An important strategy in the propaganda used to oppress inferior groups is a concerted assault on the identity of those groups. The fictions of animal identity covered in this chapter have been enormously successful at distancing us from the animals we exploit. If we think of farmed animals at all, we are most likely rationalizing away why they don’t matter, why they shouldn’t be given the same consideration as other animals, and even why they deserve their fate.
Social psychologist Melanie Joy identifies invisibility as an important mechanism for maintaining the dominant carnistic culture. It is no accident that we rarely, if ever, meet those who are being misrepresented: the animals. They are conveniently hidden from public view. Consider the fact that at any given time, there are approximately thirty-two farmed animals being raised for every American. Think about how many people you see on a daily basis—in person, on television, on the Internet, etc. In Joy’s analysis, “the main defense mechanism of carnism is denial which is expressed largely through invisibility. For instance, 1.2 billion farmed animals are slaughtered globally every week. But how many of these animals have you seen? Where are they?” Author Carol Adams refers to this
invisibility of the animal victim as the absent referent: “Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. . . . The absent referent functions to cloak the violence inherent to meat eating, to protect the conscience of the meat eater and render the idea of individual animals as immaterial to anyone’s selfish desires. It is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product . . . to allow for the moral abandonment of another being.”
If animals remain invisible to us or mere abstractions represented by images of massive populations of “Frankenclones,” our relationship to them remains severed and our apathy intact. We don’t see the terror on their faces. We don’t hear their cries of distress and desperation. We don’t read their body language of physical and emotional resistance to domination. We never experience their struggle against pain, suffering, and death. If this reality was properly framed in our minds each time it was imposed upon them and for each meal of ours that required it, the dysfunction of our denial response would be overwhelming and perhaps even overcome, resulting in far less animal consumption. The powerful process of moving from the invisible to the visible seems to hold true for disenfranchised or oppressed human groups as well, where empathy seems to improve when we identify more intimately with an individual from such a group.
Of course, particularly in the early phases of a social movement, society generally reacts to calls to end an injustice by either denying or justifying its existence. And even those movements that have enjoyed widespread and mainstream acceptance still meet resistance. There are still Holocaust deniers, homophobes, and climate deniers. Often there is a conspiracy of invisibility and silence that cloaks an injustice, until those seeking to remedy it can no longer be kept silent or invisible. At that point, the question becomes not whether people will listen or care, but whether the growing chorus of dissent imposes societal pressures necessary to make a change. At the same time, the truth about farmed animals is more visible and accessible than ever before. Anyone can quickly and easily access undercover footage inside animal farms and slaughterhouses on the Internet. The fact that so many still insulate themselves in an “I don’t want to know” state of self-deception seems to suggest that the fictional power of invisibility is to some extent bidirectional. As stated earlier in the book, we tell the food
industry what we believe and want to see and hear, and the industry projects that back to us through clever branding executions. In a recent study of consumer perceptions of certain animal-product brands, Scandinavian researchers describe consumers as “active partners in creating the illusion of animal welfare.” In describing the fictional dynamic between the producer and the consumer, they show how “ ‘willed
blindness’ allows them [consumers] to close their eyes to the reality of animal production . . . reinforced by the commercials.” In emphasizing the bidirectional nature of fiction-telling, these researchers conclude that “the co-operation between producers and consumers to maintain the idea of Old McDonald’s farm, despite clear evidence to the contrary, is . . . one of the most important challenges of animal welfare.”
When we do see farmed animals, they are often portrayed as nameless, faceless, generic, and lacking any unique or differentiating qualities. Anonymity is another fictional device that strips animals of their own unique identity or personality. The posters we see hanging up on the wall at the butcher shop or meat section of the grocery store is a common example. Here a silhouetted profile of an animal is presented with lines going through the different parts of his body to represent the different cuts of meat. Similarly, generic illustrations of hens often appear on egg cartons and egg products, pigs on pork products, and cows on dairy products. Anonymous portraits of animals prevent us from making any real or meaningful connection with them. Some research also shows the opposite to also be true: the more we become enchanted by the unique qualities in someone, human or nonhuman animal, the deeper is our reverence, interest, and respect for them, as well as our desire to help them. A more subtle but no less powerful form of anonymity is found in the media’s portrayal of animals as mass populations via images of large herds and flocks in which it would be impossible to ascertain the individual nature of any one animal photographed.
When animals are not invisible or portrayed as anonymous, popular culture often trivializes them and their incredible misfortune of being born into a human-dominated world that regards them as mere resources, by misrepresenting them as clownish cartoon characters or macabre caricatures. Trivialization often uses mockery to further sabotage any serious consideration for animals and the suffering we cause them. If we can laugh at them, then we don’t have to take the suffering we cause them seriously. Prime examples of this are The Laughing Cow cheese brand and the countless BBQ restaurant graphics composed of funny-looking pigs. We also use trivialization as a coping or defense mechanism, a kind of knee-jerk “Mmm, bacon” reaction.
