Its members aim to localize, downsize, and decentralize the North American food system in order to usher consumers “beyond the barcode” and into a world of wholesome whole food.
The movement’s reformist concerns are more structural than dietary. What ultimately matters to its followers is where their food comes from and how it’s prepared rather than what exactly they’re eating. You want to eat hog testicles (which a waitress at an upscale Austin, Texas, restaurant recently urged me to order)? Go for it—but just make sure they come from a nonindustrial, local, and humane farm. Craving a plate of “fried pig head”? Sure thing. But it better come from a venue such as Grange Kitchen and Bar, Ann Arbor’s haven of, as one local blogger calls it, “slow foodie mentality.” In a noble quest to end the abuses of an overly industrialized agribusiness machine that churns out foodlike substances, the movement—with libertarian-like zeal—fosters a radical freedom of culinary choice. Dietary restriction is a phrase generally absent from its lexicon.
But there are standards. Off-grid food freedom should be exercised at the Saturday farmers market or by a slow-food chef rather than in the sterile aisles of a fluorescent-lit Walmart Supercenter. This message is reiterated at every farmers market in the country: eat all the animals you want—and every part!—so long as they come from Bob Comis and not Oscar Mayer. Do that, and you will not only do right by animals and the small farms that nurture them, but you will also be making important political contributions to the future of real food. You will be creating a food culture in which you can eat the whole hog and, at the same time, put the Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods out to pasture. That aspiration, especially if you enjoy the taste of meat, has become increasingly popular and hard to resist.
Sometimes the movement’s rhetoric gets ahead of itself. It can overstate the connection between processed junk food and historically complex social problems (“the advent of fast food,” Pollan has written, “has, in effect, subsidized the decline of family incomes in America”). And the movement’s well-to-do spokespeople can exhibit a tin ear when it comes to the politics of inclusion (restaurateur Alice Waters: “Some people want to buy Nike shoes, two pairs, and other people want to eat Bronx grapes and nourish themselves”). That said, few conscientious followers of food politics disagree with the movement’s core principles, especially when they’re articulated by likable ambassadors such as Pollan (a gifted writer), the avuncular Wendell Berry (a contemporary Thoreau), and even Waters herself, who has been known to weep when the integrity of slow food is challenged.
All of which is to say that the Food Movement, despite its missteps and melodrama, is a relatively new but quite formidable force generally pushing the right kind of goals. Consumers with an interest in food justice should root for it to succeed. Who, after all, doesn’t think it’s a noble idea to eliminate food deserts, serve local broccoli to school kids, make fresh and healthful food more accessible, eliminate pink slime from the food chain, grow kale in the Midwest, and not have a secretary of agriculture from a corn-and-soy state? These are benevolent objectives by any standard.
But still, some skeptics have wondered whether any of the Food Movement’s reforms are even remotely achievable if reformers continue to ignore the ethical considerations involved in eating meat. Simply put, when it comes to the Food Movement’s long-term viability, could it be that changing what we eat is more important than improving its source? Might the only way to reform our food system—rather than simply providing alternatives—be to stop raising animals for consumption? Pollan has addressed these questions by explaining, “what’s wrong with animal agriculture—with eating animals—is the practice, not the principle.” But what if he’s got that backward? What if, when it comes to eating animals, the Food Movement’s principles are out of whack?
THE OMNIVORE’S CONTRADICTION
Tacking his rogue thesis—raising and killing my happy pigs is unethical—to the doors of the Food Movement’s church, Comis creaked those doors open for a philosophical investigation into the principle of killing animals for food we do not need. For an earnest movement aiming to radically alter the way we feed ourselves, this self-exam is long overdue. From Jeremy Bentham’s famous moral distinction—“The question is not ‘Can [animals] reason,’ nor ‘Can they talk,’ but ‘Can they suffer?’ ”—to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation to Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, philosophers have, through various perspectives, been building a multifaceted and daunting case that animals have relevant interests and, as a result, deserve a basic level of moral consideration. It may very well follow that because of this moral consideration, we cannot justifiably raise sentient animals and kill them for food when we could replace them with plant-based substitutes. Granted, few philosophers would maintain that it’s always unethical to eat animals—there may be persuasive cases for doing so under certain circumstances. However, after two centuries of debate on the issue, their arguments do show that the bar has been set higher than most of us acknowledge. In short, it matters to a pig that it leads a pleasurable life. On what grounds can we ignore that interest, kill the animal, and make a pork chop?
