BOOKS: Hunters, Herders, & Hamburgers

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2006:

Hunters, Herders, & Hamburgers:
The Past & Future of Human-Animal Relationships
by Richard W. Bulliet
Columbia University Press (61 West 62nd St., New York, NY 10023), 2005.
256 pages, hardcover. $27.50.

“Let’s start with sex and blood,” opens
Richard W. Bulliet, hypothesizing that sex and
violence in screen entertainment today feeds a
human fascination that earlier was satisfied by
watching animal mating and barnyard slaughter.
“Carnal reality made fantasy
unnecessary,” Bulliet asserts. “Paradoxically,
postdomestic societies with high levels of
sex-and-blood pornography may exhibit a strong
and generalized abhorrence for real-life maiming,
killing, and sexual predation.”
By “post-domestic,” Bulliet means
societies in which most people no longer directly
participate in animal husbandry.

“Domestic society,” Bulliet continues,
“by exposing children to sex and bloodshed,
hardens them early and causes them to think of
sex and blood in terms of real-life carnality
rather than fantasy.”
Extending this argument to the logical
conclusion suggests that people still living in
“domestic” cultures might prefer bear-baiting,
cockfighting, dogfighting, patronizing
prostitutes and rape to attending movies.
Indeed, violent entertainments and sexual
exploitation persist in rural and backward areas.
Yet where TV and movies exist, they long since
won the competition for popularity.
Bulliet might suggest that this
represents a step toward post-domesticity, since
TV and movies tend to reach rural areas as part
of the growth of an educated middle class, a
step removed from hands-on animal care and
slaughter. Yet the idlers who most avidly bet on
animal fights, and the truck drivers who most
notoriously exploit prostitutes, are also at
least a step removed from animal husbandry as an
occupation.
Probably more interested in stimulating
thought than in clinching arguments, Bulliet
misses few chances to raise a ruckus. He
summarizes the role of donkeys in early
Christianity, for example, in a subchapter
entitled “Ass-Man: God of the Christians,” and
has me kicking myself for not having seen all
that he saw when 30-odd years ago I struggled
through the same writings by Tertulian,
Apuleius, and others whom he cites. The term
paper I could have written might have been far
more interesting than the one I did write, had I
known my ass from the Catacombs.
Yet even then I knew–and my religious
studies professors knew–that Bulliet errs in
stating flatly that “Jesus and his disciples were
not vegetarians.”
The prevailing professorial view was that
Jesus might have been vegetarian, since he built
upon the teachings of the vegetarian prophet
Isaiah and the vegetarian evangelist John the
Baptist. The Jerusalem Church, founded by
Jesus’ brother James, taught and practiced
vegetarianism, and may have been ancestral to
the Sufi sect within Islam, whose teachings hold
that Jesus was a vegetarian.
Recent scholarship, summarized by Keith
Akers in The Lost Religion of Jesus (2001), has
strengthened the view that Jesus’ conflict with
the Temple establishment was founded on his
opposition to animal sacrifice.
“The future of human/animal relations in
real-world terms will be determined by the
worldwide expansion of exploitation in a late
domestic mode, and the reaction to that
expansion by increasingly angry post-domestic
activists,” Bulliet writes in conclusion.
“At the present time, neither camp has
reason for optimism,” Bulliet believes, since
“There is no middle ground…” Yet credible
efforts are underway to develop middle ground.
For instance, companies built on the
sale of meat products now include meatless
burgers on fast food menus and sell vegan frozen
entrés in every supermarket. Many vegetarian
activists, recognizing that the world is not
going to give up meat overnight, encourage
projects such as Humane Farm Animal Care, which
seek to improve the lives of farm animals.
Procter & Gamble has spent more than $200
million to develop and introduce alternatives to
animal testing. Among the major goals of genetic
engineering is finding ways to use fewer animals
to get more precise experimental results.
Despite the vociferousness of
absolutists, surveys indicate that most
activists would feel their most serious
objections to animal research were met if
experiments were non-invasive and did not cause
suffering–which leaves much opportunity for
animal experimenters to seek an acceptable
compromise.
“Philosophers, scientists, writers,
and filmmakers have been drawn into the
maelstrom,” Bulliet goes on. “But in the
imaginative realm, the heritage of the late
domestic era, with its herds of symbolically
degraded beasts being transformed into industrial
commodities, has left the creative mind little
to build upon.”
Unfortunately, the 50 billion animals
per year being transformed into industrial
commodities worldwide are not just “symbolically
degraded.” They suffer short, miserable lives
and actual traumatic deaths–and the creative
minds behind such screen hits as Chicken Run and
Babe have found plenty to build upon.
“It will take true genius,” he ends,
“to rediscover the magic of the predomestic era,
when animals communed with gods, half-animal
beings commanded respect, and killing inspired
awe and incurred guilt.”
Bulliet underestimates the magic of the
present era. Ethologists are learning to
understand animals as never before. Real animals
are beginning to receive moral consideration.
Killing animals is increasingly often seen as
wrong, not just an act which may incur guilt if
expiation rites are not performed, meaningless
though they are to the victims.

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