We trivialize the stark life and death circumstances we impose on other animals by claiming that it would be worse to insult a human cook than inflict suffering and death on the animal (to protect the cook’s ego, of course). For example, in an interview with Playboy, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain complains about how “they [vegetarians] make for bad travelers and bad guests. The notion that before you even set out to go to Thailand, you say, ‘I’m not interested,’ or you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you.” One wonders how far Bourdain would take that logic. Would he eat human flesh if it was served to him by a grandma from a cannibalistic tribe? Would he accept cultures in which Grandma performs genital mutilation or human sacrifice? Or do we just accept Grandma’s kind and well-intentioned gestures in cases of satisfying our palate pleasures, when the suffering of those who have no say can be easily ignored?
A similar line of reasoning based on selective moral relativism is used in certain strains of Buddhism where guidelines for food choices are dictated by eating what the host serves you so as not to insult the host. If the host serves you animal flesh, even though Buddhism generally compels you to vegetarianism, it is considered socially acceptable to eat the animal’s flesh out of respect for the host or to avoid wasting the animal’s body. According to the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and Centre for World Peace and Health, there are three specific circumstances under which eating the flesh of animals can be considered “clean” and therefore acceptable: “First, I did not see with my own eyes that the animal was killed for me; second, I did not hear from someone I trust that it was killed specifically for me; third, I myself have no doubt that it was not killed specially for me. For example, the meat sold at the market is for all meat eaters, not for me alone, so it is to be deemed clean meat or, when being the guest of a Tibetan house, the hosts would usually kill a sheep to honour their guest.” If we apply this to our own circumstances, we can see how these allegedly exceptional cases actually cover the vast majority of the meals we eat, including all meals made from purchased meat and meat served to us in a restaurant or any function we attend. The only time it would be considered unethical, by these standards, would be when we go out and kill our own animals for food. The net effect of these and other exceptions to vegetarianism is to trivialize the plight of animals by further reinforcing their status as objects of consumption.
We’ve developed a whole vocabulary of animal words used to disparage, insult, or denigrate others. We call each other “fat cows,” “worms” (who have no courage), and “pigs” (who have no manners). One of the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of the word chicken is “a person who is afraid.” In the iconic new-wave film Rebel Without a Cause, the plot centers around the power of peer pressure, bullying, and the stigma of the chicken/coward complex. In the pinnacle scene in the film, the protagonist Jim Stark (played by James Dean) is challenged to a game called the “chicken run,” a dangerous stunt that involves driving cars off the side of a cliff. The first one who jumps out of the car loses and is designated the “chicken.” Stark begrudgingly accepts the challenge after taunting from his classmates who call him a chicken. In the next scene, he confesses the incident to his mother and father, who are mortified by what he has done. Again he admits to them that he couldn’t bear the chicken/coward stigma from his peers.
Contrary to popular culture’s relentless attack on the chicken’s character, chickens are widely known to exhibit incredible bravery and altruism. Roosters display valiant courage in protecting their flock. Mother hens fiercely protect their young, often willing to risk their own lives in the process. Alpha females and males are known to be protective of the more submissive members of their flock, acting as decoys and putting themselves in great danger with predators for the benefit of the flock. The head rooster protects the territory the group inhabits, as well as the chicks and hens in the group. Groups are composed of more dominant hens who remain close to the head rooster as well as more submissive hens and roosters who keep to the periphery. But in Rebel Without a Cause, the chicken is the loser, the coward, the persecuted one, the weaker one, the inferior one. The chicken’s identity is turned upside down. And denigrating chickens makes it easier to justify exploiting and killing them as a resource.
How popular culture portrays animal victims is enormously important to understanding why we victimize them in the first place. Recent research in social psychology explores how believing that life is fair can make us apathetic to victims. Beginning in the 1960s, research has shown that if we feel powerless to alleviate an injustice, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that the victims deserve their fate. This has important implications for understanding our collective denial and indifference to the massive scale of farmed-animal suffering. Victim blaming can appear as innocuous as the friendly family dairy farmer of Orange Patch Dairy in Minnesota, who wrote a lengthy response to a vegan who had concerns about taking mother cows away from their calves. In his blog post, he explains that once a calf is delivered, the mother may walk away without licking the calf clean, instead moving directly to the feed bunk. The calf would then be left to die, cold and wet. But if the farmer was really intent on helping the baby imprint on his mother and be accepted by his mother, there are many things he could try. Instead, the farmer’s intention is not to help them bond. On the contrary, he needs to break that maternal bond because he makes a living on that mother’s milk, the milk that was intended by nature for her calf. One million male calves are disposed of by dairy farmers every year in the United States because they have no value to dairy farmers. It’s in bad faith that they blame the mothers for being “bad mothers” and use the fact that some mothers might abandon their calves as a justification to systematically break up their families so that they can traffic their offspring and exploit them for their milk.
