Review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer Chapter Four: “Hiding/Seeking”

This is the fourth in a series of weekly posts dedicated to our book club selections. Whether you have the time to read along with me or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Pick up your copy of "Eating Animals" here, or catch up with the third chapter.

My grandpa told a story (in the comments section of this blog, no less) about a young girl who was introduced to a lamb one morning on a friend’s farm. When she was later re-introduced to that lamb on her dinner plate, she coolly replied, “I don’t eat what I meet.”

Since the decline of the family farm and the rise of corporate agribusiness, most people never meet a farm animal, never mind watch or participate in the slaughter of one. Meat has become an abstraction. (Jonathan Safran Foer remembers being shocked as a young boy when his babysitter asked, “you know chicken is chicken, right?”) I’ve heard numerous stories of young children who refused to eat meat once they realized that it came from animals (often, the turning point comes when they realize the meat comes from a particular and beloved animal).

This reaction makes implicit sense to most people, even if they’re not prepared to follow through in the same way. They understand why, barring extreme necessity, one would prefer to avoid eating a friend or recent acquaintance. It is the force of habit, and fear of “missing out” on a taste they’ve become accustomed to, that keeps them from following this innate compassion to its logical conclusion: to stop eating animals entirely.

Some people will swear to their death (probably caused by a heart attack) that they feel no remorse when they eat animals. I find this unlikely. The fact is, sane people recognize sentient life. A rock displays no desire, preference or aversion. Living creatures, however, from insects to mammals, display all of these. It is impossible for me to chase a mosquito around the room, fruitlessly swatting at her tiny body, and conclude that she has no desire to live. Even if I have little sympathy for her, I feel conflicted about ending her life in a way that I don’t feel about smashing a rock. Because I value my sanity more than her life, the conflict is easily resolved for me, as it is for most. Still, I admit to being one of quite a few people I know who routinely and reflexively apologize after killing a fly or mosquito on purpose.

When the necessity is great enough, it is easy to justify killing an animal. Self- defense is the most extreme example. The threat of starvation is another. But neither of these apply to most people likely to be reading this post. (Although, who knows, in the near future we may be forced to defend ourselves against hordes of mad cannibal cows riddled with zombie prions.)

Even when food is scarce however, people feel a need to do something to resolve their ambivalence about killing an animal. As Foer chronicles, they may ritualize the killing, imagine the animal is giving its consent, pray to the spirit of the animal or thank him for giving up his life. Some people justify eating animals by taking the example of indigenous cultures. But, as I’ve argued here before, this is merely imitation. If one were to actually follow in the footsteps of native American or aboriginal culture, one would take the life of an animal only when absolutely necessary (in this day and age, rarely, or not at all).

Whether vegetarian or not, most people would recoil to see what goes on in factory farms. The reason for this is that factory farms treat animals like things, and we know they’re not. Time and again, I’ve heard people refer to working in a slaughterhouse or factory farm as “dehumanizing.” Why? Because treating a living being like a thing denies the basic empathic ability that makes us human. But what about farmers outside the factory system who raise animals for food? Many of them are attached to their animals, relate to them as individuals and see themselves as caretakers (up until the point of slaughter). How do they feel about their livelihood? Foer lets them speak for themselves. Frank Reese is a "heritage farmer," one of the last to raise non-genetically modified turkeys. He is proud of his work and the tradition he upholds. Still, he admits:

“My mother was part Indian. I still have that thing where the Indians apologize. In the fall, while other people are giving thanks, I find myself apologizing. I hate seeing them on the truck, waiting to be taken to slaughter. They’re looking back at me, saying, ‘Get me off of here.’ Killing is…it’s very…Sometimes I justify it in my mind that I can at least make it as good as possible for the animals in my custody. It’s like…they look at me and I tell them, “Please forgive me.’”