I WANTED to start by saying that I love animals, which is mostly true, but then I remembered that there are also many animals that I simply don't like, let alone love.
The thing is — and I say this with my shield raised and my helmet securely fastened — I also love eating certain animals.
Can you do both? Can you love that cute little hand-reared lamb one day, and the next day still enjoy a slice of his cousin's buttock with red wine and fried potatoes?
Many people will say the issue is not the love of animals, but rather a revulsion at cruelty towards them.
So, it's fine to eat lamb as long as the sheep was slaughtered and butchered without cruelty or suffering?
By this logic, you shouldn't eat any meat unless you are certain the animal was brought to the end of its life and transported to your dining room in a “humane" manner. I know quite a few farmers who do exactly that: they only eat from an animal they have hunted or slaughtered themselves because that's how they know it was done properly.
But most of us who grew up in a protected urban environment never see that moment when the bullet strikes the springbok's neck or watch an unconscious pig's throat being slit in a slaughterhouse or witness live baby chicks being dropped into a mechanical grinder. We simply buy the bloodless packet of meat at the supermarket, with a picture of a piece of parsley on it, without any thought that this was once part of a living animal.
Regulations about food are the foundation of many of humanity's oldest moral codes. Leviticus, where all those complex rules about what Old Testament Christians may and may not eat are recorded, is no less than the third book in the Bible. Similarly, dietary prescriptions are an important cornerstone of Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. They usually cover everything from what is permissible to how animals may be slaughtered.
Rules about meat, and more specifically pork, are often a key part of these codes. Leviticus 11 contains an extensive set of regulations regarding which animals' meat is permissible or forbidden. In the case of four-legged animals, for instance, a distinction is made between ruminants and other animals, or those that have split hooves or not.
Therefore, you may not eat camel meat, because although they are ruminants they do not have split hooves. Also, no pork, because even though pigs have split hooves, they are not ruminants.
Things are just as complicated when it comes to aquatic creatures: basically, they must have fins and scales to be considered edible.
According to the list sent down to Moses, chickens and turkeys are about the only feathered animals that may be eaten. The verboten birds also include bats, which are of course mammals and not birds, as well as eagles, vultures, hawks, crows, ostriches, seagulls, owls, pelicans, storks and the woop-woop. (I can't find anything there about pigeons, doves, hadedas and swans.)
Insects? Yes, go ahead and eat them, provided they have wings and jump with their hind legs, like grasshoppers and crickets. Nothing that crawls on the ground should end up on the menu.
One of the best examples of what this kind of absurdity can lead to was when the bishop of Quebec asked the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century for permission for his congregation to continue eating beaver meat, as was their custom. Beavers are rodents as well as carnivores and therefore forbidden, but unfortunately for these animals they are also good swimmers, which made the church decide they are actually fish, and therefore may be eaten. The absence of fins and scales in beavers was supposedly less of a theological consideration than the scarcity of alternative food sources for the faithful.
Regardless of which instructions from Above you may choose to obey, it seems there have always been certain animals that are more acceptable to eat than others. It might have something to do with how they look, or their habits, as is evident from this conversation in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction:
Vincent: Want some bacon?
Jules: No man, I don't eat pork.
Vincent: Are you Jewish?
Jules: Nah, I ain't Jewish, I just don't dig on swine, that's all.
Vincent: Why not?
Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don't eat filthy animals.
Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.
Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got enough sense enough to disregard its own faeces.
Vincent: How about a dog? Dogs eat its own faeces.
Jules: I don't eat dog either.
Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
Jules: I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they're definitely dirty. But a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way.
Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?
Jules: Well we'd have to be talkin' about one charmin' motherfuckin' pig. I mean he'd have to be ten times more charmin' than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I'm sayin'?
The point being: it's inevitable that such rules contain contradictions and inconsistencies. In some communities in the Far East, it is perfectly acceptable to eat dog meat, and until recently horse butcheries were a common sight in Western European countries such as Italy. And anyway, we don't even know how much donkey meat finds its way onto our plates.
Some animals are simply impractical to eat, such as tardigrades. Even an adult tardigrade is lucky if it reaches half a millimetre in length, which means even their wholesale slaughter isn't exactly going to make them a food source for the earth's eight billion people. A complicating factor is that some tardigrades are carnivores, even low-level cannibals, because they eat smaller kinds of tardigrades. And are those cloven hooves and maybe even scales and fins I see on pictures of tardigrades? I'm too afraid to ask if they might also be ruminants or use their hind legs to jump. Sadly, Moses left us with no guidance on these fellows.
At the other end of the scale are whales, which are so large that even a single one could have supplied a small town with enough food, medicine and oil for months, back in the days before whaling was considered evil. Is the life of one whale more precious than the approximately 25,000 tardigrades that can live in a single litre of water? Would we feel differently about it if tardigrades were big enough to make shoes or car upholstery or fur coats from? Or big enough that we could see them suffer or die?
Other things that Moses and those guys probably didn't think about much include the possibility that we are all living in a simulation that only exists so we don't notice that visitors from elsewhere in the universe are using the earth as a feedlot to grow people as food for themselves. If humans were to the ETs what tardigrades are to humans, would there be some sort of ethical debate in extraterrestrial ranks about the moral implications of chucking a piece of human flesh on the proverbial braai? (Or maybe, somewhere on a patch of moss down in a mud puddle, there's a bunch of little tardigrade activists who regularly get together in secret to watch The Tardigrade Matrix and whip each other up into a microscopic rebellion against humanity.)
But okay, for now we might have to accept that we humans are at the very top of the food chain on this planet, and that only we can play a meaningful role in keeping it going as a habitable ecosystem. Once we do that, considerations like our relative cruelty towards this or that animal become less important than issues such as biodiversity, the interdependence between species, and the stability and sustainability of the complex and often unpredictable whole.
Then the questions we should ask ourselves are not only whether we are going to eat meat or from which animal, but also how much of it and where that meat comes from. The answers to such questions are not going to be the same for someone who eats a kudu that has freely roamed the veld all its life, as they would be for someone who eats beef from one of the more than 17,000 head of cattle that find themselves at any given moment on Anna Creek in southern Australia, the world's largest beef producer. It occupies a piece of land bigger than Israel.
Should we then also ask which animal is most likely to be extinct a decade or so from now, the elephant or the Aberdeen Angus? Maybe humans even have a responsibility to eat as many kinds of animal as possible, thereby increasing their utility and ensuring the survival of more species.
And regardless of what we end up doing, perhaps every now and then we will have to ask ourselves, as the cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter does while speaking to Agent Starling in the movie:
“Well, Clarice. Have the lambs stopped screaming?"
♦ VWB ♦
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