On the GoogleNet you can find endless cute animal videos... who’s stealing the doggie treats? Not Denver the dog – despite his guilty look – it’s Freddy the cat.
A Japanese village destroyed by tsunami – sad part of a larger story. Shivering, abandoned pet dog in the same village – gut wrenching.
“Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals” is the subtitle of psychologist Hal Herzog’s timely book. It’s titled “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat” as in love dogs, hate rats, eat pigs. Herzog’s book is stuffed with anecdotes, revealing experiments, news reports, encounters and observations. Assembling massive evidence and utilizing his own published research, he begins to approach the raw, bleeding heart of our relationship with animals.
Herzog’s musings came home for me this week when I read an essay by Marc Bittman of the NY Times. Under the headline “Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others” Bittman writes, “It's time to take a look at the line between ‘pet’ and ‘animal.’ When the ASPCA sends an agent to the home of a Brooklyn family to arrest one of its members for allegedly killing a hamster, something is wrong... That ‘something’ is this: we protect ‘companion animals’ like hamsters while largely ignoring what amounts to the torture of chickens and cows and pigs. In short, if I keep a pig as a pet, I can't kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it.”
Bittman is pondering the questions discussed at length in Herzog’s book.
We breed rats to feed to pet snakes, but we would not feel good offering a kitten killed humanely in the local animal shelter to a pet snake. It makes little difference to the snake. Why does it make such a big difference to us?
Herzog notes cats “are recreational killers” and estimates “a billion small animals a year fall victim” to their hunting instincts. The solution? Keep the cat inside. Most owners find this cruel and will not do it.
At the same time, “With about 94 million cats in America,” he writes, “the numbers add up. If each cat consumes just two ounces of meat daily, en masse, they consume nearly 12 million pounds of flesh – the equivalent of 3 million chickens – every single day.” We feed songbirds and eat chickens. We feed chickens to cats who eat some of the song birds we attract. Go figure.
This is just the beginning of the ethical and moral questions involved in our relationships with non-human living things. Can you be a vegetarian who eats fish? Can you be a vegan who wears leather shoes? Can a vegan in good conscience eat grain knowing that many small creatures are swept up and destroyed when fields are harvested?
Mark Bittman in his essay notes “We’re finally seeing some laws that take the first steps toward generally ameliorating cruelty to farm animals, and it’s safe to say that most of today’s small farmers and even some larger ones raise animals humanely. These few, at least, are treated with as much respect as the law believes we should treat a hamster. For the majority of non-pets, though, it’s tough luck.”
Many have wrestled with these thoughts and questions, and few of us have it all figured out, if that is even possible. In “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat” Herzog highlights our hypocrisy, inconsistency and virtual blindness on these issues.
The people he most admires have somehow come to terms with their own “carnivorous yahoo,” the tendency of humankind to exploit other species.
“I have met lots of animal people who... work for animals in different ways and on different scales. Most of them do small things that help animals and make them feel good about themselves. Some of them cut back on their meat consumption or adopt a shelter dog. Others donate money to PETA or the World Wildlife Fund or pull over to the side of the road and carry a box turtle in the middle of the highway to safety.”
John Le Carre, the English writer said in a 2008 novel quoted by Herzog, “The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.”
“Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat” by Hal Herzog. HarperCollins hc $25.99. ISBN 9780061730863.
The author’s homepage
Mark Bittman's essay
My favorite comment among the many that followed Bittman’s piece: “Like it or not, humans are the animals at the top of the food chain and we get to decide what's for eating and what's for petting. That said, unprincipled cruelty to any living creature sucks.
Still, I look forward to Mr. Bittman's next hand-wringer about which plants are for eating, which plants are for landscaping, and which plants are just too nice to eat.”