Large or small, farmers often blame the animal victim, citing the animal’s bad behavior as a reason to exploit them for profit. Emily Meredith, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, has a column on the Meatingplace.com website called Activist Watch. In a series of articles called “My Week on a ‘Fact’ory Farm: Part I,” Meredith chronicles her trip to a large sow breeding facility somewhere in the Midwest and writes, “No matter the industry practices I observed that first day—from tail docking to castration to artificial insemination—that theme of respect carried through. I saw no ‘factory’ and all farm — just workers who took great pride in being the best herdsmen to happy, healthy and well cared for animals.” Later in the article Meredith defends gestation crates, pointing out how hostile and stressed the sows become when they are not in their gestation crates and instead allowed to interact with each other in intensely confined environments. Like the small dairy farmer, she blames the victim and ignores the real possibility that such aggressive behavior might have something to do with the unnatural conditions to which we subject these animals. One can only imagine if these were human mothers instead of sows living in these conditions.
Animal victim blaming is commonly found in the media where animals are routinely blamed for problems entirely created by us, like the spread of bird flu and PED piglet virus. In numerous articles about PEDV published by Reuters, experts were interviewed and quoted, including Steve Meyer, president of the consulting firm Paragon Economics, who told Reuters that “the virus could tighten U.S. pork supplies in about five to six months by causing the deaths of baby pigs.” The language is key in supporting the denial of responsibility for the source of the problem: the breeding and raising of pigs for profit by hog farmers. You don’t blame those hard-working farmers for anything. It’s not politically correct to blame people who feed us bacon and ribs and ham we so love. In the media’s coverage of the virus, what’s missing is the fact that PEDV is a disease that was allowed to thrive and rapidly spread due to the way we breed and confine pigs today in modern agriculture. The victims are not the pig farmers and their economic losses, as the coverage asserts. The victims are the animals themselves. The pig farmers are the perpetrators of the animals’ suffering. They create victims as a business model. And all of this not because there is a gun to our head to eat bacon but just because we like the taste so much we’re willing to go to absurd extremes to protect the economic interests of those who profit from this mess. The PEDV epidemic is a case in point for how we create our own problems with animals. We breed them into a world of human tyranny, blame them for “spreading diseases,” and then destroy their offspring to stop the spread of disease.
And then there is the variation on victim blaming we see from the so-called progressive food movement leaders. In a 2012 interview in Smithsonian , Michael Pollan described his experience with raising chickens: “Their brains have been bred right out of them, they’re really nasty and stupid.” But ask anyone who has rescued these baby birds and they’ll describe how sweet and gentle they are. Pollan’s disdain for chickens is the same one held by the very industrial food industry that Pollan claims to adamantly oppose. With sustainable, “food revolution” types like Pollan talking trash about animals and devaluing them in exactly the same way as agribusiness, is it any wonder that chickens are treated as trash? By blaming the victims, Pollan predictably falls prey to the conventional meathead logic: the animal is so nasty and stupid, he doesn’t deserve to live.
If Pollan were serious about his opposition to industrial agriculture, he would not be raising chickens who were selectively bred by industrial hatcheries to grow freakishly fast into adult bodies in forty-two days. Whether he realizes it or not, he learned his disdain for the victims from the poultry industry itself. The rejection of “Frankenbirds” would be logically consistent with his critique of industrial agriculture. Instead, Pollan trashes the chickens. Even if chickens were truly “stupid and nasty,” what does this have to do with how we treat others? Do we only treat those who are “smart and sweet” with a modicum of respect and instead cut off the heads of those we deem less intelligent or lovable? Don’t we ourselves become “stupid and nasty” when we decide, arbitrarily, that someone else deserves to be
abused and exploited because we don’t like them? We denigrate animals who can’t defend themselves as “stupid and nasty” when we want to do something bad to them; in this case, when someone like Michael Pollan wants to cut off their heads or stuff them through a kill cone and slit their throats, just to say he’s done it. Then he can tell the press how clueless vegans are about where their food comes from.
We often see stories of human or nonhuman animal victims in which a campaign to help just one individual was hugely successful. Hunger relief organizations often successfully appeal to donors by telling compelling stories of individual children in need that you can sponsor. Identifying with an individual victim, whether human or nonhuman, becomes fictional when we can’t relate how their individual experience connects with a larger problem that, in reality, encompasses massive populations of human and other animal victims. Take, for example, the September 2014 news story of a dog in Kentucky named Felicity, who was found tied to a post and branded with a profanity. Her story sparked an outpouring of empathy as well as outrage and indignation for the perpetrators. The local humane society in Lexington raised money from many donors in honor of her rescue, and a vet even volunteered to perform plastic surgery to cover up the profanity branded into her skin. The Lexington Humane Society also issued a $3,500 reward for those who led them to Felicity’s abuser. Many are baffled at why someone would want to do this to an innocent animal. And yet, as horrible as this is, it is not without precedent. In fact, branding has been used routinely for centuries to identify both nonhuman animals and even human slaves.
