Are We All Michael Vick? Our Addiction to Animal Cruelty
Update June 2013: For a longer and revised version of this post, go to:
We are all opposed to mindless, almost mind-numbing animal cruelty. No one was defending Michael Vick and his cohorts in their cruel, torturous treatment of some dogs. If Michael Vick had been selling a product – say dog-skin handbags from the “losing” dogs – that financially supported and enabled the continued torture of more and more dogs, we would not only NOT buy them, we would boycott the handbags and urge other not to buy them.
And yet, we financially support and enable exactly this kind of stomach-churning, nauseating cruelty that we’d like to pretend does not exist. But it does, and it is not a few nasty guys having “fun.” It is torture and cruelty as a way of making money. Lots and lots of money for those who mastermind the factory slaughterhouses. For the unfortunate who have to work in these “farms” and in the slaughterhouses – and who make very little money – it is cruelty as a way of life. The business of torture.
Lots of serious and scholarly authors have been telling us this for a generation. In the last fifteen years Gail Eisnitz, Jonathon Safran Foer, Erik Marcus, and Matthew Scully, just to name a few, have revealed this institutionalized cruelty in abundantly clear ways. And we can see it for ourselves at any time on youtube. It’s perverse and disgusting. But we avoid the books, and avert our eyes from the videos. It is just too awful to contemplate for more than a few fleeting moments.
I want to be clear about my argument. The point is not to oppose meat-eating. My beef is not with Inuit eating seals. Nor with aboriginals hunting wild boars. Nor with those seriously engaged in what was once known as “animal husbandry.”
My objection IS to the factory farming in America that institutionalizes cruelty at an almost incomprehensible level. Factory farmed meat is, if we are honest, ‘cruelty meat.’
Let me be concrete and keep my argument narrow. If we object to cruelty to dogs, we should certainly object to it to pigs, who are friendly, loyal, and more intelligent than dogs. Yet, 95% of pigs are factory-farmed in America. Thus, unless you have very good reason to believe otherwise, it is almost certain that when you buy pork, bacon, or ham, you are supporting an industry that institutionalizes cruelty.
How should Catholics think about this? Well, we might begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church
2416 Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.197 Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals. …
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.
However, God have mercy on us if we only know that cruelty to animals is wrong after consulting the Catechism.
How does the Catholic tradition speak about the wrongness of eating animals that have been factory farmed? One way it thinks about it is to name it as a form of cooperation with wrongdoing. More specifically, it is what the tradition calls formal cooperation with wrongdoing, which is always considered wrong. Some may argue that eating factory-farmed or cruelty meat is a form of material cooperation with wrongdoing, which, if one does not condone the cruelty in eating the cruelty meat, and does it for other reasons e.g. part of one’s typical breakfast or part of a convivial barbeque, then it could be morally acceptable. But it is not.
In American factory-farming, cruelty is not a mere evil side-effect or by-product. Cruelty is an essential and necessary part of the logic of factory farming. For in factory farming, the welfare of the animals is of NO accord. It is entirely a matter of raising the animals in a way that maximizes profits. Any care or consideration given to the animals in the logic of factory farming is ordered to future maximization of profit. That is why we should call it not merely meat, but ‘cruelty meat.’
Thus, when I choose to eat my American factory-farmed bacon or ribs, I consent to the cruelty that is inherent in the production of that bacon and ribs. It is analogous to buying stolen property. Even if you intend only good and upright uses of that bicycle or flat-screen television, if you know (or have very good reason to believe) it is stolen property, then it is formal cooperation with wrongdoing. You consent or even contribute to the wrong, both the wrong done to the victim of the theft, and the wrong of supporting and sustaining the thief in their business. So it is with eating factory-farmed bacon and ribs. You consent and perhaps contribute to the wrong done to the victims of the cruelty, and you support and sustain the wrong done by the factory farm industry. Hence I formally co-operate in the cruelty to pigs when I buy and/or eat the bacon and ribs.
This is especially true since there is no need to eat cruelty pig meat. Millions of Americans don’t eat pigs. And if you want to, you can search for (it’s not easy to find) and pay the premium for pigs raised largely free of cruelty. There’s simply no moral justification (or “duress” in the moral theology terminology) for continuing to buy and consume cruelty pig meat. It’s ignorance, laziness, or gluttony (i.e. inordinate attachment to some kinds of food), or perhaps all three.
