Letter to the Slaughterhouse


Mr. Jeffrey M. Ettinger

Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer
Hormel Foods

1 Hormel Place
Austin, MN 55912


Dear Mr. Ettinger,

My family used to make a sandwich with spam that we all loved; fried Spam with melted cheddar cheese on white bread with mustard.  My parents put lettuce on theirs. I also have memories of fried bologna, which tasted a lot like a hot dog. Those were the late 1960s, and I daresay the world has changed a lot, but in some ways it is still the same; as the French say, “The more things change the more they stay the same.” Although the “Spam Whammie,” as we called it, might not be on the menu for me anymore, you are still making Spam. However, even if that product had vanished, the bigger picture would not have changed at all. It is that continuity that I want to address with all honest curiosity and sincerity. I would appreciate your responding, although you will find it much easier and free of consequence to simply ignore me and any modest dictates of common politeness.

Hormel products are made of animals. I want to understand how you find the endless killing of animals acceptable.  When I was unwittingly chewing on my baloney sandwiches, the object in my hand did not bring to mind the living, breathing animal. However, your business runs on slaughter; when you inspect the “plant” that must mean seeing how the killing is going along; it is undeniably a factory designed to end lives and dismember animals.  That is the stuff of Grimm’s fairy tales, which capture our worst nightmare — being fattened up to be killed and eaten or caught by the ogre at the top of the bean stalk who wants to dash our heads in and “grind our bones” to make his bread.

I would like to understand why the killing does not bother you? I heard a recording the other day of pigs being slaughtered.  I avoid images of farm animal confinement and death because I find them too disturbing. I have enough imagination to have no need of pictures.  The recording was kind of a surprise, played at a gathering of people. We heard the desperate and terror-filled screams of animals and clanging and banging. I was dumbstruck and noticed that the woman next to me was sobbing, that several people were crying. I too felt like weeping at the knowledge that what was taking place was the most wrenching suffering of innocent animals, pushed into a frightening hell with no recourse but to scream in confusion and horror. Why doesn’t that reality bother you?

Am I wrong about the depiction?  Is it not so bad?  Would you want to have the local 4th graders to come for a field trip to the “plant,” like we used to visit the electric plant or the bakery? Would they not cry and have nightmares? Do you bring your own children to the “plant?”

You have a lucrative position in an enterprise that has a life of its own, and until people quit buying your products you will keep selling them, so I am not so quixotic as to think that I am addressing the monolith.  Rather, I just want to know on a personal level how people who might have kind hearts toward other humans and their dogs and cats have no compunction about being an active part of a machine designed to inflict suffering and death on other creatures equally as capable of suffering as we and our companion animals are.

You are highly educated: a law school graduate, as am I (from the University of Texas Law School class of 1983), you from UCLA, where my son is currently a sophomore. With intelligence and education go the ability maybe even the moral responsibility to think beyond the confines of cultural norms and above all to trust your instincts and intellect when you cringe at the sight and sound of the slaughter house.


The Tears of Things

Where to begin? Do I give an objective account of NARD (National Animal Rights Day) or just spill my emotions? I’m afraid that to do the former, I would have to wait a while, if ever dispassion in this case were possible.

As a first time participant of the NARD at Union Square in New York City, which took place today, July 24, 2016, I did not know what to expect, although I have dabbled in activism. I protested a rinky dink circus that rented enslaved African animals for entertainment; I marched with Farm Sanctuary through Central Park; I staged my own protest of Benoit Restaurant in New York City that “celebrates” spring by serving infant piglets cooked up whole; I have campaigned against bow hunting deer in my community; I have written countless unpublished letters to editors, and donated money for farm animals.  I had been looking for the bigger event that would attract attention and was eager for NARD.