While the story of Felicity’s branding with a profanity is sad and shocking, it shines a light on the fact that branding, and numerous other cruel and inhumane mutilations, are routinely practiced on billions of farmed animals every year, on small and large farms alike. Not only are farmed animals branded, they are subjected to other painful bodily mutilations as infants without anesthesia, including castration, dehorning, tail docking (cutting off their tails), debeaking, the cutting down and extraction of teeth, the cutting off of toes, and ear notching (cutting out pieces of a pig’s ears). The branding of farmed animals can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Mexican cattle ranchers were known to mark their cattle with their family coat of arms. The reason for branding animals throughout history was to make it clear who the animal belonged to.
The branding of human slaves also has a long history that some historians believe is connected to the practice of enslaving other animals. Ancient Romans marked runaway slaves with the letters FUG (for “fugitives”). European and American colonial slave traders branded millions of slaves during the period of transatlantic enslavement. Southern slave owners often branded slaves’ palms, shoulders, buttocks, or cheeks with a branding iron, giving them permanent identifying marks should they escape and be caught. Some prisoners of Auschwitz were tattooed with numbers on their arms. In contemporary times, certain gangs and other groups brand their members as a rite of initiation into the group. International animal liberation movement 269Life, in fact, makes the act of branding a central symbol of its fight to end animal oppression. In the words of founder Sasha Boojor, “it’s a method that humanity invented to take away an individual’s personality and identity. We believe that animal activists who willingly subject themselves to branding undermine its mainstream legitimacy.” Aside from burning a mark or number into the skin, there are others forms of identification used on farmed animals today that are equally disturbing. A recent undercover investigation at an Australian farm exposed female breeding sows (“baby machines”) with the words “destroy” and “lame, cull” spray painted across the sides of their bodies.
When not blaming animal victims, popular culture is busy crafting elaborate fictions portraying ourselves as the victims of the problems we created. In the Western states, ranchers and farmers identify themselves as victims of wildlife who threaten their farmed animals and therefore their bottom line. They lobby the government to protect their interests and promote hunting—yet another industry that profits on animal suffering and loss of lives, all at the expense of taxpayers.
Agribusiness also fashions itself as a victim—a victim of the animal protection movement. The 2013 annual stakeholder’s meeting for the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) in May is entitled “Activists at the Door: Protecting Animals, Farms, Food & Consumer Confidence.” The expansive animal rights section of the AAA website features a subsection entitled “Agriculture is Outnumbered, Outfunded by Animal Activists.” It’s becoming increasingly evident that the perceived threat of activism to agribusiness and one of its key lobbying groups, AAA, factors heavily into their concerns.
The “animal rights” section of the AAA website displays animal activists as if they are public enemies. “Radical activist organizations are leading the fight to grant animals the same legal rights as humans,” the site claims, but when was the last time you heard animal activists campaigning for an animal’s right to vote, to gay marriage, to abortion, or to equal housing opportunities? Their intent is clearly to misrepresent the clear position that animals should have the fundamental right not be used as an agricultural resource. AAA uses political smear tactics akin to how a whistleblower group might campaign to expose corporate crime and corruption, framing the advocacy of animals as a criminal activity. To illustrate this, they’ve created an elaborate flowchart, what they call their “Activist Map,” displaying all of the major animal activist groups and how they are connected through financial support, according to AAA. In addition, there are at least fourteen profile pages on what AAA sees as the top animal organizations. Following the offenders’ profiles is a long string of news excerpts, many of which “expose” major corporations and brands that have shown their allegiance to some animal groups, as if to suggest they are engaging in illicit activity by supporting animal charities. One of these news items urges farmers to practice extreme caution when hiring staff. You just might unintentionally hire a radical who will take undercover video and expose your mistreatment of animals or even the everyday, “normal” standards of practice that are often no less disturbing. “The activist tactic of obtaining illicit employment at a farm or processing plant in order to acquire video intended to malign the reputation of farmers and ranchers is becoming increasingly common,” the AAA website warns. But this statement begs the question: If there is nothing bad going on, then what do these facilities have to lose or hide by having video recorded there? In addition, the AAA has a dossier on many individuals it is tracking and making their profiles and photos available on their site so that farmers can check against the applicants they are considering. It’s like a caricature of America’sMost Wanted. The paranoid worldview of organizations like AAA become the same as those reflected in everyday people, such as the Facebook user and former 4-H club member who commented on a post, “If we didn’t eat farmed animals, they would eat us.”
As a general matter, our culture teaches us that only humans can be victims. We use victim denial as a fictional device, often without realizing it, when we express an attitude of human exceptionalism about what is “proper” treatment for other animals, or when we pretend that only humans are worthy of justice or freedom from harm, or when we claim that justice for us at the expense of other animals is inevitable, rather than a false competitive construct between ourselves and other species. Even if we believe that humans are “superior” to other animals—whatever the arbitrary, self-serving basis is for making the claim—it does not justify treating animals in any way we see fit any more than the discriminatory claim of white superiority translates into enslaving, exploiting, and lynching people of color. Unfortunately, the use of disconnection as a fictional device is so widespread, we can find examples of it even within the social justice community. For example, an organization that calls itself Chicken Justice actually does nothing to help alleviate the suffering of chickens. Their website describes their work as “a project of Interfaith Worker Justice, which has been a leader in the fight for economic and worker justice in the U.S. since 1996. IWJ mobilizes people of faith and worker advocates in support of economic justice and worker rights at the local, state and national levels. . . . IWJ supports workers in poultry and meat processing factories, who are doing some of the most dangerous, low-paid work while providing the food for U.S. dinner tables.” It’s hard to imagine how anyone concerned about injustice could be blind to the egregious suffering of the forty billion bird victims of the poultry industry and focus exclusively on those who work within the industry itself. Perhaps Chicken Justice might instead focus their efforts on helping slaughterhouse workers get out of those horrifying work environments and find work elsewhere, thereby helping workers and not further contributing to our betrayal of animal victims.
