Animal Stories

Nice line in the New York Times Book Review today from Rebecca Goldstein--"ambivalence is a sign of an interesting mind."  It worries me when someone responds in a simple, clear, confident way to an issue that's in fact difficult and complex.

The New York Times covers the treatment of animals a lot.  I'd say the gray lady is ambivalent.  And maybe that's all to the good--because the animal question really is difficult and complex. Today's stories touching on animals--

First we've got a big story about small, traditional farmers in New England having a hard time delivering meat to the locavore market.  It seems there aren't enough slaughterhouses (and mammals have to be slaughtered in USDA approved facilities).  So animals wind up having to be transported hundreds of miles away, which defeats the "humane" label and also yields lower quality meat.   Reaction: (A) meat is murder, or (B) quick, somebody build a new slaughterhouse?  I appreciate the way the article triggers the question.

Second, a paean to hunting in the magazine's "Lives" column.  82 year old half-blind food writer Betty Fussell goes deer hunting with her son, who calls hunting "earning your food."  She says--"Although I've spent a lifetime buying, cooking and eating food, this would be the first time I'd ever hunted and sought to kill.  Others had always done that for me."  Okay....so hunters confront the reality of killing animals.  That's honest of them.  Upside of eating wild animals: they did get to have much better lives before dying, compared to factory farmed animals. Downside:  the killing can be sloppy.   Question--if a half-blind woman is allowed to run around shooting deer in the woods, hardly "humane slaughter," then pray tell:  why can't those humane farmers in the previous story shoot their own pigs?

The "sensitive hunter" story is a very predicable genre.  Inevitably there will be allusions to Native American rituals. People are going to thank The Great Spirit for the dead animal, and they're going to get really mushy about how close they feel to the animals they kill. This article doesn't disappoint.  "Even though I long ago abandoned my forefathers' Calvinist God, it's him I thank for the fellow creature I've killed."  Question: how much does that make up for the problem that the deer doesn't get to enjoy the rest of her day, or life?

Finally, mother and son sit down to eat the heart at dinner time.  Just to let us know they are not brutes, she mentions that she skipped the garlic, onions, and barbecue sauce usually called for in recipes for deer heart.  No, they just used "salt and pepper in order to taste the grilled flesh pure."  Well, that was decent of them!  She adds "Men use fire; other animals don't." (So?)  And then:  "But I have never felt the bonds of creaturehood so intensely." Somebody at the New York Times really ought to put a moratorium on this sort of thing. Either that, or make the next person who indulges add a paragraph about how this bonding thing is supposed to work.  (Am I missing something because I never experienced the ritual of holy communion?  Or because I don't belong to one of those tribes that goes in for funerary cannibalism?) It seems to me, you really aren't entitled to feel good about your bonds with a deer after you've deprived her of the rest of her life.

OK--so we've got nice animal farmers and touchy-feely hunters. What else?  We have vegan pancake making from Richard Melville Hall (aka Moby).  (See picture above.) We also have an interesting reference to vegetarians and vegans in an article about extremism.  The author says that "in groups organized around a cause, it's the most extreme members who rise quickest."  His example:  "Among vegetarians, vegans are accorded high status."

Yes, I accord vegans high status, unless I'm focusing on the online abolitionist vegans.  They are not just deeply committed to animals, but contemptuous of anyone who falls even a notch or two below their standards.  I suspect tolerant, pragmatic vegans are accorded high status by most animal advocates (most of whom are neither vegetarian nor vegan).  Or so I would think. We need a New York Times story that digs into that question.


Faust said...

Nice round up.

I saw The Cove last night. Impressive film. Add it to the pile of stories about grotesque human inconsistency. At least we are predictable.

I'll take a stab at answering the question on how the "bonds of creaturehood" work. Probably there are variants on the story, but I think it boils down to this:

Either you accept that predation (in general) is OK or you don't. If you think that predation is bad, then you think humans need to begin working towards expunging animal use of any kind from our culture. On this view, although we are biological omnivores, we need to transcend our historical and biological natures, as well as our cultural traditions, and become in some important sense new kinds of beings: ones that do not eat meat. One lingering difficulty of accepting that predation is wrong, is the question of what this means for animals that are pure predators, but this can also be left aside relatively easily. First things first!

