Natural Life Magazine

Contradictions in how we treat pets versus meat animals

Captive Royals & Meat Machines
The Contradictions in How We Treat Animals
By Gene Sager

I marvel at the mobile pet grooming salon that pulls into my neighbor’s driveway. The sides of the oversized van include ads for the usual haircut, shampoo, and combing. But today’s grooming salon services include fluff drying, dry skin therapy, ear cleaning, and “laser teeth cleaning.” My neighbor’s dogs are treated to a “makeover” every two weeks. We pay these salons and other pet care businesses 36 billion dollars annually and the amount goes up every year. You can now purchase shoes for your dog: “Fetchers – handcrafted with high quality leather, rubber sole, rear zipper and velcro strap for the best fit and most comfort. Protect your loved ones with their very own set of four Fetchers!”

Such care, such royal treatment, verges on extravagance. Is it just a frivolous waste? Or perhaps we are trying to express our compassion for animals? Clearly, our “compassion” does not extend to the millions of animals on factory farms, however. While our pets are pampered, the treatment of factory farm animals is grossly inhumane. Factory farm animals are trapped in confinement facilities, cages or feedlots, drugged with antibiotics and hormones, and slaughtered for food.

Pets vs. livestock – the contrast in treatment reveals a double standard. It seems we are schizoid when it comes to our relation to animals. Here I will analyze the schizophrenia and suggest some cures.

“Most of us shrink in horror at the thought of our pet suffering or being eaten. We identify with the animal as a sentient being, as a feeling, desiring animal with caring relationships.”
Today most of us are urbanized to such an extent that exposure to pets (ours or our neighbors’, friends’, or relatives’) is our only direct experience of animals. Modern life deprives us of the experience of wild animals and farm animals, but ownership of pets is so pervasive that virtually everyone is directly exposed to pet animals. The pet-less household is considered odd, and the child who grows up without a pet is missing something valuable. Many pets do give protection and affection and can, according to psychological research, produce a calming atmosphere. For single or solitary people, especially seniors, a pet can provide much needed companionship.

The term “companion animals” is sometimes suggested as preferable to “pets,” but there is a subtle deception in the term “companion.” Companions have an integrity and independence not enjoyed by pets. Pets are captive and controlled. They are fenced or roped or leashed or caged. Their instincts to roam, hunt, and breed are severely suppressed. If they become strays they are “impounded” by the county animal shelter.

The curious and ambiguous plight of our pets is symbolized by the dog sticking his head out of the half open window of a moving SUV, apparently enjoying the breeze with all the strange scents in rapid succession. But is the dog really enjoying this? The dog is a captive, not able to follow the scents, not able to escape from this flying metal box.

Pets are in many ways given the royal treatment, yet they are owned and controlled, hence my use of the term “captive royals.” The case of my wife’s pet lamb exemplifies the situation of captive royals, but with a special twist. As a child, my wife showered affection on her lamb Tumbaga, who was sometimes tied to a tree or housed in a barn. Tumbaga was partial to my wife, even showing signs of jealousy and acting protective if other people appeared to threaten her. The lamb was my wife’s pet in an exclusive way; it was not her parents’ pet. When the family moved, Tumbaga disappeared amid vague explanations. My wife continued to question her parents until the truth came out: The family had eaten Tumbaga. To the parents, the lamb was livestock, so it became mutton at a family meal. My wife had lost her pet. She still lives with this loss and the realization that Tumbaga had been killed and she had eaten him. Most of us shrink in horror at the thought of our pet suffering or being eaten. We identify with the animal as a sentient being; that is, we identify with it as a feeling, desiring animal with caring relationships. We know, and it is obviously a fact, that these animals have natural desires and they experience pleasure and pain. We empathize with them. Our compassion makes sense.

What does not make sense, and what seems very odd, is our lack of compassion for factory farm animals in stalls or feed lots. They are treated only as a source of food. Veal calves are taken from their mother and from the other animals and cramped in 22-inch wide stalls, denied solid food and made anemic. The result is flesh that is, as one cookbook describes it, “delicate whitish-pink” and so “deliciously tender.” These calves are sentient beings too, just like Tumbaga or our pet dog or cat. Do they not deserve compassion as well? It seems we have two separate compartments in our minds and in our hearts: one for animals as our pets and another for animals as meat machines.

