I am often asked how I can raise an animal with tender care and then kill and eat it. My answer is another question: how can a person work hard to develop a healthy body with good hygiene, good exercise, good living habits and a good diet, and then hide that beautiful bunch of flesh and bone under clothes?
We are the result of our cultural and biological environment. A person properly situated could quit wearing clothes, I suppose. It might even be healthier to do so. But neither our environment nor our mystifying American culture will tolerate public nudity (although observing cheerleaders at pro-football games, it looks to me like we are nearing a — may I use the word — breakthrough in the latter case).
In the culture I belong to, for better or for worse, going without meat is as unthinkable as going without clothes. Killing animals for food is nasty, sad work but we think someone has to do it. I grew up in a society generally not wealthy enough to eat meat regularly unless we butchered what we raised. And lest the main point be overlooked, homegrown, home-cooked meat is so very, very tasty.
As children we felt the natural revulsion that comes from killing the farm animals we cared for, especially when a favorite one was involved. But we got over it, or at least did not make companion pets of the animals destined for market or table. Very few people are hardhearted enough to kill and eat an orphan lamb brought into the house, fed from a bottle, diapered like a baby, and allowed to sleep in one’s lap while they watch television — as we have done. Butchering and eating our own meat taught us the hardest lesson of life: death is inevitable for everything. Accepting that fact is part of the wisdom that rural culture teaches. Not accepting it leads to what our urbanized society often does today: hitches a dying human up to the machine so as to prolong the pain and suffering a little longer. There will come a day when the good part of the old rural ethic asserts itself again and that practice will be regarded as barbaric.
Jews and Muslims use a sort of prayerful ritual when slaughtering animals to make the killing seem less repugnant. With us, families get together for a butchering day and make of it a kind of party, that is spread the repugnance out over a larger group of people. I think it is ironical that some of the same people who find our habit of killing animals for food repulsive, casually accept, even vote for, governments that bomb and kill people by the thousands.
Neither going without clothes nor going without meat is particularly practical. You won’t last long without clothes where I live. And many if not most vegetarians do eat some animal products like cheese and eggs, because getting the proper amount of all the necessary amino acids for good health is easier that way. Meat contains all the amino acids a human needs, whereas getting them from non-animal sources is tricky, requiring an array of foods properly balanced. Also, you can’t make up the absence of some amino acids in a non-meat lunch by eating them at dinner later. They have to be consumed at the same time. Says so right here in this vegetarian cookbook I am reading (The Forget-About-Meat Cookbook, by Karen Brooks).
So let us say that I decided to be a vegetarian (I have often been tempted because, as a vegetarian friend of mine likes to say, it is so much easier to raise and eat plants than animals). I would have to (or someone would have to) keep cows, goats or sheep for cheese and chickens for eggs. What am I supposed to do with the surplus animal babies, especially the bull calves and rooster chicks? What am I supposed to do with the cows and chickens when they get too old to produce milk and eggs? Is killing and feeding them to the buzzards and maggots, or waiting for them to die a slow, painful death, somehow better than killing and eating them?
There is a severe disconnect between our society today and the realities of the food chain. Many people no longer understand that nature is a magnificent banquet table around which sit all forms of life killing and eating each other. Culturally separated from that reality, people take on habits of thought that can become very problematical. First of all, it takes a fairly wealthy society to have the luxury of picking and choosing what it will eat. Poor people will eat anything edible they can get their hands on. Humans are, after all, genetically programmed to be omnivores and as such, probably would have otherwise become extinct because we are among the slowest and weakest of animals, with the least developed senses of seeing, hearing and smelling. We have survived and risen to the top of the food chain (actually the food chain does not have a top any more than a log chain does) because we can and will eat anything, plants, animals, bugs, worms, fungi, even dirt. I had an aunt who was a missionary in China in the 1930s when that country was already starving from overpopulation. She said people would pound rocks to dust and eat the dust for its mineral value.
The notion that we can live in an environment where we interact with only part of the food chain leads to a clouded vision of nature. For example, if I have learned anything in farming it is that there is more food security and all-around efficiency on a farm where both animals and plants are kept than on farms raising only one or the other. Why? Because that’s the way nature works. Plants and animals depend on each other. Plants are more at risk from uncontrollable weather than animals. Frost, drought, flood, hail, and a zillion fungal and insect pests can damage or wipe out the current year’s crops, but seldom the livestock.
There are of course environmental risks to raising animals too, but not nearly as crucial. A cow killed by lightning can still be “harvested” for meat, or turned into valuable fertilizer, tallow, glue, pet food, and a host of other products important to our so-called civilization. The farmer who produces both crops and livestock “secures” much of his vegetative crops by “storing” them more or less safely in his animals. Then the animals, in the process of turning vegetation into food humans are genetically capable of utilizing, also produce manure for fertilizer. As any organic dairy farmer will attest, animal manure is the main reason that a small-scale dairy farm can be profitable especially now that chemical fertilizer prices have soared into the ionosphere.
Secondly, the notion that land freed up from livestock production will remain lovely, edenic natural space, like a park, totally benign to human society and available to grow vegetative food for huge increases in human population, is unfortunately not true. Nature still abhors a vacuum. When you take domestic animals off the land, it will fill up with wild animals and sooner or later you will have to deal with them. In my youth, the land in my neighborhood was fully stocked with farm animals. I had an uncle who bragged that his farm was so efficient that there was not even a rabbit on it to hunt. There was not a deer to be seen in the whole county. Now deer and many other wild animals proliferate. For awhile we enjoyed their presence and their beauty. Then they don’t stay in their lovely wild garden of Eden. They come after our crops, our gardens, our ornamental plantings, our lawns, our parks, our golf courses and even our woodland, eating every tree seedling and wild flower that comes up because they are half starved. And if they have not come after yours yet, believe me, they soon will. Deer (and wild turkeys and Canada geese, among others), are invading even towns and cities, crashing through windows and killing themselves and humans in auto accidents. To keep deer in their wild Eden would require a fence ten feet tall and thousands of miles long, an impossibly expensive solution to the problem. Then if their populations were not kept in check, they would start starving to death penned inside their Eden.
Nature has a way of handling overpopulation. A disease is killing white-tailed deer in some areas, for example. Distemper decimates raccoon populations periodically. But such measures are too few and far between to solve the problem and that’s not the point here. Rather, ask yourself: which is more “humane:” killing animals for food or letting them overpopulate, destroy vegetation needed by other forms of life, and then starve or die of some disease anyway. Or averting that, after the deer get too old to run fast, they get pulled down and their guts ripped out by dogs whose owners while often berating those of us who kill and eat meat, won’t keep them restrained on their own property.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
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