Another way the Catholic tradition thinks about this is by speaking of the wrong of scandal. By ‘scandal,’ the tradition means that when we, particularly as leaders of a sort among Catholics, do things that are wrong, we lead others to also think that these things that are wrong are morally acceptable. This is the point of Matthew 18:6 – “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Once we understand the evil of cruelty meat, we have a particular obligation to witness that to those who do not understand that.
Of course, there is a lot more wrong with factory-farming than that which I am focusing on. Factory farming contributes more to global warming than all our motor vehicles combined. In a world with so much starvation, the diversion of huge amounts of crops to factory-farmed animals is extremely wasteful. Eating hormone and antibiotic stuffed pigs messes with our endocrine system and makes us far more susceptible to drug-resistent ‘superbugs,’ which kill many more Americans than we’d like to acknowledge. Our meat-heavy diets – diets only made possible all because of cheap industrial meat – are generally bad for human health. While all significant evils, they are not the point here.
I have chosen so far not to describe the various kinds of cruelties inflicted on pigs in typical factory farming. But for those unaware, the following is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the kinds of things done to the intelligent and sensitive creatures we call pigs. Here’s how PETA describes some of the typical treatment of factory-farmed pigs, but you can read the same basic points in Jonathon Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and all over the web.
Transport Terror: When allowed to live out their natural lives, pigs live for an average of 10-15 years, but factory farmed pigs are sent to slaughter after just six months of life. In order to get the terrified pigs onto the trucks bound for the slaughterhouse, workers may beat them on their sensitive noses and backs or stick electric prods into their rectums.
Crammed into 18-wheelers, pigs struggle to get air and are usually given no food or water for the entire journey (often hundreds of miles). They suffer from temperature extremes and are forced to inhale ammonia fumes and diesel exhaust. A former pig transporter told PETA that pigs are “packed in so tight, their guts actually pop out their butts—a little softball of guts actually comes out.”
According to a 2006 industry report, more than 1 million pigs die each year from the horrors of transport alone. Another industry report notes that, in some transport loads, as many as 10 percent of pigs are “downers,” animals who are so ill or injured that they are unable to stand and walk on their own. These sick and injured pigs will be kicked, struck with electric prods, and finally dragged off the trucks to their deaths.
In winter, some pigs die frozen to the sides of the trucks. In summer, some die from heat exhaustion. Some fall and suffocate when additional animals are forced to pile in on top of them. All are in a panic—screaming and desperately trying to get away—and some die of heart attacks.
One worker reports, “In the wintertime there are always hogs stuck to the sides and floors of the trucks. [Slaughterhouse workers] go in there with wires or knives and just cut or pry the hogs loose. The skin pulls right off. These hogs were alive when we did this.”
In 2004, a transport truck owned by Smithfield Foods and loaded with 180 pigs flipped over in Virginia. Many pigs died in the accident, while others lay along the roadside, injured and dying. PETA officials arrived on the scene and offered to humanely euthanize the injured animals, but Smithfield refused to allow the suffering animals a humane death because the company could not legally sell the flesh of animals who had been euthanized. After an accident in April 2005, Smithfield spokesperson Jerry Hostetter told one reporter, “I hate to admit it, but it happens all the time.”
Slaughter: The unloading at the slaughterhouses is as ugly as the loading. After being kept in an immobile state all their lives, their legs and lungs are so weak that the pigs can barely walk. But when they see space ahead of them, some of them begin running for the first time in their lives.
Like fillies, they jump and buck, overjoyed with their first feel of freedom. Then, suddenly, they collapse and cannot get up. They can only lie there, trying to breathe, their bodies racked with pain from abuse and neglect on the factory farms. Then drivers hook their legs up to winches to pull them, often pulling their legs right off.
A typical slaughterhouse kills up to 1,100 pigs every hour. The sheer number of animals killed makes it impossible for them to be given humane, painless deaths. Because of improper stunning, many pigs are alive when they reach the scalding tank, which is intended to soften their skin and remove their hair.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) documented 14 humane-slaughter violations at one processing plant, where inspectors found hogs who “were walking and squealing after being stunned [with a stun gun] as many as four times.”
According to one slaughterhouse worker, “There’s no way these animals can bleed out in the few minutes it takes to get up the ramp. By the time they hit the scalding tank, they’re still fully conscious and squealing. Happens all the time.”
(See http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/pig-transport-slaughter.aspx )
There has not been enough leadership on this issue by Catholic theologians. One, however, has spoken out on the issue and his words are worth quoting:
“Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 78-79.
A little understated, but a step in the right direction.