Sometimes, the realization that an animal is someone’s pet – anyone’s – can ignite warm feelings of compassion and even furious action. Recently, authorities broke into a vehicle parked in a shopping mall to help a panting golden retriever named Goldie because the owner had left him in the car on a hot day. Shoppers were roused into action when they saw the animal in distress. They attempted to open the car and hastened to call the authorities to bring relief. But we are not so compassionate when, on rare occasions, we are exposed to the distress of factory farm animals.

“Livestock dwell in the compartment of our minds called 'commodities,' and as such do not deserve compassion. We have one standard for pets and another standard for livestock.”

In contrast to the case of Goldie, consider what I observed at a large truck stop and restaurant complex in the Midwest. I could barely believe what I saw and heard. A cattle truck was parked near the busy restaurant while the driver talked about rock music on the pay phone outside. Several cows were obviously in distress, bleating loudly and thrashing about. One cow had a bloody shoulder and was no longer able to stand. The animals were suffering from heat exhaustion. Neither the driver nor those who walked by the suffering animals took action. It seems people are numbed by the designation “livestock.”

So strong is the mindset that direct exposure to, or information about, factory farm animals may not unsettle our mental categories. Livestock dwell in the compartment of our minds called “commodities,” and as such do not deserve compassion. We have one standard for pets and another standard for livestock.

The result of this double standard is a kind of caste system, and our laws reflect this system. Standard procedures on factory farms are exempted from humane legislation. It is as though we ignore or deny the sentience of livestock animals; they are mere meat machines. In an article in The New York Times, one California factory farmer talked about his animals in this way: “A cow’s a piece of machinery,” he said.

How can such a highly questionable double standard continue to exist? First of all, some people are still unaware of factory farming. They assume that most farm animals are open range – that is, allowed to graze in a pasture or forage in the traditional barnyard. Because of urbanization, most of us have not seen facilities like the pig confinement barracks I recently saw in Iowa. These sunless mass-confinement structures house 1,000 pigs crammed for their whole lifetime into concrete, plastic, and metal units. No hay, no dirt, no mud. The sterile environment prohibits the essential behaviors of nesting, foraging, rooting, wallowing, etc. Pigs catch their feet in the floors which are slatted to allow excrement and urine to fall into waste pits below. In these concentration camps, the frustrated animals experience PSS (porcine stress syndrome) and gnaw on metal posts or even bite each other’s tails.

Economic factors also play a part in perpetuating the double standard. Factory farming is far and away the most common method used in the meat industry today because it is the most profitable way to control the meat machines. The industry and its public relations agents like the American Cattlemen’s Association defend the idea that the methods of the meat industry are entirely necessary and appropriate. They have many big bucks to lose if Americans became outraged about factory farming.

The other side of the double standard is the pet industry. Big corporations are now profiting from the business of helping us pamper our pets, so they bombard us with all sorts of information about how to give our pets the royal treatment. Thus, the meat industry tells us there are no important issues about the treatment of livestock, and the pet industry tells us there are many important issues about how to improve treatment of pets.

As an ethics professor at a college in California, I am often surprised by the comments of students whose attitudes reflect the cultural schizophrenia in regard to the treatment of animals. Some students try to defend the double standard by saying that, in any case, we have to use some animals for food. In response I point out that slaughter for food, even if assumed to be necessary, is not the only issue. What about cruel treatment for the duration of the animal’s life before it is slaughtered and becomes food? This question does give the students pause to think. And well it should – especially when they realize how sensitive we are when our pet suffers or is killed. At this juncture, some students open their minds to a different perspective. They can see that we need to rethink our relationship with animals.

We can treat the schizophrenia with several curative measures. First and foremost, we need to be more consistent and use a single standard of compassion for all animals. Second, we need to liberate ourselves from the pet pampering craze; extravagant spending for pet makeovers and paraphernalia is wasteful. Third, we need to be clear about factory farming: it is based on the suspect premise that profit is more important than compassion. Finally, my students face up to these questions: Is meat really a necessary part of a nutritious diet? Would a vegetarian diet terminate our allegiance to processes that torture and kill innocent creatures?

These are not just academic questions. We all owe it to ourselves to ponder them carefully.

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, and a frequent contributor to Natural Life Magazine.


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