Some animal advocates believe that we shouldn’t fight society’s apathy over animal suffering and instead take an easier, more practical route. “People don’t care about animals,” they say. “It’s better to emphasize the health and environmental benefits instead since that’s what people care about.” But ignoring the victim is the problem, not the solution. From a historical context, it is only when a small vocal minority begins breaking through the silence and denial about an injustice, not by continuing to ignore it, that change occurs. Ignoring or protecting or pandering to those in denial is not a strategy for change. Animal advocates are charged with the task of making the case for why people should care and using creative strategies for getting society’s attention, and there are compelling arguments for why people should care about other animals. There is also ample evidence that most people do care yet haven’t acted on it on the level we would hope. It’s up to us to connect the dots between beliefs and actions.
The dairy, egg, and meat industries have been promoting their products as the real thing and plant alternatives as fakes for a very long time. This brainwashing has worked incredibly well on most of us, who buy into their fictional distortions of what foods we perceive as real or fake. The dairy industry’s REAL Seal is a classic example of this authenticity fiction, a fiction which is often built upon a long history or tradition of a certain practice or phenomenon. In terms of food, eating plants has been around at least as long or longer than eating animals. So the idea that animal products are real while plant alternatives are fake has no basis in truth. The authenticity fictions become amplified in the dairy sector where viable plant-based alternatives for milk and other dairy products have emerged to pose a formidable threat to the dairy sector’s market share. Ironically, the process of breeding, raising, and killing animals today is about as unreal and artificial as it gets. What is authentic about the experience of picking up food products off of the store shelf? When we consider how few people have any contact with the living animals who are violently rendered into food, it’s laughable that these same consumers believe in authentic fictions from animal agriculture. They are about as far removed from the source of their food as humanly possible. Of course, this does not mean that the inverse situation is ethical. Knowing where and how your animal products come to the table does not in itself make the same violent process ethical. And that is the subject of the next fiction.
In the so-called sustainable/humane food movement, the popular slogan “Know where your food comes from” often translates into witnessing or partaking in violence against animals as a path toward ethical eating. The fiction that portrays this act as somehow making us more courageous, conscious, aware, or even ethically superior than others is what I call visibility. In one sense, it is a reaction to exposing the widespread invisibility of farmed animals in our culture discussed earlier. Urban Adamah, a Jewish organization that runs an animal farm and offers kosher chicken slaughter classes, preserves violent and harmful traditions. But in preserving these rituals, they also promote the visibility fiction through statements such as this one from a kosher slaughterer, Yadidya Greenberg: “I have seen time and again that witnessing live slaughter is a great way to engage people and get them asking questions.” But do we ask the fundamental question of why we believe it’s okay to do this to a chicken but not, say, to a cat? What if it were a cat, instead of a chicken, callously grasped by his legs, hung upside, and his throat slashed? Would we consider this an “engaging” conversation piece that raises important questions, or would we condemn this as the gratuitous killing of an innocent animal? Groups like Urban Adamah ignore the fundamental contradiction behind the social acceptability of doing this to chickens—who, incidentally, have no laws to protect them from cruelty or violence—but not to an animal like a cat, who has laws sufficient to prosecute the perpetrator for committing the same act. Speciesism is the prejudice that allows us to regard some species as valuable enough to protect and others as having no value, whose lives are disposable because we say so. Anyone on a path to greater consciousness should think critically and seriously about speciesism as a foundation for understanding animal ethics and prejudice as a general matter.
The shoddy logic revealed in the Urban Adamah slaughterer’s statement insists that we must witness or even partake in rituals of violence and killing for people to understand why violence and killing is bad, as if we don’t already know instinctually that suffering and death is bad, because sentient beings seek to avoid suffering and death at all costs. When it comes to evaluating atrocities and violations committed against human beings, we don’t engage in debate over whether it is right or wrong. We accept on principle, and do not require further evidence, that it is wrong for the victims and therefore immoral. And when we do see further evidence of atrocities, we immediately comprehend the horror and suffering and appropriately conclude that such acts are categorically wrong. We wouldn’t wish this on our own worst enemies. So why do we need a live demonstration of animals crying out and thrashing in agony as their necks are cut and bodies draining of blood to convince people of the reality of their suffering? And to carry this idea to its logical conclusion, how many animals would need to be sacrificed to educate a burgeoning human population into recognizing just how awful slaughter is?
