[American Chronicle - opinion]
As I watch the news coverage of the Michael Vick story I am
continuously horrified by the ever-increasing level of cruelty. With
each new development we learn how primitive and unaffected by
suffering humans can be. The debate over Vick's and his accomplices'
actions is understandably one-sided with only the dumbest professional
athletes willing to provide a defense that is quickly recanted after
an agent or publicist advises otherwise. But, for all the highlighting
of cruelty to animals there is much missing from the discussion.
After fifteen years of being a vegetarian I've learned to keep my
mouth shut. I will usually try to quietly order the non-meat option at
a restaurant or find the vegetable dishes at a pot-luck. But,
inevitably someone notices what I've chosen and figures out I'm a
vegetarian and then the task of keeping my mouth shut becomes even
harder because the usual questions follow.
At first it's, "Why are you a vegetarian?" What seems like a polite
curiosity is anything but. People usually have no interest in knowing
why I am a vegetarian. They only want to allow me five words so they
can immediately launch into a treatise on why they are not a
vegetarian. This is when keeping one's mouth shut becomes even more
difficult. People say the most inane things.
I often hear that someone is not a vegetarian because they don't see
anything wrong with an animal being killed and eaten. (They assume,
incorrectly, that I have some intrinsic moral quandary with this.)
They also usually say something about meeting a cow or pig once on a
farm and how happy the thing seemed and that somehow justifies - to
them - the burger they are eating.
I once had a good friend tell me that since he grew up with cows
grazing on farms and pigs rolling around in the mud he could never be
a vegetarian because it just didn't bother him. I resisted the
temptation to tell them that if that were the typical conditions of
cows and pigs I would have no need to be a vegetarian either.
Fortunately for anyone willing to do even the most superficial
research there is well documented information about how the usual
cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys really live. And sadder still, how
My criticism of PETA is not from the viewpoint of a detached observer.
I have some personal experience with the group. Their headquarters
lives not far from where I went to college and as an undergraduate I
interned with them briefly. I say "briefly" because in spite of my
best animal rights intentions and vegetarianism I was unable to
achieve the level of purity PETA requires. For one thing I wore socks
that were part cotton, part wool. For another, I ate honey.
Although I couldn't complete my internship at PETA I remained friends
with Bruce Friedrich, then the head of the organization. We kept in
touch and I worked with the student activities office to bring him on
campus for a couple talks my sophomore year. He gave me a rather
enlightening book titled Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, which
still lives on my bookshelves today. Reading this book and interacting
with Bruce gave me the impression that PETA people don't realize
Animal Farm is an allegory. They argue against speciesism; the idea
that one species is of more value than another. From this they have
the idea that an animal life is worth every bit as a human life and
any use of an animal by a human is discriminatory and exploitative.
Bees should not be "enslaved" to make honey for us. Oxen should not
pull plow. Pigs should pilot aircraft. I made the last one up.
The recent rise and popularity of organic foods - such as eggs from
cage-free hens and pork from pigs that aren't fed hormones -
demonstrates that raising and killing animals can be profitable
without cruelty. Although the organic practices are not perfect or
even well regulated for truth in labeling it's a move in the right
direction. We don't have to equate humans with animals in order to
treat human workers fairly and edible animals humanely. And we don't
need to wag a disapproving finger at Michael Vick with one hand while
we chow down on a turkey sandwich with the other.
The Michael Vick story has already turned a harsh spotlight on the
brutish world of urban dog fighting. It is my hope that the light can
also reveal a little cruelty toward other creatures. With the right
information campaign people can begin consuming meat more responsibly
the way people have backed away from SUVs in favor of more fuel
efficient cars. But, the approach needs to be practical as well as
ethical and pragmatic rather than philosophical. People for the
Responsible Use of Animals? While PFRUA doesn't make a very good
acronym, the approach could do wonders to improve the discussion.
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