What sets this event apart is that is consecrates a time to grieve for the dead and the soon to die and those suffering. I have never had the chance to grieve for the tragedy of animal cruelty with others before, and for that chance I am grateful. Around eighty people assembled, lined up in rows,  in the plaza of Union Square North shortly after noon. As with all funerals, music called out the truth and emotion. Over the sound system first came the mournful choir of wailing female voices to accompany handing out the dead animals. About fifty dead animals were distributed to participants.  Those in the back, who exceeded the number of animals, held posters. After the somber wailing came the tolling of a bell, and then the hell sound of the slaughter house with the mayhem and terror and the screams of the pigs and the banging of machines — sounds saturated with suffering and fear. If I had one wish, it would be for anyone who picks up a sandwich with slices of a dead animal or so called bacon to hear those sounds. I was transfixed to my spot and felt like I could stand there endlessly if it would ever help stop something so horrible. The woman standing next to me was sobbing. Many cried. I wanted to cry, so I did and I thought, I am a Stoic and believe in Stoic virtues, but if anything in this world is worth the tears, this is it. After the sounds of violence, terror, and dying, the song “In the arms of an Angel” made me, an atheist, wish as never before that there was some unearthly recompense for all the suffering. Following that song were the strains of “I’m in Here” giving a voice to the victims, and last John Lennon’s “Imagine,” that paean to all that is quixotic. Through it all, I cried for the pigs screaming at slaughter; I cried for a world that is so callous as to pretend that such suffering does not exist. Where is the end to such tears?

Here, dear imaginary reader of this, lies the problem. For every tear we shed and every message we send at our gatherings and protests in person and on the internet, the machine grinds out ten thousand messages to confine and kill.  We are not even David fighting Goliath; we haven’t even figured out how to make the slingshot. Until we have the celebrity power, organization, and money to meet the meat and dairy behemoth on its own level—in the press, in advertisements, in government, and in popular culture – evil will win. Ecce sunt lacrimae rerum.

Discovering Cosmic Consciousness

Most nights I resort to my Transcendental Meditation mantra to help me sleep – not that meditating is supposed to be a sleep aid.  The purpose of TM, as I recall from the instruction and group meditating sessions of years ago in high school, is to bring tranquility and to further one along toward cosmic consciousness. Nonethless, I am making good use of  my mantra. Each night, I plump up my two dense tempurpedics and lie on my left side for starters. I hear my mantra in my mind; then I ease onto my back. As I exercise my mantra, I am continually amazed at how quickly and constantly it slips away and I have to start it up again. Finally I fall asleep because, even with the digressions from the mantra, by forcing myself to keep it going in my head, I do avoid thinking  about the sleep-depriving topic that plagues me.

Usually, when intrusive thoughts over which I have no control crop up, I can reason with myself to dispense with them. I tell myself like a Stoic coach that things could always be worse, that I cannot know what other bad thing might have occurred, that an outlook of acceptance and emotional detachment actually feels good, that I can give myself permission to not engage with such a topic or to forgive myself, that everything is pretty trivial, and that the brevity of life puts things in perspective, etc.  However, that rationalization approach falls short of mitigating my monolithic concern that creeps in with the night; I cannot reason away the thought of the constant and extreme suffering of farm animals. Why does this disturb me? The simple fact (understood by anyone who rejects “speciesism” or is otherwise an ethical vegan) is that we are all animals (there are three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral). Humans are a species of animal. There are differences among species, but all species of animal have interests, innate behaviors, emotions, a love for life, and the ability to suffer.  If anyone doubts this, he should consider the family dog who gets upset when left alone, has joys and sorrows, feels pain and loss, and suffers when hurt; such a rich emotional life and ability to suffer applies to other animals as well. So, getting into bed is clicking on the video, and I must imagine all of the innocent peaceful animals subjected to cruelty on a daily basis and killed in a storm of terror.

The thought of all this suffering has another layer that adds to its centrality in my life: the nagging question about why other people, assuming they are aware, don’t find such a heinous reality too horrible to condone and participate in.  If nighttime is reserved for images of suffering baby pigs and other horrors, day time prompts that human aspect of the question, as I must face at every turn the results of human action: dead animal parts (aka food), the finished product of the assembly line of cruelty, ground out relentlessly by the money-meat machine. I feel a divide between me and all the dog-loving, animal eaters.  However alienating that divide might be or disturbing the images of suffering, I embrace the truth with devotion. It is a boon to know that, as Leonardo Da Vinci said, my body will not be a tomb for other creatures.

The gurus of TM might or might not have been right about meditating as a way to achieve cosmic consciousness. Regardless, they had some good ideas about repetitive words and enlightenment. I use my mantra for sleep, and I revel in achieving the certain first step to cosmic consciousness – the knowledge that we should be kind to all sentient creatures.