This is not a parlor game. Indeed, Comis’s call for a more philosophical approach to animal agriculture is neither an arbitrary nor an academic appeal to an abstract notion of animal rights. Instead, it’s grounded in the humble workings of daily life, especially the humble, if complex, workings that bring to our plate animal protein—which has been shown to be not only unnecessary but often harmful to human health. A secular and religious consensus exists that living an ethical life means accepting that my own interests are no more important than another’s simply because they are mine. Basic decency, not to mention social cohesion, requires us to concede that like interests deserve equal consideration. If we have an interest in anything, it is in avoiding unnecessary pain. Thus, even though a farm animal’s experience of suffering might be different from a human’s experience of suffering, that suffering requires that we consider the animal’s interest in not being raised and eaten much as we would consider our own interest in not being raised and eaten. Once we do that, we would have to demonstrate, in order to justifiably eat a farm animal, that some weighty competing moral consideration was at stake. The succulence of pancetta, unfortunately, won’t cut it.
The Food Movement should be game for a serious discussion of this issue. Its own rhetoric urges us to “know where our food comes from” and to trace our ingredients “from farm to fork.” Leading figures in the movement would thus seem poised to embrace this line of ethical inquiry as a critical step in the larger effort to reform our “broken food system.” Animal agriculture is at the heart of almost every major ill that plagues industrial agriculture. Identify an agrarian problem—greenhouse gas emissions, overuse of antibiotics and dangerous pesticides, genetically modified crops, salmonella, E. coli, waste disposal, excessive use of water—and trace it to its ultimate origin and you will likely find an animal. Given that centrality, it’s reasonable to expect the Food Movement to leap at the opportunity to grapple with the implications of Comis’s conundrum. Research shows that veganism, which obviates the inherent waste involved in growing the grains used to fatten animals for food in conventional systems, is seven times more energy efficient than eating meat and, if embraced globally, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from conventional agriculture by 94 percent. Any pretext to explore meat eating’s moral underpinnings—and possibly land upon an excuse for pursuing a plant-based diet as a viable goal—would be consistent with the movement’s anticorporate, ecologically driven mission.
But with rare exception, those in the big, lumpy tent have thrown down a red carpet for “ethical butchers” while generally dismissing animal rights advocates as smug ascetics (which they can be) and crazed activists (ditto) who are driven more by sappy sentiment than rock-ribbed reason. It’s an easy move to make. But the problem with this dismissal—and the overall refusal to address the ethics of killing animals for food—is that it potentially anchors the Food Movement’s admirable goals in the shifting sands of an unresolved hypocrisy. Let’s call it the “omnivore’s contradiction.”
Conscientious carnivores will argue that we can justify eating animals because humans evolved to do so (the shape of our teeth proves it); that if we did not eat happy farm animals, they’d never have been born to become happy in the first place; that all is fine if an animal lives well and is “killed with respect”; that we need to recycle animals through the agricultural system to keep the soil healthy; that animals eat animals; and that in nature, it’s the survival of species and not of individuals that matters most. These arguments create room for a productive conversation. But none of them carry real weight until the Food Movement resolves the contradiction raised by Bob Comis: How do you ethically justify both respecting and killing a sentient animal?
KILLING THEM WITH KINDNESS
Consider why those in the Food Movement want to end the abuses of industrial animal agriculture in the first place: environmental, health, and labor conditions, for starters. As conventional agriculture’s damaging effects on natural resources, obesity rates, and workplace justice and safety become increasingly obvious, angry consumers want alternatives. Gargantuan corporate consolidation—which seems only to intensify the worst aspects of industrial agriculture—generates further popular outrage. Even higher on the list for most concerned consumers, though, is the mistreatment of the animals. What makes us cringe is their incessant abuse. How can it ever be okay to chop off an animal’s tail without anesthesia, lock it in a cage so tight it cannot turn around, toss live male chicks into a grinder, or jam an electric prod into a cow’s anus—all of which are standard procedures on industrial farms? Everyone gets the point intuitively: no self-aware creature should be subjected to this relentless gauntlet of abuse—especially when the purpose of that suffering is merely to satisfy our palates. If only by virtue of our own moral gag reflex, then, we have granted animals a basic level of moral consideration.
