Considering the animal

chickfaceOn a long car trip about ten years ago I found myself driving behind a flatbed truck transporting chickens. They were packed three or four to a metal cage and by counting cages and doing some math I figured there were something like 500 cages on that truck, or nearly two thousand birds, packed so tight they could barely move.

Some had been crammed in upside down and were stuck that way. Some looked dead.

I could have passed the truck but something made me tail this cargo of cruelty for more than an hour. I’d never seen anything like it and I was weirdly curious. Was this common? Were all chickens treated this way?

My son Marlow turned 8 not long after this experience and for his birthday dinner asked for fried chicken. I picked up a bucket of KFC and he loved it. I did not. Although I’d enjoyed fried chicken from time to time all my life, now I could only think of those chickens on the truck. Was I eating one of them?

I swore off meat that very night. I went cold turkey (without the turkey) and avoided meat of any kind. My wife and kids were supportive, if only mildly interested, which was fine with me and understandable, too. They hadn’t seen the truck.

My vegetarianism did not last. I couldn’t get the fuel my body expected no matter how hard I tried to combine legumes and grains for a complete protein. My energy was off. Still I toughed it out for more than two years until a friend made a simple suggestion: “Try a steak and see what happens.” I did try a steak. The effect was almost immediate. My energy came back and so did my old omnivorous self.

Recently my eating habits were again affected by an experience. This time it was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. It’s all about factory farming, an industrial operation that hardly resembles what people think of when they think of farming. It’s how virtually all meat is produced nowadays.

factoryThe basic idea is to drive down production costs in order to offer a cheaper product in order to grow market share and hence profits—basic economics. The problem is that reducing the cost of production involves treating animals in ways most people would find unconscionable.

I won’t get graphic in recounting the practices described in the book and elsewhere. Suffice it to say the confinement is heartless. The routine infliction of pain, without anesthesia, is cold-blooded. And what happens to many animals while still conscious is barbaric.

The problems with factory farming go beyond animal abuse. Olympic-sized pools of animal sewage lay untreated and unregulated. Massive poultry farms are perfect breeding grounds for the next avian flu virus and potential pandemic. And just a fraction of the hundreds of millions of tons of grain fed to unhappy animals could feed hundreds of millions of people living in dire poverty.

eating-animals-coverThis book is no PETA pamphlet. Unlike other agricultural exposes (like the movie Food, Inc., which appears to have played loose with important facts) I can’t find much criticism of Eating Animals beyond complaints of some over-the-top language and occasional sanctimony. I think those are fair points. But the overall message is powerful and untouchable.

I am astonished by how massive factory farming has become in just a few decades. The book says 50 billion birds are processed each year; other sources say it’s more like 10 billion. Whatever the true scale it’s an alarming number. The industry is careful to do it’s thing out of the public eye, which makes sense. I think most people are okay with eating animals but would never be good with what goes on inside a factory farm.

The book has apparently convinced many a reader to stop. Not me. I did make a vow to never again eat factory-farmed meat, with just a few exceptions. For example, if I’m a guest at someone’s house I’ll enjoy whatever they prepare. But I don’t want my spending to support factory farming. Moreover, I simply can’t enjoy meat knowing the story behind it is probably a very disturbing one.

Honoring my vow has not been easy.

I’ve stopped buying chicken and turkey from the grocery store but have no idea where to buy poultry that enjoyed a good life and easy death. I look for pasture-raised beef but much of the cruelty happens in the slaughterhouse, pasture-raised or not. Then there’s the convenience thing. I type these words sitting in a McDonald’s where I just finished an egg and cheese biscuit—I was hungry, away from home and short on time—and I suspect the hen that laid those eggs did not enjoy a good life.

Mostly I just haven’t tried hard enough. But that’s changing right now. I hereby renew my vow to find meat that is not factory-farmed. I found some iPhone apps and websites designed to help consumers do this, and soon I will be all over them. I also promise to report back what I learn.

Interested? Watch this space.