Monday, March 23, 2015

Mammal Meat and Octopus (12 Jan. 2014)

            As I will make clear to anyone who will give me a chance, I strongly reject the idea that "All life is sacred" in large part because if that is the case, I'm a mostly unrepentant serial mass murderer: When I was in college, I worked summer lab jobs that included sterilizations of surfaces, instruments, used sputum bottles (testing for tuberculosis), and, most relevantly, of petri dishes loaded up with whole colonies of bacteria.  Billions and billions of living organisms — and I killed them routinely, five days a week. What I mention less frequently is that in the course of my studies and work I also killed a frog or two, two rabbits, one cat, a number of dogs, and a significant number of lab rats. I also used to fish with my father.

            I make no apologies for the bacteria nor for the fish (which my family ate) but rather regret the frog or frogs, and feel guilty about the mammals, especially one dog I failed to kill humanely — but that's a story in itself and for elsewhere. In any event, I've had to think about where to draw ethical lines about killing, possibly more than people who haven't "whacked" rats very literally: for some experiments we couldn't overdose the rats on Nembutal or whatever but had to use what we came to call "shock sacrifice," which translates smashing them across the back of the head with an iron bar or pipe wrench.

            I finally decided that I'd draw the line with the routine killing of mammals and would neither do it myself nor have the killing done in my name except in extraordinary circumstances. So I captured, took back outside, and released a field mouse who'd come into my apartment and danced a little number on my chest while I slept; but I had killed — the euphemism is "euthanized" — two cats who would have otherwise died in pain, and I will use traps, poison, or an exterminator to kill non-lab rats if they infest my home.

            I will not, however, eat mammal meat. Fish yes, chicken oh yes, and definitely nonkosher invertebrates with the exception of octopuses. My sister and I got invited "back stage," so to speak, at a major aquarium (Monterey, CA, probably) and got to see an ill but recovering octopus that kept picking the locks on its containment vessels. As far as the staff could figure out, the octopus was getting bored in its aquatic isolation cage and entertained itself with the locks and moving next door and, it sometimes seemed to the staff, watching their reactions.

            Mammals are cousins of us humans, and any animal — whether with or without a backbone — that gets bored, picks locks, and just possibly gets a kick out of pissing off its jailers is too smart to (casually) eat.

            Two things here for readers who don't routinely kill their fellow critters above the size and complexity of, say, cockroaches.

            First, think carefully when you hear bullshit about academics always and necessarily "living in ivory towers." Indeed, academics usually have clean fingernails in our work — that was one of my career goals given other jobs I had before teaching — but in some fields there may be blood under those nails: less nowadays with computer modeling, which is a good thing, but maybe more than, say, with accountants or advertisers or construction workers (though far less blood than people serving you by working in slaughterhouses).

            Second, there are reasons one might avoid mammal meat, or even go vegetarian, that apply to people with no dead dogs or rats upon your consciences.

            Contemporary raising of mammals for slaughter and consumption is frequently cruel, and irresponsible in terms of worldwide nutrition and public health, and in terms of the environment. (Raising poultry and farming fish are also problematic, but I'm talking here of drawing lines, and I respect the decisions of vegetarians and vegans, but drew mine more selfishly.)

            It takes a lot of resources to raise a steer or pig or lamb for food, starting with land to raise them on humanely. Raising them industrially takes less land, but it may require grain — "corn-fed beef" is from cattle fed corn that might've fed people — and definitely requires water and crowding, and crowding itself is an issue.

            Even herd animals need a bit of space between bodies — although humans have selectively bred sheep and reindeer to be neurotically into bunching up — and, more important for humans, if you put a lot of mammals in a small space you risk epidemics among them. And how to prevent such epidemics, and get the animals to put on weight faster and so move them more profitably to market? Antibiotic prophylaxis. I.e., you fill 'em up and/or shoot 'em up with antibiotics, with the inevitable result of breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

            Evolution in action, gang: you put antibiotics into the environment, and they kill off all the susceptible bacteria. The ones who remain can (figuratively) look around and see ecological niches with lots of room for expansion. So they expand, the resistant ones: healthier cattle and pigs, at least for a while, but way more robust bacteria. And those bacteria will not necessarily stay down on the farm.

            Can you say "zoonose"? I can. I lived for close to a decade in the neighborhood of one of the main Illinois zoonose research center: that's the word for diseases that move from other animals into human beings, and you don't want production of new and more potent strains of zoonoses. You don't want antibiotics unnecessarily in the environment anywhere — especially not in a bacterial megaparadise like reservoirs of fermenting pig shit — not even if those antibiotics only help produce resistance in bacteria that attack only humans.

            You also don't want too many cattle standing around burping and farting —although burping, counterintuitively, is the bigger problem — and, additionally, producing manure. The contribution isn't major, and can be offset by using cow and pig … effluents (?) for biofuel and fertilizer, but our bovine and porcine meat-providers also add to greenhouse gasses.

            I miss meat, especially when watching the "food porn" commercials on TV featuring impossibly perfect double cheese burgers with bacon and a side order of spareribs. Still, I will continue to decline to eat anything with a backbone, face, and the potential to produce young that suckle — or eat anything that just may have a brain complex enough to get bored when trapped in a tank.

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