The Food Movement’s popularity is built upon this idea: that animals raised in factory farms have qualities that make them worthy of our moral consideration. Animals are not objects, and their welfare matters to the extent that they should not suffer the abusive confines of factory farms. They deserve the time, space, and freedom to exist as the creatures they were born to be. These concerns assume that farm animals—given their ability to experience suffering in industrialized settings—have authentic emotional lives and intrinsic worth. Our belief that they should not suffer abuse in confinement recognizes their fundamental moral status as sentient beings. They can suffer, and as a direct result, we should, whenever possible, avoid inflicting suffering upon them. If animals didn’t matter to us in a moral sense, then the harm systematically inflicted upon them in industrial operations would pose no ethical concerns whatsoever. We’d be indifferent to their abuse.
If the Food Movement’s stance on animals raised in factory farms is clear, it grows murky when applied to nonindustrial, more humane, farms. Indeed, that’s where the omnivore’s contradiction comes into sharp focus. The Food Movement’s premises about farm animals are (we will assume for now) adequately met on most small, sustainable, humane farms. Still, there’s no denying that even on the most impressive of these farms—no matter how much their owners talk about a respectful death—animals are raised for the ultimate purpose of being killed and turned into commodities. The Food Movement habitually minimizes this reality, but the fact remains: just as on factory farms, animals on humane farms are, on slaughter day, transformed through raw violence into objects, after which they are commodified, consumed, and replaced with all the efficiency of car parts.
Ethically speaking, matters at this point become significantly more complicated. This is where, after all, practice and principle suddenly converge, revealing the heart of the hypocrisy: the elevation of how animals are raised as a moral consideration (poorly in factory farms; well on humane farms) above why we are raising them (to kill and eat them in both cases). It is at this crucial moment in a farm animal’s life—the human choice to slaughter the beast against its will—that the moral consideration so effectively deployed to condemn the factory farming of animals loses its punch and its plausibility. Which, again, brings us to the contradiction.
It seems not only reasonable but essential to ask: How can a movement claim to care so deeply about farm animals that it wants to restructure all of animal agriculture to ensure their happiness but, at the same time, turn those same animals into an $11 appetizer plate of fried pig head? What moral principle could possibly accommodate such a whiplash-inducing shift in practice? And if there were such a principle, would you ever want it to guide your life? Bob Comis, who embodies the omnivore’s contradiction with such self-awareness, articulated the problem this way in a recent interview with Modern Farmer magazine:
[L]ivestock farmers lie to their animals. We’re kind to them and take good care of them for months, even years. They grow comfortable with our presence, and even begin to like us. But in the end, we take advantage of the animals, using their trust to dupe them into being led to their own deaths.
With kindness, they kill them.
WRITING DEATH OUT OF LIFE
The Food Movement’s failure to recognize this contradiction is most obvious in the culturally pioneering work of its well-known leading tastemakers: Pollan, food journalist Mark Bittman, and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Together, these writers embody the omnivore’s contradiction by evading the question. They are quick to put down factory farming and insist that farm animals have intrinsic worth. Animals are not objects. They have feelings. They suffer inexcusable pain and frustration. But their eloquent screeds ring hollow the moment they use the horrors of factory farming to justify artisanal production and its ultimate aim: nicer killing. More palatable killing. More attractive and marketable killing.
Writing about pigs housed in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, nails it. He offers genuinely empathetic observations, writing how radical hog confinement causes a “depressed pig,” a “demoralized pig,” a pig divorced from his “natural predilections.” He laments the way pigs in CAFOs are “crowded together beneath a metal roof standing on metal slats suspended over a septic tank.” After visiting a free-range farm where privileged pigs were being happy pigs, Pollan admitted that he “couldn’t look at their spiraled tails … without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production” (where tails are docked). Explaining how pigs in confinement experience a “learned helplessness,” he writes, “It’s not surprising that an animal as intelligent as a pig would get depressed under these circumstances.”