A Day in the Life

7:00 a.m. With my morning cup of coffee pick up The New York Times to see on the front page of the style section a festival in Umbria in which the big event is whole roasted pigs (“The Pinnacle of Pork” headline) complete with photo of the carcass of a charred pig.  Spend unbudgeted time writing to the editor to protest this as representing “the pinnacle” of nothing except barbaric insensitivity.

9:00 a.m. Go to the grocery store; avert my eyes from the slabs, chunks, and ground up parts of farm animals. Faced with buying “real” milk for a family member, and wonder if I must compromise by supporting a product resulting from forced pregnancy and premature mother-calf separation.

11:00 a.m. Walk with my dog, Mia. In the parking lot by the ball field where she likes to sniff sits a monster truck with the license plate “BOWHUNTR” and a rear windshield and bumper on which are plastered an assortment of white decals of deer heads and modern bow machines.  Hanging from the rearview mirror is an upside down stag. Reflect with awe at his need to define himself by this activity and with disgust at what must be his notion of himself: mighty predator in nature, he of the mega truck and high tech bow.

12:00 p.m. Get email regarding upcoming visit of in-laws and recollect previous gathering notable for offers to bring “pigs in a blanket” to my house “for us carnivores” ha ha.

1:00 p.m. Meet friend for lunch at beach club that offers not one vegan dish expect for a salad. Suggestions / complaints have not been appreciated apparently even though I pay a small fortune for the very exclusive right to show up and face the menu (would like to unjoin, but not my call). Friend cannot equate the food on her plate with what went on to produce it. Suggest that she give it a try.

3:00  p.m. Breaking news about latest gun violence: turn on the television to get update. Five minutes of commercials touting meals formed with every species of soit disant edible animal. Please stuff your already oversized gut with surf and turf, sizzling steak, bacon on a burger, chicken and more chicken—truly endless.

4:30 p.m.  Errand time: Get into car and turn on radio show, Fresh Air, in time to hear Terry Gross ask Jonathan Balcombe  about the most humane way to kill an animal for food, given that “not everyone can be a vegan.”  Hallelujah moment of the day: Balcombe corrects her, very diplomatically, by pointing out that there are so many wonderful plant based foods, no one has to eat meat, and he goes on to clarify that there is no humane slaughter only some ways that might be less cruel than others.

5:00 p.m. Write Johnathan Balcombe an email thanking him. Can’t avoid remembering that dear Frans De Waal, another scientist who studied animals and wrote a book to prove how intelligent and social they are and how much amazingly “like us” they are and to expound on how terribly attached he has become to animals only to remain a staunch eater of them, reconciling those two antipodal attitudes on the basis that there are some animals in nature who are predators; great logic, there Frans. What good does having an intellect do a person if he can satisfy himself with such conclusions? Fight urge to drink heavily.

10:00 p.m. Seek refuge in bed. Reading to get sleepy, pick up the latest New Yorker: restaurant review with picture of veal chops. A reminder of what I know all too well: this magazine, which has liberal tendencies when it comes to the LBGT community, civil rights, gun violence, health care and many other human-impacting issues has shown itself in article after article to lack even the tiniest shred of compassion for animals. It adores articles about restaurants that serve whole baby pigs and where you can find the best barbequed animals. Yeah, that article “The True Cue” was really an important piece of journalism. Pick up a book in which hopefully no one will be eating.

11:00 p.m. Nighttime television, episode recorded from previous night: unfunny joke about almond milk being “unnatural.”

11:15 p.m. Try to sleep, wondering in the dark at the inexplicable capacity for selfish blind cruelty and tossing around the recurring thought that there should be a study on why some people have no qualms about animal suffering and others do. Why, why is that? Realize the point is academic and a nonstarter, with the familiar sense of hopelessness; try my old TM mantra to distract my mind and get away from reality until sleep closes in.

Three scientists walked into a saloon . . .

A New York Times editorial last weekend by Johnathan Balcombe discussed his new book, “What a Fish Knows.” Balcombe’s book made the third instance that I have heard about recently of scientists publicizing their research about animals. All three books make the same observation: animals of all kinds are more intelligent, social, and emotional (more like “us”) than most people suppose. The other two are Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals are by Frans de Waal.

