Friday, April 20, 2007

the chicken factory

To begin with, I would point out that most meat-eaters seem mysteriously offended by the concept of vegetarianism. Every time the subject arises (and I've deliberately never initiated it) there is an automatic reaction to criticize vegetarianism as being impractical or at least associate it with some kind of hippie delusion. There invariably follows an angry joke about how pleased the individual is to eat dead animals, despite having never passed judgement on anyone for eating meat.

To most vegetarians, I don't even count as one. I eat fish and dairy. I simply do not eat mammals or birds. I suppose my motives for being vegetarian are fairly unusual, at least I haven't found them in the classic propaganda.

It began with a simple question. There was some conversation about hunting. I think I got the idea I'd like to hunt. I'd never hunted before. The more I thought about it, the more I was impressed by the knowledge that hunting was an ancient and basic form of food gathering. Even as humanity began farming, the killing of animals was an intimate act. There at least existed on some level a relationship between the killer and the killed.

In this age, most animals are killed in factories. I used to live two blocks from a chicken processing plant. It was on the corner of a main intersection in a rundown part of town and some sick capitalist bastard had the notion to paint it pink. Big trucks used to pull in with thousands of cages stuffed with shrieking birds. Asian guys would come out and hose the trucks down. They always seemed to be hosing some part of the place down. When you were forced to walk past the factory, you did whatever you could to dodge the spray and the little rivers of chickenwater.

There were many terrible things about that factory but nothing was more awful than the smell. It smelled of metal and disease and bowels. It left you feeling stained. All the welfare bums and junkies and teenage hookers that walked around in that area felt that somehow that smell was the true smell of the black heart of our predatorial city. It was the smell of hopelessness and cruelty. The total indifference of the white suited workers outside with facemasks on, hosing down the concrete and sending greasy infected pools of water into the street only underlined the message. You live in a meatgrinder.

Perhaps as a kind of crowning fuckyou to the sad grey humanity around it, the chicken factory boasted a small metal cylinder on the top of the building. The rusted cylinder turned round, night and day. And sometimes you would look up as you passed by and would see something slurping out of the mouth of the black cylinder. It was pink and it dripped into some unseen vessel.

The chicken factory was probably fairly representative of a typical slaughterhouse. From complaints I've heard about the smells coming from beef and pork processing plants it sounds as though the chicken factory wasn't that bad. I've no doubt the factory upheld all environmental and safety requirements. I do not believe that the factory violated any humane treatment laws. But nothing good can give off a smell like that.

And that's what it is to eat meat in the modern age. They kill animals on an assembly line reeking of terror and pain. The animals are bloated from growth hormones. And in the end, theyre only killing dumber and more innocent versions of children.

There may have been a time where such things were necessary and even right but that time disappeared with the advent of the factory. The old time hunter and farmer that kill what they need could claim to be honourable. Hunting still seems to me to be a valid lifeway, if done for food and done with some sense of respect. The same cannot be said of factory farming, which reduces suffering to a Quarter pounder and the laughter of the wellfed. It only serves our cold, vicious instincts to shrug in the face of the suffering of other living beings.

And I came to ask myself:

"Could I kill an animal and eat it?"

The answer was obvious. I didnt know. In my life I'd only killed animals that I'd found dying like mice and etcetera. The more I thought about it the more I thought specifically of mammals. Humans are among mammals. Mammals and birds are the only kinds of animals we know of that demonstrate the capacity for empathy. Empathy is the ability to care for the happiness of a being other than itself. Empathy is the primitive root of love, understanding, altruism and art. It may be that this deeply biologic aspect of our natures is the source of goodness. It is perversely ironic that humans, who tend to see themselves as the highest order of life on this planet precisely for their capacity for goodness, discard empathy where the killing of animals is concerned for the very reason that they are entitled to it because they are "higher" beings.

One has to spend only a little time studying the conduct of mammals before realizing their almost "human" behaviors. Elephants are well known for leaving totems for the dead. Dogs are known for sacrificing their lives for the sake of their masters. Macacques are known to hand down learned behavior through generations. Whales compose complex and changing songs. Cats are fuckers just like humans. If humanity would spend a little energy learning about these beings instead of wasting it protecting a proud ignorance the world might well be unable to sit before meat without being troubled. We are masters of the Earth, we no longer need to scrabble in the night, struggling just to survive. We are capable of honestly being the honorable and good creatures we always pretended to be, and one big step in that direction would be to recognize innocence when it stares you in the face and oinks.

So that's how I came to be a vegetarian. I could not be responsible for the suffering of animals that were about as kind and sensitive as I was, only a little bit dumber. Knowing what a dumbass I was, how could I hold that against anyone?