Even if one believed that this kind of training could have a positive impact on people, exactly how could this model be scaled up to serve anything more than just an elite niche of consumers? As author Hope Bohanec explains,
at any given time, there are 100 million head of cattle and 70 million pigs alive in the U.S. Currently, only about 9 percent of all livestock is pasture raised. How would we ever have the land to pasture raise them all? To give all farmed animals the space they need to have even a semblance of a natural life, we would have to destroy millions more acres of wild areas, forests, prairies, and wetlands to accommodate them. There is not enough land on the planet, or even two planets, to free-range all the billions of pigs, sheep, turkeys, ducks, and chickens. We would need closer to five planet Earths. It simply cannot be done. Free-ranging animals for food can never be more than a specialty market for a few elite buyers.
It seems their solutions are designed to serve only themselves to the exclusion of everyone else, including the animals. Their use of the visibility fictional device seeks to legitimize what would be condemned in the case of cats, dogs, humans, and other animals we value. In the latter cases, witnessing and/or partaking in murder makes you an accessory to the crime or worse. It does not absolve you of wrongdoing.
Like visibility, wasting is another common response when we attempt to address the invisibility of farmed animals. Wasting becomes a fictional device when it is used to assert that eating animals is made ethical so long as we don’t waste any part of the animal body. There is no disputing the fact that the amount of food we waste is obscene. It’s also important to recognize that we only apply the principle of not wasting to the animals we want to eat while excluding it in most other cases. For example, most of us don’t go around looking for roadkill or wasted flesh products, dairy, or eggsthat stores would otherwise throw out because we feel morally compelled not to waste them. Should we happen to discover abandoned and unfertilized turtle eggs or duck eggs or robin eggs, we do not feel compelled to take them and make a meal out of them so as not to let them go to waste. Notice how we think it’s terrible to waste the eggs of chickens by not taking them for our own use, because we assume that they exist for us to eat. But the reason we perceive only chicken eggs as edible, and don’t insist on collecting the eggs of other species, is nothing more than cultural conditioning, not a conclusion based on logical or critical thinking. Breeding hens into existence in order to control their bodies and take the eggs that belong to them is a socially acceptable practice, just as slavery was once a socially acceptable practice for millennia up until just a short time ago. Behind the façade of the not-wasting fiction is a deeply entrenched cultural construct that determines who we perceive as edible—namely chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs—versus those who we perceive as inedible or even disgusting to eat and therefore exempt from our consideration of wasting—namely all other animals, including most wildlife and companion animals.
Examples of the not-wasting fictional device are abundant in popular culture, particularly in more progressive, sustainable, and humane food circles. Urban Adamah claims to kill their chickens after they pass their egg-laying prime (usually just twelve to eighteen months) so that they can provide food for the homeless. The underlying false dilemma in this context can’t be overlooked. We claim that we must harm one to help another when in
fact we could help both victims, the animals and the homeless, at the same time. Urban Adamah uses the false dilemma as a pretext to kill its chickens instead of supplying the homeless with nutritious plant-based meals, which it could easily do. In spring 2013, Camas Davis, the founder of the Portland Meat Collective, was featured in an editorial in the New York Times called “The Proper Way to Eat a Pig,” in which she recounts her experience teaching nine high-school-age kids how to slaughter a pig. The article features a striking, stylized photo of her and the kids fashioned after the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the family sitting around the Thanksgiving table with the turkey as a centerpiece. In the photo, all of the parts of the animal are neatly arranged across the table where the kids are sitting while Davis holds the head of the pig on a shiny silver platter, looking vacuously into the camera. The expression on the pig’s face is alive, animated and grinning directly at us, as if he were trying to communicate his pleasure. The photo is so well styled that if you stare at it long enough, it begins to look more and more like a Rockwell painting, steeped in the symbolism of home, community, family, tradition, and American culture—all tied cleverly to the virtue of not wasting and eating the “whole hog.” “Once you slaughter a pig, you dehair it, you butcher it, you wrap it and you put it in your freezer, it’s so much work you don’t want to waste it,” says Davis. “It’s special.” Once again, we see how multiple fictional devices are employed in one story to make it even more powerful.
But is all of this grandiose posturing and Norman Rockwell stylization really about wasting food? If it were truly an issue of wasting, we’d do well to consider the enormous waste of precious resources, like water and land, that raising animals requires. Or how about the fact that about half of the world’s edible grain crop is fed to farmed animals instead of the nearly one billion hungry? We should consider the amount of nutritious plant crops that are wasted to feed the animals we eat and how much pollution and climate-changing gases are emitted in that process. If we really cared about conserving rather than wasting the rapidly depleting resources left on this planet, then we are compelled to eat plant foods, eating directly from the source rather than getting our nutrients through an animal, which requires an immense amount of waste and destruction. According to environmental research organization Worldwatch Institute, “it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.”