When I hear about these books, I first must ask: what is the point in proving that nonhuman animals have a greater intellectual and emotional life than one might have thought.  There is one whopping big use that can be made of that information, which is the only real valuable point of this research: if animals are “surprisingly” intelligent, social, emotional, empathetic, capable of thinking ahead, and making tools, etc., how, then, can we justify treating them as if they are so very different from humans and abuse, confine, kill, and consume them? If that question does not present itself with great urgency as the scientist’s conclusion, then his or her research has no value other than satisfying some idle curiosity and advancing his or her academic career.

In differentiating the three scientists making the most recent forays into this area of animal research, I can’t get out of my mind as particularly apt the title to the classic Clint Eastwood Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because such are the following scientists in that order.

Jonathan Balcombe reaches the conclusion that understanding nonhuman animals should lead to greater compassion for them, and he is a vegan. Interestingly, the article in The Times did not highlight his veganism, and I asked him by email to find out. Rather cryptically, he implied that he had to say less than he might have wanted on that topic, as he was subject to “filters” in getting the article into print.

The “bad” science-slinger is Carl Safina, who is enthusiastic about the wonderful inner life of animals, but, because he studies “wild” animals, can’t equate anything he has learned to domestic ones and hasn’t sorted out any cogent approach to eating them.  He eats and even catches and kills fish, and eats meat sometimes, and slaughtering animals to eat them does not bother him. He justifies all of the above because there is “predation” in nature, and he studies “nature.”  Although a discussion of “predators” looms large as well in discussing below our third man of science, I have to ask here: what difference does it make if there are predators among animals?  There are also a lot of non-predators.  Why would we feel obliged to be like one group of animals more than the other?  Some scientists have found that our digestive systems and teeth put us more in the herbivore than carnivore category, and, of course, we do know now that meat is not good for us.  In any event, what the lion must do to survive bears no similarity to the human experience in the grocery store. Further, what goes on in nature does not generally determine what we do: we don’t think that we have to live in a nest because birds do; we don’t think we have to drink from streams, although deer do. Maybe he is saying that having watched a lot of Wild Kingdom episodes he has become inured to watching animals die.  I would not like to watch nature in action “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote, but I could watch lions kill old antelopes, knowing that it is for those animals nature’s way and do or die, and not find that at all preparation for watching hundreds of kind, domestic animals forced in terror to the hell of a slaughter house.  Mr. Safina does not win last place in this line up, however, because he does acknowledge an element of the “wishy-washy” and “hypocritical” in his approach. Such hypocrisy is not acceptable, but in realizing the flaw in his approach to eating, there is some slight indication that he might feel compelled to give the matter greater thought someday.

On to Frans de Waal, the “ugly” and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.  On the Diane Rehm radio show, where I first heard of him, he came across as a very great proponent of the view that animals of all kinds are possessed of qualities that have in the past been reserved for humans—they use tools, they plan, they have empathy. It was quite heartwarming.  He gushed in response to callers’ anecdotes about their hyper-smart animals. However, before we get to his gross inconsistencies, I must first pillory him to the best of my ability for studying animals in zoos and laboratories. One of his favorite chimps, whom he studied, died recently—in a zoo. He was sad.  How touching that he was moved by her passing; he should have been moved by her life of incarceration. This brings me back momentarily to my first point—what use will be made of the research. It is particularly unacceptable to do this research on caged animals and do it only for personal aggrandizement. The logical conclusion to be made of his findings eludes de Waal. This man of science has no qualms about eating any animal at all.  He does think that knowing about the intellect and emotions of animals has helped fuel movements to treat them better in circuses and Sea World—not that any such effect was his goal. So how does he square eating the very creatures that he acknowledges are not so very different from the exalted human being? He is a scientist, and in science “organisms eat organisms.”  I charge him with reckless and irrelevant use of a scientific term, devoid of any attempt at intellectual honesty or thought, much less compassion. The statement doesn’t even make sense on its face. The term organism includes plants—plants do not eat plants or animals, except for the anomaly of a Venus flytrap, and being anomalous has no relevance to the understanding and use of the term “organism.”  Is he suggesting that we consider plants as predators? What he is trying to invoke with his pseudo-scientific air is, in the vein of Carl Safina, that there is predation in nature. Then he moves on to consider raising and killing animals for food, which we don’t need in the least need to survive or thrive, as “part of the circle of life.” Oh Rafiki! “The circle, the circle of life.” He is characterizing a very much man-made machine as “natural” and equating what we do to torment and kill needlessly with what goes on in nature among some species. By the way, the circle of life is living and dying and doesn’t necessarily include killing at all. Even knowing that, for some animals the circle involves being eaten, does that mean that we want to design such a circle? Is this a good circle of life: forcefully impregnated, crammed in a cage, bred to abnormal proportions, deprived of natural behaviors, young and social interactions, and hauled away to a terrifying death? Don’t say that there is some natural process captured in that machine. Next, de Waal, abandoning science and Disney, punts–eating animals is a “cultural choice.” Giving content to that buzz phrase, he must mean that despite what science can teach us and what we can learn, we cannot think through layers of ignorance to come up with a kind and sensible way of living. What use are you as a scientist if it all comes down to not thinking, but taking what was handed down. Oh, our organism professor! You are ugly above all because you revel in making such pathetic and self-serving use of your knowledge and influence.