Bittman, the influential New York Times “Minimalist” food columnist, has regularly reported on the dreadful fate of animals on factory farms. The author of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, he routinely arms his readers with disturbing facts and figures. We learn that the number of cows and broiler chickens housed in factory farms doubled between 1997 and 2007, and that the number of “large livestock operations” almost quadrupled between 1982 and 2002. And Bittman connects these numbers to the emotional turmoil experienced by the animals themselves. “Until a couple of years ago,” he confessed in 2012, “I believed that the primary reasons to eat less meat were environment—and health—related.” While acknowledging that such rationales remain valid, he added, “But animal welfare has since become a large part of my thinking as well.”
As with Pollan, Bittman has experienced an epiphany in realizing that the animals we eat have critical interests in avoiding pain. An undercover Humane Society video of a Smithfield Foods hog facility exposing the chilling abuse of pigs left the columnist, a thoroughly seasoned food writer, “pretty much speechless.” He lambastes Smithfield Foods for its “infuriating disregard for the welfare of their animals.” He even suggests that animal abuse in factory farming quietly damages the human psyche, exhorting readers “to look at how we treat animals and begin to change it.”
Foer has also influenced the public’s disdain for factory farming—perhaps even more than Pollan and Bittman. Foer’s best-selling book Eating Animals brought the condemnation of industrial agriculture into more impressively detailed and thoughtful territory. Young people in particular were moved to forgo meat by Foer’s nuanced but accessible analysis. He quotes an industrial poultry farmer who explains how turkey hens are killed after a year of life “because they won’t lay as many eggs in the second year.” It was, the farmer continued, “cheaper to slaughter them and start over than it is [to] feed and house birds that lay fewer eggs.” Through revealing anecdotes such as this one, Foer illuminates the icy banality of animal objectification, showing how easy it is to overlook the suffering of animals raised on factory farms in the full knowledge of those who perpetuate it. After an overview of the egg industry as a whole, Foer concludes with an appropriate sense of disgust: “I didn’t ever want to eat a conventional egg again.”
“Nothing we do,” Foer also writes, “has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat,” and he makes those words sing when he wonders, “What is suffering? I’m not sure what it is, but I know that suffering is the name we give to the origin of all the sighs, screams, and groans—small and large, crude and multifaceted—that concern us.” Suffering is Foer’s focus and motivation, the basis of the idea that farm animals are entitled, at the least, to enjoy their lives and not have them arbitrarily cut short for a back-yard barbecue. His message was shrill enough for Pollan to reduce his thoughts on Foer’s book to two words in a New York Review of Books essay: “vegetarian polemic.”
Given all this, it’s not unreasonable to expect that these writers might advocate an end to raising and killing animals for food. But they are not prepared to take that stand. This decision—this curious dodge—is bound to rot the movement from within. It’s a typical sleight of hand of which Pollan is a master. To wit, he explained to Oprah Winfrey in 2011 that after deliberating about the legitimacy of eating meat, “I came out thinking I could eat meat in this very limited way, from farmers who were growing it in a way that I could feel good about how the animals lived.”
How is it possible to ethically raise, love, and then kill an animal “in this very limited way”? If Pollan really does want to “feel good” about an animal’s quality of life—much in the way he would, say, his pet dog’s—then what’s the exact justification for cutting that life short (by something like 75 percent) for a menu choice? Wouldn’t it be better to spare the pseudo-philosophizing and just admit (as Comis did, until he announced on his blog in February that he had become a vegetarian) that he likes meat too much to stop consuming it? And if that’s the competing consideration—loving meat—then all humanitarian ballyhooing over animals in factory farms becomes meaningless, as do the arguments over animal suffering in general.
