Dead Cow Walking: The Case Against Born-Again Carnivorism

Pigs, chickens, and other animals raised for food are sentient beings with rich emotional lives. They feel everything from joy to grief.


"Eating Animals," by Nicolette Hahn Niman, a livestock rancher, with help from deer hunter Tovar Cerulli and butcher Joshua Applestone, caught my eye because, at first, I thought this essay was authored by Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote a best-selling book with the same title. While Niman and her friends do rightly argue against consuming factory-farmed animals -- who live utterly horrible lives from the time that they're born to the time that they're transported to slaughterhouses and barbarically killed -- these three born-again carnivores, all former vegetarians or vegans, now proudly eat animals and think that it's just fine to do so. They gloss over the fact that even if the animals they eat are "humanely" raised and slaughtered, an arguable claim, they're still taking a life. These animals are merely a means to an end: a tasty meal.

The defensive and apologetic tone of this essay also caught my eye, as did the conveniently utilitarian framework of the argument. The animals they eat were raised simply to become meals because Niman and others choose to eat meat. I like to say that whom we choose to eat is a moral question, and just because these three now choose to eat animals doesn't mean that other people should make the same choice. Note that I wrote "whom" we eat, not "what." Cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals raised for food are sentient beings who have rich emotional lives. They can feel everything from sheer joy to deep grief. They can also suffer enduring pain and misery, and they don't deserve to have the good and happy lives provided by Niman and others ended early just so that their flesh can wind up on what really is a platter of death.

Wolves, lions, and cougars are not moral agents and can't be held accountable for their actions. But most humans know what they're doing and are responsible for their choices.

Cows, for example, are very intelligent. They worry over what they don't understand and have been shown to experience "eureka" moments when they solve a puzzle, such as when they figure out how to open a particularly difficult gate. Cows communicate by staring, and it's likely that we don't fully understand their very subtle forms of communication. They also form close and enduring relationships with family members and friends and don't like to have their families and social networks disrupted. Chickens are also emotional beings, and detailed scientific research has shown that they empathize with the pain of other chickens.

Raising happy animals just so that they can be killed is really an egregious double cross. The "raise them, love them, and then kill them" line of reasoning doesn't have a meaningful ring of compassion. And this isn't mercy killing (euthanasia) performed because these animals need to be put out of their pain. No, these healthy and happy animals are slaughtered, and if you dare to look into their eyes, you know that they're suffering. If you wouldn't treat a dog like this, then you shouldn't treat a cow, a pig, or any other animal in this way.

As a field biologist who studies animal behavior, I feel that the authors' appeal to what happens in the natural world -- "life feeds on life" -- is an illogical justification for their food choices. I've seen thousands of predatory encounters. I cringe when I see them, but I would never interfere. Wild predators, unlike us, have no choice about whom or what they eat. They couldn't survive if they didn't eat other animals. And indeed, many animals are vegetarians, including non-human primates, who eat other animals only on very rare occasions.

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Marc Bekoff is a former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. More

Marc Bekoff is a former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Marc has written more than 200 articles, numerous books, and has edited three encyclopedias. His books include the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, The Ten Trusts (with Jane Goodall), the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships, Minding Animals, Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues: Reflections on Redecorating Nature, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animals Matter, Animals at Play (a children's book), Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (with Jessica Pierce), and The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons For Increasing Our Compassion Footprint. In 2005 Marc was presented with The Bank One Faculty Community Service Award for the work he has done with children, senior citizens, and prisoners. In 2009 he became a scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver's Institute for Human-Animal Connection and a faculty member of the Humane Society University. In 2009 he also was presented with the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the New Zealand SPCA.

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