What Humans Don’t Think or Feel

Scientists are busy proving that nonhumans have intelligence, sentiments, and sociability and publishing their “discoveries.” A few months ago, Carl Safina came out with Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, and today I heard on The Diane Rehm Show an interview with a biologist, Frans de Waal, who has published Are We Smart Enough To know How Smart Animals Are. I have a bone to pick with these studies for two reasons: the nonhuman animals are yet again at our disposal and the scientists pull up short of stating the only really valuable conclusion their research provides.

First, aside from Jane Goodall and maybe a few others who go into natural habitats, scientists are conducting their “research” on animals in captivity. Frans de Waal mentioned having a close relationship with a chimpanzee he was studying who recently died in a zoo.  Nice existence, living in a cage and performing tasks for Professor de Meer. Where were the elephants kept that proved to him that elephants have large intellects and human qualities like recognizing themselves in a mirror? By the way, I might ask who cares if an elephant can or cannot recognize himself in a mirror. Leave it to the most egocentric species on the planet to think it is vitally important to know if an elephant can use a mirror just like we can. Aside from the obvious element of coercion, to what end is all this research? There is one really important result: if animals are, as established through all these lab tests, intelligent, social, resourceful and emotional, then how can we justify treating them like objects—putting them in what is a human’s worst nightmare: living in confinement in order to be fattened up for someone’s dinner. That is the stuff of grim  fairy tales of the brothers Grimm.  However, scientists who marvel at the intellect of the nonhuman drop the exercise of reason when it comes to concluding that cruelty to such beings might be wrong. At that point, good old mindless cultural norms do just fine. Here is an example. Dr. de Meer asserts that eating meat is okay because nature is comprised of organisms eating other organisms. Certainly a scientist knows the three categories—animal, vegetable, and mineral—and that the vegetable does not include sentient beings, so that including plants in the discussion is irrelevant. Yes, animals eat plants, and I suggest he do so as well.  As for the fact that animals eat animals, of course only some do and many don’t, and humans thrive without eating flesh. What relevance is there between a lion that must kill to eat to and a human ordering dinner? If such an example of another species does count, then why take our culinary cue from the lion more than the elephant who eats only plants?  Professor de Meer is not alone in not seeing what is right in front of his eyes. Carl Safina spent all that time wondering what animals “think and feel,” yet he can’t think about what they think and feel when they are being confined and slaughtered?  When Dr. Safina’s book came out, I wrote him to ask if his familiarity with animals had caused him to think twice about eating them.  Although he professed to not be a big fan of flesh, he also had not formed any connection between the rich natural lives of animals and our depriving them of that life.

None of this research is at all necessary. Who could really be around animals and not see that they have their own interests and live social lives; most importnalty, intellect aside, whether they enjoy mirrors or finding grapes under cups in the lab, they all suffer. Any kind of instinctive compassion and the most fundamental notion of morality get you exactly to the right conclusion—we are all animals. There are distinctions among the species, but so what.  If we have any “special” gift it is, as Seneca says, the ability to reason, which I wish we would not abdicate so readily in the face of culture and error.