Bittman also dances a version of this dance, writing that “meat-eating may be too strong [a habit] for most of us to give up.” But this is patronizing. Millions of consumers have given up meat, and many go further by giving up dairy and all animal products. Bittman, himself, kind of joined them by claiming to embrace “semi-veganism”: no animal products before dinnertime; carnivorism afterward. It’s a confabulation, a dubious premise that purports to achieve the unachievable—that is, getting to a “place where we continue to eat animals but exchange that privilege … for a system in which we eat less and treat [animals] better.” Bittman’s use of “privilege” here is telling, granting as it does special immunity to “responsible” meat eaters who, unlike Comis or the 7.3 million other vegetarians in the United States, have faced the ethical conundrum.
Foer’s own decision to promote the consumption of animals from humane farms in the wake of a book that turned a lot of people into vegetarians is especially confounding. In October 2012, he responded to a question about the morality of killing animals for food by saying, “The answer doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s fun, intellectually, to consider the question. But let’s talk about what’s actually in front of us.” Back to that whole principle and practice thing. A few months before making this remark, Foer could be found (briefly) on YouTube promoting a Farm Forward app informing concerned consumers where to buy the right kind of chicken. Foer, who has explicitly exposed the horror of death for industrial chickens, wants us to know where to get humanely killed poultry because, it is assumed, that’s the choice that’s “actually in front of us.”
But is that all that’s in front of us?
WHAT ELSE IS “ACTUALLY IN FRONT OF US”?
Look, I get it. These writers are being pragmatic and, for better or worse, pragmatism is persuasive and professional. Their habitual appeal to more humane alternatives, and their tacit rejection of a plant-based diet as an explicit path to food reform, is an example of preventing, as the saying goes, the perfect from being the enemy of the good. Plus, industrial agriculture is so obviously antithetical to animal welfare that any nonindustrial operation by definition will appear to be superior and, in turn, garner public support. Why bother with the heavy lifting of moral consistency when consumers can salve their consciences about continuing to eat animals in a way that’s socially acceptable?
This question—and the logic behind it—has not only shaped the message of our leading “agri-intellectuals,” but it has even inspired global organizations with a professional stake in animal welfare—the Humane Society of the United States, for one—to support small-scale, humane animal agriculture as an end in itself rather than as a stepping stone to eliminating animals from our diets. “We at HSUS,” according to its president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, “embrace humane farmers and an alternative production strategy to factory farming.” The Humane Society is advocating eating animals? Well, yes. They do so because, as a personal choice, eating less meat is perceived to be easier than eating no meat.
Foer asks us to consider the reality we live in when evaluating our position on eating animals. So let’s end by doing that. Let’s consider the nature of nonindustrial animal agriculture, bringing the same level of scrutiny to those operations that we bring to factory farms. Do this, and two damning realities begin to emerge. Together, they emphasize the consequences of the movement’s failure to follow the logic of its own findings and to promote, as it should, the end of animal agriculture as a revolutionary path to agrarian reform, one with the potential to meet the movement’s most passionately articulated goals.
The first is that the economics of nonindustrial animal agriculture doesn’t work. Consolidation pays. Pasture-based systems are a costly alternative to factory farming and will by necessity appeal primarily to Bittman’s “privileged” consumers rather than have broad appeal to the carnivorous masses. In perhaps the most important and overlooked book published on animal agriculture in a generation, Jayson Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood’s Compassion, by the Pound, the authors—agricultural economists—document the hard economic reality of humane farming. They show beyond a doubt that Plato’s pig requires the riches of Croesus and a horde of foodies willing to pay a mint for meat. Of course, many carnivores will happily do that. Niche support for humane meat, however, will do very little to challenge the overall allure of cheap protein churned out by agribusiness. Most consumers will always rally around the lowest price. If there is no stigma against eating animals, the cheapest options will prevail. And so will agribusiness. Simply put: you can’t beat the devil at his own game.
The second unrecognized reality is that although nonindustrial animal agriculture might appear to be substantially more humane than industrialized agriculture, small farms are only nominally more accommodating of farm animals’ full interests. My research for a book looking into the downside of small-scale animal agriculture has revealed that problems reminiscent of factory farms readily plague many of their smaller counterparts, too. Owning animals for the purposes of slaughter and consumption means that ethical corners will be cut to enhance the bottom line. As competition for privileged consumers increases, this corner cutting can only be expected to intensify.
