Friends of mine once adopted children from Africa, and one of the first things that demonstrated a cultural difference was when the family car was weaving through some country lanes and a deer appeared in nearby woods. “Stop! Stop!” the children yelled in their limited English, “Food! Food!”
To children who had known the gnawing experience of true hunger, a deer skittering on the side of the road was a sign of hope for a good dinner that night. They had little understanding of American markets full of food, hunting laws and regulations, and only a limited grasp of the English language, so they had a hard time understanding why their crazy American family was passing by a hearty dinner opportunity.
Their reaction that night drove home how much hunger (or our lack of hunger) changes our perspective. In a current controversy surrounding a little farm at Green Mountain College, I think that perspective is evident. At this farm, sustainable, “green” farming is the name of the game. Chickens live a true free-range life, solar panels heat the greenhouse, and a pair of working oxen has tilled the ground for almost a decade. These special animals are named Bill and Lou. But after long years of work, they are becoming too old for the work, and one, Lou, has become injured.
The college had three choices: euthanasia, sanctuary or slaughter. They made the decision to slaughter the oxen, the meat to be used to for the school’s dining hall. This certainly would go along with the school’s focus on a sustainable, waste-less living philosophy. But unsurprisingly, this decision has been criticized by those familiar with the animals as well as animal rights activists. Pattrice Jones, the founder of an animal sanctuary, exclaimed that, “It just shocks the conscience of anybody who believes in kindness to animals.”
This reaction would make Dr. Dolittle proud. The children’s series, written in the 1920s, featured a kindly naturalist and doctor who could speak to animals. Though sausages are eaten frequently in the book, animal welfare, including “retirement” for old farm animals was near to the heart of the fictional Dr. Dolittle. And, while I don’t personally disagree with the college’s decision, I well understand that thought.
Here are a couple of my own thoughts on this issue.
1. We have many things for which to be thankful. The fact that we can argue and create a controversy over whether farm animals can be consumed in our country shows that the general population isn’t starving. People who have known true hunger are grateful for any food, including the meat of beloved farm animals. My sympathies lie with the ailing animals, and I can wonder with Dr. Dolittle whether or not they have earned a rest in happy green pastures. But I also know that longing for a good life for “retired” farm animals is a luxury grown in the fertile ground of never knowing real hunger. My friends' children wouldn’t understand this controversy.
2. The “slaughter” of animals can be humane. I think it is also important to know that many small butchers take care to make the end as painless as possible for the animals, and I would hope and assume that a small farm such as this would take care in how the slaughter of these animals took place. While perhaps a side issue for many, I think that showing kindness to animals should be followed through to the end. It is also important to note that at least one of these animals has grown quite sick and couldn’t thoroughly enjoy happy green pastures much longer as it is.
3. Animals aren’t human. But when I read through some of the passionate appeals for the “life” of these animals, I was struck that it really came down to an underlying conviction. If you feel that animals deserve the same treatment as humans, then of course, eating hard working farm animals seems not only cruel to the animal but also barbaric to do as a human. A vegan I know at a local grocery store once told me that she sees the butcher department the same way I would feel if human legs and arms were hung and sold there. A gruesome thought indeed, but that was her reality every time she saw animal meat for sale. I think that explains the almost violent reaction to this small college’s decision. If you feel as strongly as my friend, your reaction will be understandably passionate.
But, if you believe as I do that animals are in a different category than humans — and that while it would be against all of my beliefs to consume a fellow human, I can easily see the gift of food in hamburger meat — this decision is not offensive.
In the Judeo-Christian viewpoint, treating animals well is a sign of a righteous man. “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; But the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Proverbs 12:10 A righteous man will have regard and care for the “life of his beast.” While it is clear that animals were killed and consumed for food as well as used for sacrifice by ancient Israel, it is also clear that animals were supposed to be treated fairly and kindly. If this college decided not to slaughter the oxen and “put them to pasture,” I feel that it would be a good reflection of treating animals “kindly” and would be a decision I could support.
However, their decision is not based on the idea that animals are all our friends and we would never eat our friends (as my vegan friend thinks), nor is it based on the above Hebrew proverb (which still doesn't exclude consuming animals), but rather it is based on what makes the most sense sustainably. In which case, I feel like their decision makes sense for them.
Related story on MNN: Will we all stop eating meat by 2050?