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
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.