Freedom! (Braveheart Style)

The President of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, is promoting his latest book, A Humane Economy. Pacelle was on the Bill Maher show this week and espoused the central mission of the HSUS—improve conditions of animals, including farm animals. Regarding farm animals, Pacelle recited the HSUS party line: free chickens from cages and, to a lesser extent, end strict confinement of other farmed animals. That agenda sounds good at first, in a superficial way—how could better treatment be a bad thing? Is it not, as the HSUS contends, undisputedly better for a chicken to be able to walk around inside the metal building where it is consigned to live its life than to suffer confinement in a cage in which it cannot even move?  I agree, but the fallacy is that those options—able to move or cruelly confined— are your choices. Not only is that agenda overlooking a more direct and genuine choice to campaign against the entire practice of raising animals and slaughtering them, the “improvement” approach is actively detrimental. First, the problem is that a perfectly clear message underlies the position of the HSUS about ending certain farming practices—namely, that raising animals for food is okay, there are just some practices that should be eliminated. The more Pacelle talks about improving conditions for farm animals, the more he reinforces the cultural and food industry standard notion that there should be such a thing as the farming of animals for their flesh and secretions, supporting the wholly erroneous conclusion that there is some way the food industry can raise a sentient creature for slaughter that is acceptable — not cruel, not miserable, and that does not culminate in a terrifying death. The second and related objection to the Pacelle / HSUS mission of “improvement,” is that every time he engages in that argument, an important opportunity is missed. So rarely is the general public treated to any idea at all about farm animals that any opportunity must be seized to jumpstart the typical conscience with the reality that the flesh wrapped up in the grocery store was a living creature with interests, feelings, intelligence, and a capacity for suffering.  What would have lolled with pleasure in the sun, taken care of its young, walked over to a human to have its belly rubbed is now ground up into parts for humans to chew. Pacelle and Maher don’t go there; in fact nobody does, except on the internet for a self-selective audience.

Why are the HSUS and Bill Maher and the media generally keeping the meat industry’s horrible machine away from the public eye and ear? That will remain a rhetorical question, as I continue to wonder.  There is one risk in making the public aware (not that such a risk is preventing the attempt of raising awareness): people (or some people) might become inured to it, the way we have apparently come to accept that there will be mass gun killings of children. If, no matter how brutal and bloody and cruel meat production is, one will adjust to find it acceptable, then the next approach is to hammer home to the public how much it is in its own interests to quit meat. There are three parts to the appeal to self-interest: health, the environment, and style. Get the guest on the popular talk show who will once and for all dispel the myth that meat and milk are part of a good diet; interview the scientists who have proven that the meat industry is the worst greenhouse gas contributor; play to people’s vanity by getting vegan celebrities to speak out about their fabulous meatless lifestyles—if people must dress or cut their hair like a celebrity, why would they not be motivated to eat like one?

Whether the revolution is based on showing the truth or cynically/realistically appealing to self-interest,  “make conditions better” should never be the only message. But who will be the new messenger? Not apparently the HSUS or Bill Maher (who says he loves animals more than humans (proving what never needs to be proven that actions not thoughts count), not the celebrities who, as far as I know, have not organized a single protest, rally, public campaign, or awareness raising event. Who is in a position to make a difference and will try?

I want a messiah. There are so many organizations concerned about farm animals, yet they do not connect with each other to spearhead a vigorous campaign; there are so many vegan celebrities, but not one has taken on the task. My frustration at the lack of a leader brings to mind William Wallace in Braveheart, that highly fictional account of Scotland’s struggle for freedom.  Wallace, knowing that he can only do so much on his own and desperate for Robert the Bruce to undertake what only the Bruce stands a chance of accomplishing, pleads with fervor, “Unite us! Unite the clans.”

Please, someone, unite us!

Two Questions

Two factors prevent most people from quitting meat.  I arrive at that conclusion from conversations with various and numerous people – friends, family, and total strangers; the only unifying characteristic is that they do not think twice about eating meat. I could also for the sake of further anecdotal evidence invoke my own experience as a one-time meat eater.

The first impediment is the belief that humans need meat in their diet. Meat eaters feel they know the science when they haven’t read a single word on the topic, or maybe they have fallen subject to misinformation. The latest unbiased scientific evidence establishes that we can all do fine without meat (of course it actually says that we would be better off without meat). Given that this barrier is objective and factual, it should be easy to refute with the scientific facts; but, if people deny global warming and the need for vaccines, they can also refute the evidence that humans do not need meat. I think we can chalk this objection up to willful ignorance. Why would anyone prefer to remain ignorant?

