Captive Royals and Meat Machines – Animals in America Today
I marvel at the mobile pet grooming salon that pulls into my neighbor's driveway. The sides of the oversize van include ads for the usual haircut, shampoo, and combing.
But today grooming salon services include fluff drying, dry skin
therapy, ear cleaning, and "laser teeth cleaning". My neighbor's dogs
are treated to a "makeover" every two weeks. We Americans
pay these salons and other pet care businesses 36 billion dollars
annually and the amount goes up every year. You can now purchase shoes
for your dog: "Fetchers – handcrafted with high quality leather, rubber sole, rear zipper and velcro strap for the best fit and most comfort.
Protect your loved ones with their very own set of four Fetchers!" (Skymall, summer 2005) Such care, such royal treatment, verges on extravagance. Is it just a frivolous waste? Or perhaps we Americans are trying to express our compassion for animals? Clearly, our "compassion" does not extend to the millions of animals on factory farms, however. While our pets are pampered, the treatment of factory farm animals is grossly inhumane. Factory
farm animals are trapped in confinement facilities, cages, or feedlots,
drugged with antibiotics and hormones, and slaughtered for food. Pets vs. livestock – the contrast in treatment reveals a double standard. It seems we are schizoid when it comes to our relation to animals. Here I will analyze the schizophrenia and suggest some cures.
Today most of us are
urbanized to such an extent that exposure to pets (ours or our
neighbors, friends or relatives) is our only direct experience of
animals. Modern life deprives us of the experience of
wild animals and farm animals, but ownership of pets is so pervasive
that virtually everyone is directly exposed to pet animals. The "pet-less" household is considered odd, and the child who grows up without a pet is missing something valuable. Many pets do give protection, affection, and can, according to psychological research, produce a calming atmosphere. For single or solitary people, especially seniors, a pet can provide much needed companionship.
The term "companion
animals" is sometimes suggested as preferable to "pets," but there is a
subtle deception in the term "companion." Companions have an integrity and independence not enjoyed by pets. Pets are captive and controlled. They are fenced or roped or leashed or caged. Their instincts to roam, hunt and breed are severely suppressed. If they become strays they are "impounded" by the county animal shelter.
The curious and ambiguous
plight of our pets is symbolized by the dog sticking his head out of
the half open window of a moving SUV, apparently enjoying the breeze
with all the strange scents in rapid succession. But is the dog really enjoying this? The dog is a captive, not able to follow the scents, not able to escape from this flying metal box.
Pets are in many ways given the royal treatment, yet they are owned and controlled—hence the term "captive royals". The case of my wife's pet lamb exemplifies the situation of captive royals, but with a special twist. As a child my wife showered affection on her lamb, "Tumbaga," who was sometimes tied to a tree or housed in a barn. Tumbaga was partial to my wife, even showing signs of jealousy and acting protective if other people appeared to threaten her. The lamb was my wife's pet in an exclusive way; it was not her parents' pet. When the family moved, Tumbaga disappeared amid vague explanations. My wife continued to question her parents until the truth came out: the family had eaten Tumbaga. To the parents, the lamb was livestock, so it became mutton at a family meal. My wife had lost her pet. She still lives with this loss and the realization that Tumbaga had been killed and she had eaten him.
Most of us shrink in horror at the thought of our pet suffering or being eaten. We
identify with the animal as a sentient being; that is, we identify with
it as a feeling, desiring animal with caring relationships. We know, and it is obviously a fact, that these animals have natural desires and they experience pleasure and pain. We empathize with them. Our compassion makes sense. What does not
make sense, and what seems very odd, is our lack of compassion for
factory farm animals in stalls or feed lots. They are treated only as a
source of food. Veal calves are taken from their mother
and from the other animals and cramped in 22 inch wide stalls, denied
solid food and made anemic. The result is flesh that is "delicate whitish-pink" and so "deliciously tender." (American Cookery, page 331). These calves are sentient beings too, just like Tumbaga or our pet dog or cat. Do they not deserve compassion as well? It seems we have two separate compartments in our minds and in our hearts: one for animals as our pets, and another for animals as meat machines.
Sometimes the realization
that an animal is someone's pet – anyone's – can ignite warm feelings
of compassion and even furious action. Recently
authorities broke into a vehicle parked in a shopping mall to help a
panting golden retriever ("Goldie") because the owner had left him in
the car on a hot day. Shoppers were roused into action when they saw the animal in distress. They attempted to open the car and hastened to call the authorities to bring relief. But we are not so compassionate when, on rare occasions, we are exposed to the distress of factory farm animals. In contrast to the case of Goldie, consider what I observed at a large truck stop and restaurant complex in the
strong is the mindset that direct exposure to, or information about
factory farm animals may not unsettle our mental categories. Livestock
dwell in the compartment of our minds called "commodities," and as such do not deserve compassion. We have one standard for pets and another standard for livestock.
The result of this double standard is a kind of caste system, and our laws reflect this system. Standard procedures on factory farms are exempted from humane legislation. It is as though we ignore or deny the sentience of livestock animals; they are mere meat machines. These words of a
How can such a highly questionable double standard continue to exist? First of all, some Americans are still unaware of factory farming. They assume that most farm animals are open range—that is, allowed to graze in a pasture or forage in the traditional barn yard. Because of urbanization, most of us have not seen facilities like the pig confinement barracks I recently saw in
sunless mass-confinement structures house 1,000 pigs crammed for their
whole lifetime into concrete, plastic and metal units. No hay, no dirt, no mud. The sterile environment prohibits the essential behaviors of nesting, foraging, rooting, wallowing, etc. Pigs catch their feet in the floors which are slatted to allow excrement and urine to fall into waste pits below. In
these concentration camps, the frustrated animals experience PSS
(porcine stress syndrome) and gnaw on metal posts or even bite each
other's tails. More details are available in books like John Robbins' Diet for a New America, and Peter Singer's Animal Liberation.
Economic factors also play a part in perpetuating the double standard. Factory
farming is far and away the most common method used in the meat
industry today because it is the most profitable way to control the
meat machines. The industry and its public relations
agents like the American Cattlemen's Association defend the idea that
the methods of the meat industry are entirely necessary and appropriate. They have many big bucks to lose if Americans became outraged about factory farming.
The other side of the double standard is the pet industry. Big
corporations are now profiting from the business of helping us pamper
our pets, so they bombard us with all sorts of information about how to
give our pets the royal treatment. Thus, the meat
industry tells us there are no important issues about the treatment of
livestock, and the pet industry tells us there are many important
issues about how to improve treatment of pets.
I am often surprised by the comments of students whose attitudes
reflect the cultural schizophrenia in regard to the treatment of
animals. Some students try to defend the double standard by saying that in any case we have to use some animals for food. In response I point out that slaughter for food, even if assumed to be necessary, is not the only issue. What about cruel
treatment for the duration of the animal's life before it is slaughtered and becomes food? This question does give the students pause to think. And well it should --especially when they realize how sensitive we are when our pet suffers or is killed. At this juncture some students open their minds to a different perspective. They can see that we need to rethink our relation to animals.
We can treat the schizophrenia with several curative measures. First and foremost, we need to be more consistent and use a single standard of compassion for all animals. Second,
we need to liberate ourselves from the pet pampering craze; extravagant
spending for pet makeovers and paraphernalia is wasteful. Third, we need to be clear about factory farming: it is based on the suspect premise that profit is more important than compassion. Finally, my students face up to these questions: Is meat really a necessary part of a nutritious diet? Would a vegetarian diet terminate our allegiance to processes that torture and kill innocent creatures? These are not just academic questions. We all owe it to ourselves to ponder them carefully.