Not wasting is also often tied to the anthropomorphic rhetoric of respect for the animal. We claim that the animal, his life and body, was honored because his life was not in vain or taken from him in a frivolous manner or for frivolous reasons, but instead with intention, with awareness of the importance of his sacrifice and in the service of the greater good of nourishing us. Again, even if we believed in the anthropomorphic idea that we can pay our respects to animals by paying someone to kill them so we can eat them, we’d still have to admit that the necessity fiction that underlies this idea is absurd. We can easily live without eating animals today. If instead it were actually true that we eat animals today out of necessity, the story might have a legitimate defense, but the troubling fact is that almost any time this idea of respecting the animal by killing and eating him is presented, not only is it not a matter of life and death survival, it’s for the most frivolous reason of all: satisfying our taste sensations. A prime example of this fiction can be found in the tagline of the Conscious Carnivore butcher shop, which reads “Respect for every animal, on four feet or two.” Its founder, Bartlett Durand, calls himself “the Zen Butcher.” The empty call for respect for farmed animals, and then killing them softly, is murder in the case of human beings and other animals we respect and protect from abuse and killing, like our cats and dogs. Since all animals value their lives, killing them unnecessarily is the greatest act of betrayal and disrespect from which there is no recovery. Yes, wasting food is indeed an immense problem, but wasting those who have their whole lives ahead of them for a forgettable meal is even worse.
Cage-Free, but Still Miserable
Food marketers are infamous for using reductionism in their campaigns to fool consumers into believing that a complex problem has a simple solution. Such is the case in the widespread marketing of eggs as “cage-free” and chicken flesh as “free-range.” These reductionist tactics are so persuasive that even many of the major animal protection organizations have jumped on the cage-free bandwagon, arguing that a reduction in suffering is better than nothing. The cage-free pitch falsely implies that getting out of cages birds who don’t belong in cages to begin with alleviates the problem of using chickens for their eggs, and never is it clearly communicated that cage confinement is just one of numerous sources of suffering associated with exploiting birds for their eggs. The fact that an animal is better off living out of cage confinement is merely stating the obvious, not an attempt to holistically understand the many factors that contribute to their suffering. And what happens once chickens are out of cages but still living in the standard overcrowded squalor on egg farms? Well, like humans forced to live in overcrowded squalor, tensions run high and competition for space, food, and water among individuals and groups of birds is intensified, resulting in pecking, injury, and death. So what’s the industry’s ingenious solution? Amputate or burn off the tips of the sensitive beaks of newborn chicks to prevent them from pecking at each other, leaving many with painful deformities that make eating difficult or impossible. When the fight to force the egg industry to go cage-free seemed to be in jeopardy, organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), with so much vested in this campaign, opted to take reductionism to a whole new level.
In late March 2012, United Egg Producers (UEP) president Gene Gregory made a telling statement at the Annual Conference of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture. Gregory explained his surprise at HSUS’s switch from a firm cage-free position to backing the industry’s so-called enriched colony cage system and HSUS’s willingness to negotiate a deal with UEP on their “new and improved” cage system. The deal essentially boils down to HSUS getting off UEP’s back. No more undercover videos exposing the atrocities of egg farms. No more expensive legal battles. No more attacks from the leading animal advocacy organization. And no more state-by-state ballot initiatives that threaten to hurt egg-industry sales. On the contrary, HSUS and other cage-free advocates are applauding agribusiness and food companies for going cage-free, as if cage-free is an end in itself, as if the problem of animal suffering will be solved.
Gregory also described a long history of failed negotiations with HSUS, which he had once referred to as a vegan organization intent on putting the egg industry out of business. The goal of Gregory’s statement was to make the case that the new legislation and collaboration with HSUS would phase out battery cages over nearly two decades’ time and replace them with the negligibly better enriched colony cages as a way to finally take control of the debate over eggs and animal welfare, and once and for all intercept their biggest threat: the animal advocacy movement. But Gregory’s most convincing argument to his audience of skeptical egg farmers was the economic advantage of backing the new deal, citing studies showing that consumers are willing to pay more for “higher welfare” eggs. In other words, he saw the dollar signs and wanted UEP members to see them too. The compromise deal was a win-win situation for HSUS and UEP. Regardless of where one falls on the issue of incremental welfare reform, there is no denying how dilution and reductionism undermined the substance of a legislative battle that was already based on the reductionist logic of getting birds out of cages while ignoring all of the other horrendous practices of the industry. In the end, the overwhelming majority of birds will remain in cages. What’s more, sanctuaries and rescuers who have acquired birds from cage-free and enriched colony cage facilities claim that the birds are as bad off or worse than those they’ve rescued from conventional battery cages. And yet HSUS and others claim that such costly efforts at welfare reform are worth all of the time and effort.