The second reason cited for not feeling any compunction about killing and eating the body of an animal is that “those animals” are different from dogs (or cats, horses, dolphins, monkeys, let’s see, what other species are not on the menu?) I mention dogs because they are eaten in China, as a fairly recent article in The New York times informed us. I have heard more than once the exclamation with horror, “They eat dogs in China!”   I concede a difference between dogs and farm animals is that dogs are in our houses. That we have decided to treat them better than other species says something about us more than about them. If we had taken to having pigs in the house to keep us company, to assist us in finding food, and to be our eyes and ears, then they would have names and find a place in our hearts and we would then cringe at the thought of eating them. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, trainable, sociable, affectionate, and useful.  Above all, pigs and all farm animals — all animals — have interests, feelings, emotions, and can suffer. To supplant the idea that it’s okay to treat farm animals in a way that we would never treat our dogs, takes one simple question of a common moral type: “Would I want my dog to be treated like that?” Because farm animals are kept out of sight, we have to exert ourselves a little to know what conditions are like.  Books, the internet, and documentaries will do the trick  (although it would be optimal if everyone got the chance to visit a real farm and slaughter house, preferably as a school field trip) and then, if the sights and sounds of those animals are not enough, then a little imagination is required: what if that was my dog subjected to procedures without anesthesia, constant confinement in metal cages in factories, forced impregnation, loss of puppies resulting from that forcible pregnancy leaving the mother bereft and whining with grief, forced feeding, and the miserable truck ride without any food or water to  hell, complete with the smell, sights, and sounds of death –a death that is painful, terrifying, and violent.

I assert that once people get over the beliefs that meat is a dietary necessity and that  farm animals are different in any relevant way, they will necessarily have to make a change because who would declare the following: “I know that I don’t have any need to eat meat and by that eating it, I am inflicting horrific suffering on animals, who despite being a different species, are as capable of feelings and suffering as my dog, whom I protect and love, but I will do it anyway because I don’t care about suffering.”

Who could say that?

Thought over Culture

The controversy over whether to dissociate Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton is of far less importance than (just to name a few) climate change, terrorism, gun absolutism, racially motivated police shootings, and speciesism, that last of which ruins the environment, damages our health, and makes us cruel. Nonetheless, the question of whether or not to remove Wilson’s name has gained attention and might have more importance than it seems in revealing just how unthinking a species we tend to be. Why not step back and consider why we have a mania for naming buildings, bridges, roads, and concert halls after some man (and I mean man as opposed to woman, although I am not suggesting that the practice would be more defensible if only it were more gender neutral). I would hate to be called upon to write the essay explaining in 500 words or less why it is important that we put mens’ names on things. On the other hand, I could write the essay why it makes little sense that we memorialize men, from the old days and recent times, in this way.

Any man who has received this “honor” did whatever it was he did in his own self-interest and reaped the rewards. Why must we reward someone who was doing what he wanted and probably succeeded at least to some degree whether president, senator, mayor, or baseball player. Second, we did not need the example of Woodrow Wilson to know that there is no such thing as a “great man.” I have no reverence for a slave owner. I don’t think a single founding father who owned slaves could be seen as a positive sum of very negative parts. They did some notable things (again, of their own volition and to their own aggrandizement while alive), but if they owned slaves, they were not moral in that regard, which is not hindsight given it was the age of reason and enlightenment, that most of the Western world at that time did not own slaves, and that England was on the verge of ending, or had abolished slavery. They also of course were sexist, appropriating for themselves power and rights and depriving women of pursuing meaningful lives. As with abolition, ideas of the equality of women were also available; there was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, if they needed help in understanding why subjugating half of the population was wrong.  Leaving the “great man” idea aside, I must wonder what does anyone, particularly the deceased, gain by having his name attached to a structure. It must be for the gratification of his heirs, who certainly have no right to special treatment by the accident of their relationship to one of these successful men.

Vaguely sensing that “honoring” someone in this way is the “right” approach probably just counts as one of those things that we do without any real thought at all—it’s just what we do.  However, although it no doubt figures as a lapse in the exercise of reason, it might be more than a cultural eccentricity or neutral practice of no importance, like shaking hands rather than saluting, bowing, or embracing. The practice can lend itself to a more insidious use because the name can reflect not so much the famous “great” man per se as much as what he stands for, and the group in favor of emblazoning his name on the roadways uses the name to promote its self-serving and recondite agenda.

