Editorial: Country perspective
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1996:
An agriculture student recently wrote to ask if we’d ever set foot on a farm––and
suggested that if we had, we wouldn’t oppose meat-eating, hunting, and trapping.
The student was undoubtedly surprised to learn that we hold the views we do, as
strongly as we do, precisely because we do have farming background. Until our recent
relocation from upstate New York to rural Washington, where we’re still not far from
farms, ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett had lived either on or beside working
farms for a decade. For nearly 20 years, ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton not
only lived either on or beside farms, but also covered agriculture for various media, and
for more than a dozen years did hay work and other chores on both dairy and sheep farms in
trade for rent. Most of our regular freelance contributors likewise have farming experience,
are longtime rural residents, and honed their skills with rural media.
We have seen exactly what nine billion farm animals per year suffer on their way
to slaughter, not just during special investigations but as a matter of daily routine. We have
also seen the unhappiness of farmers who, through economic pressure, are obliged to treat
animals less and less as the farmers themselves feel animals ought to be treated, already
somewhat short of humane ideals, and more and more as insensate units of production.
Desensitizing children to the cruelties of auction and slaughter has always been
fundamental to farm life, taking the typical desensitization of children to the meaning of
eating meat a few steps farther. The 1952 E.B. White children’s classic Charlotte’s Web
detailed the desensitization process, resisted by the human heroine Fern as well as by the
pig Wilbur and the spider Charlotte––and if critics are correct that Charlotte’s Web is a
spiritual allegory seeking the meaning of life against the backdrop of World War II and the
Holocaust, the dapper and sophisticated New York dandy White somehow came to agree
with Gandhi, the Indian ascetic, that the human capacity for systematic evil begins with
the excuses invented for killing animals.
These days, though, the desensitization process White described occurs chiefly
through 4-H club exercises. Otherwise, farmers and future farmers no longer have the time
or opportunity to get to know animals as individuals, as Fern did. The reality of a young
pig’s life today is not Wilbur’s “nice warm manure pile,” but rather the steel feeder pipe
who replaces mama pig at the beginning of this year’s hit film Babe.
In White’s time, one could imagine a miracle transforming human attitudes
toward other species that began through the relationship of an otherwise ordinary farm child
and an otherwise ordinary pig. Today, a similar story of perception, redemption, and
deliverance can’t even begin without fluke circumstance sending the porcine hero to the last
1952-style farm in the countryside of an unspecified out-of-the-way locale, run by an obstinate
man whose resistance to “progress,” at financial cost, is in itself extraordinary.
Today, farm animal production practices are so far removed from individual
involvement that desensitization must be performed as a ritual: children raise animals as
pets, then are forced to sell them to be killed, not to learn actual farm technique, since
one-on-one techniques will never be used in adult life, but only because the children must
be baptized in the blood of creatures who loved and trusted them to instill in them the level
of denial necessary to impersonally raise animals for slaughter by the tens of thousands.
When one learns to appreciate animal suffering, or at least is not taught from an
early age to ignore it, the suffering on farms is appallingly obvious––and it is obvious, too,
that as Henry Spira of the Coalition for Non-Violent Food argues, it is time the humane
movement seriously addressed the plight of farm animals, long treated as at best a peripheral
issue. In the United States at present, about 20 million animals per year die in biomedical
research; about 20 million more are killed in classroom dissection exercises; circa six
million are killed for fur; and just over five million are euthanized in animal shelters. All
of these numbers are down by at least half over the past 10 to 20 years, largely because the
kinds of suffering they represent have been the focal points of sustained humane concern.
Unfortunately, again as Spira points out, total animal suffering is up because
every year the increase in the number of animals raised in close confinement for meat far
exceeds the numbers who are no longer suffering for other reasons. Year after year,
Americans eat less beef, but more poultry and pork. Each time Americans eat one less cow
but compensate by eating 100 more chickens, or four or five more pigs, suffering increases
exponentially, not only because the numbers of animals rise, but also because the production
methods used to raise chickens and pigs are markedly more cruel than those used to
raise most cattle. The suffering of veal calves in close confinement is one of the few farmrelated
issues that has attracted sustained humane notice, and the veal industry has correspondingly
dwindled to just 10% of what it was at peak, in 1945. Yet virtually every chicken
and pig endures a life as pitifully and painfully circumscribed as that of a veal calf.
That grim reality is even grimmer because while humane laws have been strengthened
in most other respects during the past decade, an appalling 28 states have quietly
exempted agricultural practices, no matter how cruel, from coverage.
