The Ethics of Eating


Driving through Wyoming, on a long stretch of very straight road through desolate country, I happened to glance into one of those depressions where a culvert went under the road. An emaciated antelope stood in the lee of the embankment, in an effort to escape the cutting, cold wind. Even though I was cruising along at seventy-plus miles an hour and only glimpsed the creature for a fraction of an instant, my mind has held that image as though it was a famous photograph published in National Geographic magazine. The image of a dying antelope in the middle of nowhere, unseen and unremembered by every other creature… except me.
I have been agonizing on the horns of a dilemma for years because I eat, and I have always been concerned with the morality of it.
But let’s be clear. I eat meat. And the issue I have is not with the act of eating an animal with a face but with taking life to eat. I don’t know if my feelings make me a food snob or unnecessarily over-concerned. Or maybe callous.
You see, I’m sympathetic to the idea that life has rights. That unnecessary death is something to be avoided. That there is a balance to the natural order, and I should be aware of my place in it.
That doesn’t seem like the popularized concept of a meat eater, does it? Well, while I might agree that many people, maybe most, have never really tried to think through their thoughts and feelings concerning food, it seems that lately there is a tribe that assumes they have the moral high ground… when they don’t. You see, whether you eat meat or not, animals die. And if you avoid meat as a source of food, death is still part of life.
The big question for me is where death is minimized. Where there is less suffering. Where respect is given and where there is less waste. In my perfect world, there would be no reason for domesticated food. But this is not a perfect world. There are too many people, and people require sustenance. Reality trumps perfection.
I grew up with large animals. Some of my earliest memories involve cattle and horses. I’ve owned two ranches, and in my higher education, I specialized in beef production. You might think this preordains my conclusions, but I have to say that would be wrong. I know ranchers that don’t think past the profits they make, but of those I have had contact with, the vast majority weigh the values they bring to using the earth and caring for the animals in their charge. Just as you have to spend time with animals to appreciate and understand them, the same applies to animal people. We all evolve.
One of the things ranchers have to be familiar with is death. It’s part of the job. In the civilized world, we insulate ourselves from death, uncomfortable with dying and often in denial of the realities. The antelope I saw by the side of the road, that fleeting instant, informed me that its body would be cold the next morning. The animal would die in the early hours of night. Over the next week or so, largely depending on temperatures, scavengers would feed on what little could be had and the skin that was left would mummify, and the larger bones would be scattered to bleach in the sun.
This is the way it is.
Some people reading this might be horrified that I didn’t stop and take the dying antelope into my vehicle and try to get help for it. Or call someone. Or any of several scenarios that would have saved its life in a perfect world. But in my opinion, the natural world is perfect. Even though there are no good deaths in the wild, it is the human world that is skewed toward more and greater agony and most often in the name of human kindness.
Let’s be clear. The numbers of animals dying in the world every day, hour, and minute, is staggering. We are horrified by poached elephants and palm-oil-displaced orangutans, at least if we understand the consequences of human overpopulation. But how many deer are killed on the roads? How many field mice are poisoned? How many useful bacteria are killed by unnecessary antibiotics? And truthfully, there are far more natural deaths. Death is a condition of living… period.
How does this apply to domesticated animals intended for food? Well, regardless of whether they go to a slaughter house or if they end their days in a shelter that allows them to die of old age, they still die. Death is a condition of living… period.
Let’s take a break from the usual arguments that can be made concerning meat.
I have never been “plant blind.” I consider all life to be life and equal in respect to any concerns about ending life. New evidence discovered within the last few decades have verified my concerns.
Plants learn. They make decisions and remember. They protect their siblings and share space and nutrients to ensure that all individuals have a relatively equal chance to mature and survive. They have languages and even dialects. Charles Darwin suspected plants of having specialized cells in their roots to make decisions and process information, and recent findings bear his theories out. Researchers have come to see plants as having bodies much like our own, only reversed by being upside down, with the plant’s brain in its roots and backside and sex organs waving in the air.
The more I learn about plants and their capabilities, their capacity for most of the criteria that we reserve for animals, the more they are proven to be as aware and high functioning as creatures that rip them from the ground and chew them up to live.
Remember I mentioned in a perfect world we would not use domesticated food sources? Perhaps you assumed that I meant animals. Plants are factory farmed, too, and far longer than the animals people express so much concern for. Unless you are plant blind, you recognize there are no live foods that don’t think, feel, and struggle to survive.
Speaking of factory farms, and back to meat, we most often use the term in regards to animals. I have no issue with the term, factory farm. It describes the practice and the efficiencies involved. But I do object to the inference that they are universally cruel.
Animals are highly adaptable and can be proven to live longer in human maintained conditions than they do in the wild… on average. I say on average only because there might be an exception that I’m unaware of and certainly in individual cases. In zoos and even in confined spaces, domesticated animals will outlive their wild brethren. Even captive animals considered wild will outlive their siblings living in the wild. Is there a quality of life issue? Perhaps more in some cases than others. My point is that confinement does not always equate to abuse. In fact sometimes it is the opposite.
Anyone who knows me well recognizes that I have a special place in my heart for horses and dogs. I advocate for removing all domestic horses from the wild because I consider the feral horse to be abused by being allowed outside of human care. They are a perfect example of how human-maintained conditions for animals can be abusive and still better than what many would argue is more natural. Horses survive well on range that has scant vegetation and little water, and they still die on the free range in greater percentages than horses that are kept in dirt lots and fed so little that we charge their owners with animal abuse. Horses are also very destructive to the lands they populate and those lands’ natural inhabitants.
It has to be said that much of the acreage used as cattle range could never be farmed and that properly populated by cattle, the lands actually see benefit. Cattle graze much like natural populations of wild animals, including bison which have been removed. Cattle for bison is a good trade-off, as they are very similar in how they graze. One of the benefits of grazed range is controlling range fire fuels.
I prefer grass-fed beef, free-range chicken eggs, and factory-farmed pork and chicken for meat. There are pros and cons to all of them and no perfect solutions.
Conditions continue to improve, or at least we humans are less likely to feel guilty. I highly endorse the systems for handling cattle from Temple Grandin. I’ve never heard an animal complain, but I certainly feel better about many of the recent strategies to ensure less stressed animals and more healthy food.
A small aside to give a short rant… Antibiotics in animal feeds are largely unnecessary and are detrimental to future human use as the diseases they are meant to control continue to evolve. The medications were first used to control those diseases as a preventative. But soon it was learned that animals fed antibiotics would gain weight faster. This created a competitive advantage for the use of antibiotics, and everyone jumped on board. The advantage was lost completely once everyone was feeding antibiotics. So if law required no antibiotic use in feed, the playing field would be level again. This would also mean the threat of evolved disease, antibiotic resistance, would be diminished exponentially. Why our elected officials continue to ignore this is incredible and downright stupidity.    
Did you know that animals defined as herbivores will often eat meat? I don’t mean they go around hunting other animals but that they are opportunists. I have watched horses eat birds they find dead. Do a little research, and you will find plenty of herbivores observed eating meat. There is at least one instance of a captive elephant eating its keeper.
The number of food animals that we kill is so small in any time period compared to the total numbers of animal deaths, that it is minuscule. When you combine both animal and plant life on a graph, the food animal deaths would barely register.
Let’s all try to recognize that life is precious. All life. But all life feeds on life. I choose to participate. Am I more or less moral for eating plants… and animals? I’ll have the New York steak, medium rare, with the Brussel sprouts and baked potato. Lots of butter and extra sour cream, please. At least with the butter and sour cream something wasn’t killed.

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