On the other hand, once one accepts that one is a predator, or that predation is "part of the fabric of nature," then the very act of predation becomes a manifestation of "natural law." This of course is nothing more than Is --> Ought thinking, deriving the goodness of our "ought to be predators" from the fact that predation is clearly what is. But Hume aside, Is --> Ought thinking is enormously tempting, and it's not just predators that do it. Evolutionary psychology does it all the time. Arguably Sam Harris does it in his TED lecture.

In any case I think all this talk of "bonding" and "inner animal" etc etc is at bottom an expression of the relief that comes from what William James called the "moral holiday" that comes from accepting the natural order as being ultimately justified by some transcendent principles that we may not fully understand. E.g. Surely things are the way they are for a REASON, surely when we exercise our inner predator we are connecting to the essence of some "natural law." Of course it need not be so intellectualized either…there IS visceral reaction in the vicinity of killing…it can be horror, or it can be satisfaction. Anyone who has found animal flesh both delicious looking and subsequently revolting (and then back again) can surely understand that the aesthetics of killing can be toggled in a similar fashion.

Of course none of the preceding will be convincing to those who have rejected predation, or who think that they have discerned a DEEPER law, a law like "cosmic justice" or "Jainist nonviolence" or "utilitarian principles" or what have you.

amos said...

I'm not sure that ambivalence is always the sign of an interesting mind. To judge from her book, Betraying Spinoza, ambivalence (about Judaism) is a sign of Rebecca Goldstein's mind, and I have no doubt that she considers herself to be interesting. Spinoza, however, is much much less ambivalent, much more radical, than Rebecca G. and I for one find his mind to be more interesting than that of Rebecca G.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Hmm--I can understand and relate to wanting to accept nature, and accept predation, and accept one's inner animal, and all that....but getting closer by eating the deer's heart? Come on! I just think this is meaningless "hunter poetry" and really does amount to a dishonest rationalization. I mean really--if you transfer the idea to another context, you just get total insanity, like Jeffrey Dahmer trying to feel closer to people by... you know. Too disgusting to contemplate. Yet we're supposed to accept the logic of killing-eating-getting close when it comes to hunting. Help! Again--it's another thing to go along with the idea of humans as a part of predatory nature. I get that. But why embellish with this nonsense about closeness through eating?

Faust said...


Well first of all context shifts are just that: context shifts. You can't shift contexts willy nilly without addressing all the relevant elements that are changed.

But I might even be willing to bite the Dahmmer bullet: he was just an unacceptable kind of predator. Sorry buddy, your branch of the evolutionary tree doesn't get to continue.

Anyway, what does it mean to say "meaningless hunter poetry?" What are your "meaning" criteria for meaningful and meaningless poetry?

For that matter, what the heck do you think predation is???? It's packs of wolves cornering prey. It's cheetahs taking down animals with tooth and claw as they sprint 60 miles an hour. It's red teeth and sharp claws, ripped flesh and gnawed bones, and yes: devoured hearts.

What are the "bonds of creaturehood?" Surely one version is one where one realizes that there are food chains and that one is on top. If one fully accepts the notion of "food chain" as natural law, then to take one's "rightful" place on the food chain is to feel "closeness" to the "natural role" of each creature on it. It's the Great Chain of Being: it's right there in her last line:

"Bless this food to our use and us to thy service."

Prrrrraise Jesus!

Jean Kazez said...

Right, but the wolves and cheetahs don't go around saying they feel close to their prey. That's human prettification! I can see people saying they feel like "a part of nature" or "a part of the food chain"--and stuff like that. But this woman seems to feel like she was getting close to that individual deer by eating her heart. I very much hope nobody tries to get close to me today by eating my arm. I'd suggest spending some quality time with me as a much more effective method.

Faust said...

She says:

"somehow we are all in this together," which is pretty vague and wide open to interpretation.

Then: "Men use fire; other animals don’t. But I have never felt the bonds of creaturehood so intensely." In context I would say the sentence reads: "men are different from animals (e.g. we use fire), but when I ate the heart with minimal seasonings (seasonings being another human thing), I really felt like just another animal.

So I'm not seeing much prettification beyond the kind of typical dominionist, I'm on top and God gave me this for dinner stuff that one usually finds in this area.

That's not to say there aren't things like "suicide food" and people comming up with more specific rationalizations for animal eating (you give good examples in your book) but I don't think this really stands out as one of them.

amos said...

Faust: There are rapists who are sure that their victims really "like it", and that's about on the same level as eating an animal and imagining that it creates a bond.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think you've found a layer of meaning I didn't notice ("though I cooked the heart, I never felt more like AN animal") but I still think there's also this notion that ingesting the heart (which she earlier held in her hand) somehow creates communion between herself and THIS animal. Holding the heart, eating the heart...surely she's feeling a bond not just with "creaturehood" (abstract) but with this creature.