We argue that if the humane movement knew more about farming, first hand,
farm animal suffering would get far more aggressive attention, and the trend toward vegetarianism
now evident among the young and educated would gain moral force, much as the
anti-fur movement did about 10 years ago. The choice of nonparticipation in slaughter is
not just a lifestyle issue, and not just a humane issue: it is the fundamental moral and ethical
issue for all of humanity. If we can rationalize killing animals and the impact that industry
has on grain supplies, water availability, topsoil, human health, and the psyche, we
can by similar means excuse any other form of institutionalized abuse.
But one need not look that far to find reason enough to kick meat. All one really
needs to do is set foot inside a typical modern farm.
A country view of hunting
Ardent opposition to hunting and trapping, for us, proceeds from similar close
observation. Rural youth, especially boys, are usually encouraged to hunt and trap from an
early age, another part of the largely unawares desensitization process. Paradoxically,
most farming adults do not hunt and trap past their teens, if only because the hours at which
barn chores must been done tend to conflict with the hours when wild animals are most easily
trapped and shot. As adults, most farmers participate in hunting and trapping only by
allowing non-farmers to kill wildlife on their land. Typically the farmers believe the old
claim that hunting and trapping cut crop damage, though typical hunting practices cause
rather than prevent the explosive growth of deer herds, by killing off bucks to produce
herds composed chiefly of bearing females, while trapping depletes the predators such as
foxes and coyotes who do the most, year-round, to limit populations of raccoons, rabbits,
and burrowing rodents, the most often cited alleged pest mammals.
Looking at the evidence, growing numbers of farmers are concluding that hunters
and trappers really aren’t much help. Farmers who have had fences broken, or cows shot,
or feel threatened by gunfire while doing field chores, increasingly often post their land
against hunting and trapping, only to find that they’re the victims of a form of blackmail.
Hunting clubs will post and patrol their property, after a fashion, in exchange for exclusive
access. The alternatives are to try to maintain posting signs and patrol oneself, interfering
with other work, with no enforcement authority beyond the ability to sue an intruder, if
identifiable, for trespass; or to rely on typically hard-to-reach and unsympathetic game
wardens, whose chief concern is enforcing revenue-producing licensing requirements.
Whatever the rural landowner does, escalated vandalism often follows posting.
Signs are torn down or shot up. Mailboxes may be bashed and litter––including the remains
of freshly killed animals––may be dumped conspicuously on the property.
Urban people may intellectually oppose hunting and trapping, but the most offensive
aspects of hunter/trapper psychology are experienced only by those who actually spend
up to half of each year in a war zone, contending with the constant safety threat from hunting
and trapping, seeing not only the carcasses of deer on car tops but also the carcasses of
birds, squirrels, and burrowing animals shot along roadsides just for the hell of it. The
myth of the “sportsman” carefully nurtured by the hook-and-bullet industry is belied by the
so-called hunting culture we witnessed at close hand in the impoverished Adirondacks, in
which wives and children often subsist on food stamps and welfare, while sometimes abusive
and frequently absent fathers sport expensive weapons, drive gas-guzzling four-wheeldrive
pickup trucks, and keep ill-fed, poorly housed, under-socialized coonhounds or beagles,
all on the pretext of occasionally bringing back meat.
The quest for meat underlies the abuses of both farming and recreational wildlife
killing. Farmers generally just don’t know how to farm profitably without participating in
the meat industry. But some already do, and agriculture, because it is profit-motivated,
can be transformed by changing consumer demand.
Addressing the meat-getting pretext of hunters is harder, not because they are
actually getting meat at anything less than premium prices, but rather because it is a cover
to conceal the perversion of thrill-killing from even the perverts.
The mark of perversion is that the perverted will pay any price to indulge in it.
This year, we understand from hunting industry literature, U.S. hunters will spend $75 million
just on ammunition with which to kill doves, seldom eaten and not a so-called nuisance
species. The six percent of Americans who hunt will thus spend many times more than the
sum of all donations to anti-hunting groups, simply for the wherewithal to blow away gentle
birds for the fun of it. Add to that the millions that hunters spend to take part in canned
hunts, the only growth sector of the hunting industry in recent years, where the killing is
guaranteed, and the further millions spent in connection with so-called “put-and-take”
hunting, in which state wildlife agencies stock public lands with captive-reared “game” and
fish, usually to be shot or hooked within hours or days, just to keep blood-lust whetted.
Arthur Conan Doyle once had Sherlock Holmes remark that the seeming peace of
the countryside masks hideous unrecognized crimes. A mystery worthy of Holmes is that
the seemingly self-evident criminality of hunters, the only persons in our society who are
permitted and indeed encouraged to kill for fun, remains as little detected as it does.