A short list of routine and sometimes unavoidable problems prevalent on nonindustrial animal farms, all noted by farmers themselves, includes the following: excessive rates of pastured animals being killed by wild and domestic animals, mutilation of pig snouts to prevent detrimental rooting, castration without anesthesia, botched slaughters, preventive (and illicit) antibiotic use, outbreaks of salmonella and trichinosis, acute pasture damage, overuse of pesticides and animal vaccines, and routine separation of mothers and calves. Animals granted a little more space, in other words, still suffer the negative consequences of being owned for exploitation. Given that they are destined to be commodities, not companions, this should not come as a surprise. Hence the ultimate cost of failing to address the omnivore’s contradiction: the ongoing suffering of the animals that farmers and foodies say they care so much about.
Nobody is envisioning the immediate liberation of farm animals. We will never realistically face a scenario in which the billions of animals we now kill for food roam the landscape in search of sanctuary. But what we can envision—and what the Food Movement should envision—is a radical shift in agricultural practice initiated by a radical shift in what enlightened consumers agree not to eat. This transition would primarily favor far more diversified systems of production focused on growing plants for people to consume (right now, 75 percent of all the world’s calories in food production comes from corn, rice, wheat, and soy, and the bulk of all corn and soy goes to livestock). Necessarily complementing this shift would be a gradual but sharp reduction in the practice of raising animals for the purposes of killing them for food, with smaller, more humane farms serving as a necessary but temporary phase in the larger mission of ending animal agriculture altogether.
Once these two related developments are complete, or at least well underway, the Food Movement could then initiate useful debates over the residual uses of animals in food production. If we keep chickens to help fertilize the soil or to be our pets, can we justify eating their eggs? Should we establish municipal programs to process road kill into safe culinary options? Should we eat animals such as jellyfish that proliferate in ecologically dangerous ways? These discussions are all worth having, but not until we make genuine progress toward ending the agricultural tradition of raising animals capable of suffering and then eating them.
“I HAVE THIS THING FOR COWS”
In addition to insisting that it “doesn’t really matter” whether it’s morally wrong to raise and kill animals, Foer also explained that this “question is the least relevant to the choices we make on a daily basis.” In other words, because our culture is so deeply infused with animal products, it makes little practical sense to investigate the morality of eating animals. People don’t care. I might have agreed with Foer before last semester, when I helped teach a course called Eating Animals in America. But in that class, something happened that opened my eyes to the Food Movement in a new way. We had read Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds, a graphic look into the workings of an industrial slaughterhouse. In our discussion, one student—an elaborately tattooed Iraqi war veteran, Purple Heart, competitive weight lifter, and active Texas rancher—told his classmates, all of whom were disgusted by what they’d read, that there was a better way. There was, he insisted, an entirely different way to go about treating cattle. My colleague and I asked this student—let’s call him Mike—if he’d be willing to open the next class by describing how he handles slaughtering cattle on his family’s ranch, where they kill two cows a year for personal consumption. He generously agreed.
Mike began by explaining how horrified he was by Pachirat’s description of the way that the industrial operation’s cattle were treated. He was visibly angered. His hands were balled in fists. Having grown up around cattle and admitting that “I have this special thing for cows,” even more than his dogs, he said that slaughtering his animals with dignity was of the utmost importance. Mike described how his family cared for the calves, nurtured maternal bonds, made sure that the animals had access to open pasture during nice weather and shelter from storms, monitored feed, never had to administer antibiotics or vaccines, and showered the animals with physical affection. Lots of scratches and rubs. And then he took a deep breath, looked at the class with icy blue eyes, and began to explain how, to kill the cow humanely, you had to create a quiet atmosphere, make sure the knife was sharp, gather the whole family around, and … and then he paused. He looked shocked for a second as his voice caught in his throat. His eyes darted around the room at his fellow students, who were dead silent. He took another deep breath and began to talk about severing the spinal cord. And then he was overcome. I sensed that a cathartic moment was coming and so looked hard at his eyes as they began to fill up with tears. The only thing I remember thinking was that this rancher is seeking a new path that nobody is providing. And that there’s no way he is alone.
James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and the author of a forthcoming book on the ethics of humane animal agriculture. His work has appeared in Harper’s, Slate, and The New York Times.