The marketing of free-range poultry products also relies heavily on consumers buying into a reductionist, red-herring ploy. According to United Poultry Concerns, “birds raised for meat may be sold as ‘free-range’ if they have government certified access to the outdoors. The door may be open for only five minutes and the farm still qualifies as ‘free-range.’ Apart from the ‘open door,’ no other criteria such as environmental quality, number of birds, or space per bird, are included in the term ‘free-range.’” Most chickens raised for flesh products today are technically free-range rather than caged, but they are far from free and certainly not foraging somewhere in an open field or range. Instead, chickens are housed in giant overcrowded sheds, where they are packed in by the thousands and forced to stand and sit on filthy, manure-laden flooring, which is typically cleaned out only every two to four years. In this sense, free-range is a meaningless term. But if there is no space to move about in or if birds are trampling on other birds, what benefit could this possibly offer them?
The Slaughterhouse on Wheels
Claiming that slaughter is made humane by bringing the slaughterhouse to the farm or by performing it under carefully controlled conditions (such as kosher and halal methods) is yet another popular form of reductionism being promoted today. This is based on the reductionist logic that the way we treat animals matters but their very lives can be thoughtlessly disposed of in a mere slash of a blade, as long as our intent is to make it as painless as possible for the animal. In June 2013, author Ali Berlow published her book The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse: Building a Humane Chicken-Processing Unit to Strengthen Your Local Food System, which contains a foreword by Temple Grandin, essentially giving Berlow the official humane movement’s seal of approval and legitimacy. Notice how cleverly the title attempts to connect killing chickens as a necessary part of the locavore equation of sustainability, as if killing and sustainability are inevitably connected. In a Huffington Post article entitled “Blessed Meat,” Berlow invokes the fictional trappings of anthropomorphism to elevate killing to the level of a pious act that honors the animal victims, as if they give a damn what we think as we are about to violently take their lives. Describing her observation of ritual halal slaughter in Africa, she writes, “It was truly blessed meat. Over every animal held in arms and slaughtered, a prayer was said as the swift, sharp deed of taking life in sacrifice was made. There is no denying the gravity of these transforming moments when man, animal, prayer, blade and blood meet. Life is messy and still, all life is holy.” Berlow infuses her baroque humane-slaughter fantasy with the visibility fictional devices discussed earlier, suggesting that witnessing this act somehow absolved her of sin.
Fear of animals, and the distortion of animal identities as frightful and threatening, seems to be the primary motivator for our detachment from the natural world and other animals in general, and yet notice the conspicuous lack of fear over eating their dead bodies we encounter everyday in neatly wrapped packages. For modern urbanites, the exception is those animals we have domesticated and allowed into our homes. Our fear of farmed animals is paradoxical, considering they are animals whose spirits have been broken by enslavement and the destruction of their natural familial and social order, animals who have been intensively bred to be as subservient and submissive to their human masters as possible. Perhaps our fear is a reaction to the guilt we feel for forcing a life of suffering upon them. It might seem far-fetched to some that deep-seated, irrational fears or phobias about certain species could sanction the mass consumption of still other species, and yet the fictions we are presented with lead us to the false dilemma expressed in phobic statements like “If we don’t eat them, they will surely attack or want to eat us”; thus, protecting ourselves seems justifiable. In the Netflix TV show Zoo, human characters fear retaliation from animal characters who seek to avenge the wrongs we have perpetrated against them. In Hollywood, this paranoia has roots in epic films like Jaws, Planet of the Apes, and The Birds. In such cases, our notion of vengeance is anthropomorphically projected on to other feared species who we imagine would seek justice, as we would, through violence against their human perpetrators. But there is little evidence for this kind of retaliatory vengeance in other animals. On the contrary, it is remarkable how forgiving nonhuman animals can be, particularly animal survivors of abuse, who knew nothing but callous treatment from humans, yet learned to trust and bond with their new human caretakers. Visiting sanctuaries where turkeys, chickens, cows, and pigs have been given a second chance, it is obvious that the last thing on their minds is vengeance. Our fear of them is truly irrational and fed by the fictions of popular culture.
There is also widespread fear of farmed animals “taking over.” The fear that farmed animals would take over if we let them have their way reveals how deftly fear can hijack our ability to think through the facts. Farmed animals would not exist if humans did not artificially breed them into existence in the first place. Our fear of them breeding like crazy and taking over is a fiction we’ve been fed that eliminates ourselves as the source of the problem—that is, our forced breeding of other animals driven by our demand for animal products. The fear is irrational not only in how it ignores the source of the problem but also in how it imagines a scenario in which billions of animals are suddenly freed from enslavement and allowed to roam and multiply freely. Such an abrupt end to animal exploitation is hardly likely. When the majority of society decides that animal exploitation is inherently wrong, then it is far more likely to see laws that abolish breeding first, perhaps even in phases.
Another form of fictionalized fear is the fearmongering over what could happen to us if we stop eating animals. Our hair will fall out. Our skin will dry up like a prune. Our muscle mass will melt away. Our brains might even shrink! We will become weepy and depressed. In an article published in Women’s Health called “The Scary Mental Health Risks of Going Meatless” and in Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth, we find classic examples of the backlash that happens whenever a social movement gains a bit of ground and threatens the dominant culture’s cozy position of privilege, resulting in personal attacks on the character of the messengers of the cause and dismissing them as “crazy” or “mentally ill.”