Humanity and Humane
The vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 96% of Americans want animals to be actively protected from abuse. 96%! 96% of Americans don’t agree on anything!
Almost no one eats meat because they actually want animals to suffer. And when they find out what actually happens at factory farms and in industrial slaughterhouses, most people are appalled. This concern for farm animals is laudable, and the revulsion at cruelty to animals is a sign of our basic decency, our fundamental humanity.
The desire to buy humane meat – meat that comes from small farmers or backyard butchers – is often driven by this revulsion to the meat industry’s brutality to chickens, pigs, cows, and turkeys. I have talked with many people who love animals and hate cruelty, and they tell me that they only buy humane meat from Whole Foods or local farmers. It is a popular theme in books, articles, and film (e.g., Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the film Food, Inc.).
There are at least three areas where we should be concerned about the concept of humane meat.
The first is that most of us are very busy, and are not in a position to actually visit the farms and slaughter facilities that are raising and killing the animals who become meat. Because of this we must take the word of these farmers that the animals are being raised and slaughtered with kindness. However, without firsthand knowledge, we cannot be certain that this is in fact the case. We don’t know, for example, if the locally raised pigs might be locked in stalls in filthy barns, or the pasture-raised lamb is crawling with parasites. We saw this firsthand when we helped rescue of more than 170 animals suffering at the hands of a backyard butcher.
The second concern is related: in our capitalist society, there will be suppliers looking to meet any demand – in this case, meat marketed as “humane.” However, those supplying the humane meat market are always driven to maximize profit, rather than treat animals kindly. It is extremely expensive to raise animals in a way that gives these individuals complete medical and nutritional care, as well as the open space and fresh air required for a truly humane existence.
Finally, there is the basic principle upon which Farm Sanctuary was founded – that farm animals are someone, not something, just like the dogs and cats we all know and share our lives with. We would never dream of raising them and then killing them for our own use. As Farm Sanctuary’s President and Co-founder Gene Baur loves to say, “Farm animals are our friends, and we don’t eat our friends.”
Exposing the Truth
The author Michael Pollan has endeavored to examine these humane meat producers first hand. As an author researching this subject, Pollan has had the time and resources to investigate the various farms who claim to raise humane meat. The pinnacle of Pollan’s praise is Polyface Farm, where “animals can be animals,” living, according to Pollan, true to their nature.
So what is Polyface Farm truly like? Rabbits on the farm are kept in small wire cages. Chickens are also crowded into wire cages, confined without the ability to nest or the space to establish a pecking order. Year-round, pigs and cattle are shipped in open trucks to conventional slaughterhouses, regardless of the weather.
The chickens and turkeys have it worse. Seventy-two hours before their slaughter, birds are crated in crowded groups of eight. After three days without food, they are grabbed by the feet, up-ended in metal cones, and, without any stunning, have their throats slit.
This is the system Pollan proclaims praiseworthy and says we should ethically endorse and financially support.
Sadly, in some ways, Polyface actually is a praiseworthy system, compared to many other producers of “humane” meat. A steady string of undercover investigations has shown that the conditions on “family” farms are often shockingly cruel – in many cases almost as bad as those on factory farms.
An Individual or Meat?
In the end, Polyface’s view is the same as Tyson’s: these individual chickens and pigs are, ultimately, just meat to be sold for maximum profit. It is logically and emotionally impossible for there to be any real respect or kindness, any true, fundamental concern for the interests of these individuals, when these living, breathing animals exist only to be butchered, sold for a profit, and consumed. If we insist that we must eat actual animal flesh instead of a cruelty-free option, it is naïve, at best, to believe that any system will really take good care of the animals we pay them to slaughter.
It is understandable to want to believe in “humane” meat. But once we know the facts, we have to ask ourselves what kind of person we choose to be. Do we oppose cruelty or support slaughter? Do we make our own decisions or do we rationalize the system under the guise of humane meat?
Each of us has the freedom to decide the kind of person we want to be. It is easy, of course, to close our eyes to the reality of what goes on, and allow ourselves to be lied to by those who make money killing animals. Or we can choose to live with our eyes completely open to the realities and truths around us.
A Huffington Post article summarizes:
People like Albert Einstein and Leo Tolstoy argued that using our power to harm the weak and innocent – on an issue as essential to who we are as eating – is fundamental to all moral action. Tolstoy summed it up by saying, “Vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism.” Einstein spoke of the human arrogance that considered ourselves apart and superior to other species, calling this justification for exploiting them “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.” He pleaded that “our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion,” calling for “the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
History has shown us, again and again, that one of the primary challenges of leading an ethical life is to transcend mindless acceptance of the current norms of society. Where a certain path is the easiest one, we should be very wary of assuming that it is also the best or most ethical path. As difficult as it can seem at times, we each can start to explore a truly compassionate lifestyle, where our basic decency and natural human revulsion at cruelty to animals guides us to truly humane choices.
Delicious and Powerful
Delightfully, it’s now also delicious to eat a cruelty-free diet.
This isn’t news to long-time vegetarians, but I still regularly meet individuals who want to make compassionate choices, but have no idea what they would eat. Naturally, they just picture their current diet minus meat, and imagine that an ethical life equals a life of deprivation.
Luckily, this is no longer the case! There is abundance – indeed, an overwhelming bounty – of amazing, familiar, and mouth-watering options out there. For example, exploring just one website – V-lish.com – gives tips for switching, lists loads of amazing recipes, and provides help for when you are eating out or traveling!
In addition to being healthy and delicious, making our lives a part of something larger – opposing cruelty in our choices and acting from our true humanity – enriches our existence and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness.
Martin Luther King Jr noted that the arc of history is long, but bends towards justice. Every day, at every meal, we can each help bend the arc! Choosing to follow a fully compassionate diet makes an incredibly powerful public ethical statement – not just about the suffering of animals, but about our fundamental humanity, the basic content of our character.