I really think there's self-deception in this article. Like earlier, when she says she's got to kill a deer today (after 5 days of trying). She says "I can't let Sam down, nor myself, nor even the deer." Like she'd be letting the deer down by letting him/her stay alive! That's when she says "Somehow we're all in it together." She's talked herself into the illusion that her interests align with the deer's.

So--some poetry and pretending here. But yes--I think you're right that I missed some of her meaning.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, There is a ton that differentiates a rapist who thinks his victim likes it and an 82 year old woman who repeats time-honored myths about hunting. There's rationalization in both cases, but I wouldn't dream of saying that overall they are morally similar. People rationalize and makes excuses about endless things, but of course they're not all the same.

Faust said...

Yeah that "not letting the deer down" definitely smacks of of what you're talking about. I think the "somehow we are all in it together" immediately after is her acknowledgment that she can't really make sense of her own pervious "even the deer" comment.

But then she revs back up again:

"When I lift the gun and look through the scope, by chance she’s right there presenting herself broadside. Weirdly the crosshairs are exactly on the target point, just behind and above her right shoulder."

So here "by chance" the deer is "right there" with the crosshairs "weirdly" already on the desired target point, the deer having "presented herself" to the gun.

This isn't bonding, it is ascription of "fate" or "divine providence" to the event. She references a "Calvanist God." Well no suprise there. The Calvanists were big on predestination, and I think her poetization is centered on a metaphysics of fate.

So her "not letting the deer down," is her "steeling herself" to deliver the deer its fate in God's plan. I think there is good support for this subtext.

Amos: don't mistake mistake my devil's advocacy for acceptance of the logic. While there are elements of the argument I find compelling (in the general sense that I think evolving out of predation isn't the simple matter some seem to think it is) I definitely don't buy is/ought justifications, nor the notion that there is such a thing as natural moral law. But even if I don't agree with it, I feel I have a good sense of how alternative ideologies run their programming.

Jean Kazez said...

"evolving out of predation isn't the simple matter some seem to think it is"

I have that sense too...so I suffer greatly from the ambivalence Goldstein talks about!

amos said...

I guess that I could say that evolving out of a species of males who raped at will except when the woman belonged to a member of your tribe isn't a simple matter either.
And the persistence of violence against women shows that it isn't easy for many males to treat women as ends. Still, it is good to treat women as ends, not as means. We agree about that, and I suspect that in 50 years most cultured people (those who write in the New York Times: the New York Times was ambivalent about second wave feminism when it first appeared in the 60's too) will agree that it is not good to hunt animals.

Taylor said...

Ty Raterman has an interesting article, "An Environmentalist's Lament on Predation".

Here's part of the comment I wrote to the Times:
"Most people don't want to be confronted with the hard truth about the meat they eat, and buying some small wrapped object called 'pork' or 'beef' or whatever in a supermarket helps them shove the whole business out of mind. Hunters, on the other hand, revel in being bringers of death to wild creatures. They try to justify their actions with talk of 'earning their food', 'gratitude', and feeling a spiritual connection with nature. ... At least those supermarket shoppers who shy away from confronting the reality of unnecessary slaughter still understand at some level that such slaughter is nothing to be proud of."

It is surely true that hunting for one's food results in less suffering than factory farming. But who would you rather have as your next-door neighbour -- the soft-hearted moral coward who doesn't want to know what's going on in that complex of buildings in the next town, or the person who understands that nature is red in tooth and claw and says, "As long as I can pull the trigger, bring it on!"? Which one is less virtuous?

Jean Kazez said...

Taylor, Glad you commented at the NYT. Her column deserves a response, and honestly, why did the they publish it? It's full of transparent nonsense.

But as to hunters vs. meat-eaters: I've had a lot of hunters in my animal rights class over the years and they vary a lot. Some have an environmentalist sensibility (will look at your link)--they like nature, want to conserve it, want to be part of it. I've had others who described pranks Texas good ol' boys get up to at hunting ranches while drunk. They kill just for fun, and while laughing their heads off. Actually, one time a student showed a hunting video to my class and we actually watched the laughter. I agree--there is something especially troubling about hunters, if you're talking about the second group. The first are different in a lot of ways.

Jean Kazez said...

I should add--the first group troubles me too, but I think it's important to grasp how they think, what motivates them, etc.