The only exception to the pointlessness of naming buildings, bridges, and roads is when a large donor of funds insists on having his name attached to the project. Okay, if there is quid pro quo attached to the money, then it must be done; spend the money and leave for no one to bother with the question, “What petty thrill of fame does that donor get from seeing his name on the placard?”


Hip Undertakers, Seneca, and Emily Bronte

Did anyone read the article in The New Yorker “Or Bodies, Ourselves”? As a Stoic, I am drawn to reading anything that brings death forward for our consideration.  Stoics use thoughts of death to appreciate life, to remind themselves to make the most of time with loved ones, and to remember that most things in life are trivial.  I think death, in addition to being the catalyst for the carpe diem mentality just described, is the great equalizer; we humans are quite smug in the superiority of our species, but we are animals and, like all the other species, we will die and become nothing more than that which we were before we were born. Some may question the latter part of that assertion, unable to accept such finality, but at least it is true that our bodies (if not cremated) will rot just like the bodies of our dogs, cats, and other animals great and small. Seneca exhorted his readers to study death up close in order not to fear it. Given the times and situation of living under the gaze of a crazed emperor, Seneca and his friends needed to be prepared at all times to dispatch themselves at his command.

The article acquaints us with a young, hip undertaker named Caitlin Doughty, who runs L.A. Undertaking.  She is a proponent of returning to the old-fashioned way of handling our dead. Similar to the at-home birth, she advocates an at-home death, complete with participation in corpse preparation.  Returning to the good old days in this regard is worth doing only if we stand to benefit by it.  If by handing over the corpse, we are somehow depriving ourselves because doing so fosters our fear of death or complicates or worsens our grief, then we should take her up on this idea.  If not, then keeping the corpse around is no better than returning to a lot of old fashioned things that ranged from very inconvenient to miserable. Women used to get this task.  Read Wuthering Heights: Nelly Dean is routinely called upon to deal with a dead body. On the topic of women and death, a subtopic of the article is the infusion of women into the undertaking field, which was traditionally male.

One thing that strikes me right away about our having a more involved role with our dead is that bathing and dressing a body is not something we do for each other generally dead or alive. That thought leads me to suppose that I might actually feel that tending the body would be more natural and better if it was that of my own child, but even then, only if he or she were young. However, body preparation is not the sole aspect of the return to the old way of doing things; another is the suggestion to have death occur at home and keep the body there for a while. I have gotten close to that proposed situation to evaluate. I had Gentle Goodbyes euthanize my golden retriever in my home for a backyard burial, which approximates the death experience Doughty endorses. I would hope nobody scoffs at the notion that love of a nonhuman is profound and that the loss can be as great as a human death. I am pretty normal (who isn’t or who is) and have experienced both.  In familiar surroundings, without subjecting Katie to the pain of getting into the car, we remained at home, and a veterinarian of trust-inspiring calm and tangible empathy (a woman) made Katie comfortable with drugs, let me take my time, and ended her suffering. I think Katie had a better end, but did I suffer less? Did having her die at home help me? After all, right behind me will forever be the place where she last lay. My memoires of the room and this house must include her death and the ineffable sight of her dead body, on the floor, then in the blanket that we wrapped her in to place her in the grave dug outside.  My conclusion: it was better that way, so maybe Doughty is on to something, with a large qualifier that I find expressed (again) in Wuthering Heights.  In that novel, Brontë expresses her realization that grief is a personal experience of which the severity or nature depends on the survivor’s particular feelings for and level of dependence on the deceased and not at all on the relationship per se. This is not something Doughty mentions – that dealing with grief is not one-size-fits-all and sorrow does not result in the same ways even for the same kind of losses.

I wonder if Doughty has ever read Wuthering Heights, that death-infused prose-poem, or read it carefully enough to notice all the scenes involving corpses and how some of her words describing her own experiences in dealing with death echo lines from that book.  In particular Ellen Dean’s: “I don’t know if it be a peculiarity in me, but I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death should no frenzied or despairing mourner share the duty with me. I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break; and feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter.”