We just started getting into meat rabbits (a post for a later date, when I can speak…err…write more confidently on the matter).  Raising animals for meat always seems to be a sensitive subject, and this was brought again sharply into my thoughts today when I was backed into a bit of a conversational corner regarding our new acquisitions.  So I thought I’d share with you an essay I wrote regarding the matter…

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Behind the Curtain

Sustainability.  Whether because of rising temperatures or rising prices, more and more people are looking for ways to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprints.  No longer is it considered embarrassingly agrarian to cultivate a vegetable garden, now magazines and news articles tout the benefits.  My husband and I have hopped onto the bandwagon wholeheartedly, our backyard a mess of garden beds, fruit trees, and the occasional chicken.  And then there’s the hutch off to the side of the house, filled with adorable little brown birds.

“What do you use the quails for?” I’m often asked.

“Well, we eat their eggs…” I reply.  Sometimes, depending on who has asked, and gauging their potential reaction, I stop there.  We nod, smile, and continue on to other topics.  Other times, if I sense a sympathetic soul, I forge on ahead.  “…and we eat them.”

I’ve judged wrongly before.  My conversation partner cringes, and before I know it, I’m digging my own social faux pas grave.  “We knock them out before we kill them, it’s very humane.”  “They live happy lives before they die.” “They’re really tasty!”  I can literally feel myself sinking, their estimation of my civility placing me somewhere above a murderer but not by much.

These people are not vegetarians.  They eat animals, just as I do, but they purchase their meat in packages at the store, the bodies separated into all the tastiest bits, cocooned in Styrofoam and plastic wrap.  The visceral matter of slaughter, and the viscera, are once or even twice removed, out of sight and mind.  It’s easy to imagine that these were never animals at all, just bits of food churned out from some clean and clinical factory.

Admittedly, slaughter is not an appetizing process.  The quails don’t go calmly, at peace with their function in the world.  They squirm in my hand, their actions frantic.  They are only still when we knock them unconscious by banging their heads against the countertop.  We cut the heads off, bleed them out, then remove the inedible bits – the wings, feet, feathers, and organs.  When we’re finished, they are indistinguishable from grocery store meat.

But while my husband and I keep our quails watered, fed, and happy, the livestock that eventually make their way to the store don’t always have those assurances.  They’re often kept in crowded conditions, standing or sitting in their own feces, unable to even turn around.  Some never see the light of day.  Slaughtering is done on a factory line, with little regard for the animals’ comfort or suffering.  And yet this is considered by many to be more civilized than raising an animal in your home and doing the deed yourself.  My husband’s coworker even explained to him that while she would eat grocery-store meat, she would not eat our quails even if we brought them in cleanly butchered and ready to cook.  As she stated, it was too weird because we “knew them.”

We hatched our quails from eggs, intervened if their feet weren’t growing properly, and moved the heat lamp away from their brooder in increments, so they would never be too hot or too cold.  Yes, we knew them.  And by knowing them, we accepted the risk we might feel empathy for our future meals.

Empathy doesn’t come into play at the grocery store.  It’s hard to feel any sort of kinship with a package of ten drumsticks, or a cross-section of beef.  The animals are long dead.  We never had to look them in the eye.  Although we can be certain that the cow, chicken, or pig suffered in some way, it’s easy not to think about.  We didn’t know the animal, or saw how it died.  Why, then, should we care how it lived?

It’s a sad fact that we, as humans, are more willing to inflict unnecessary pain when we have no connection to our victim – be it through a relationship with them or even just line of sight.  In the Milgram experiment, subjects were prompted to give electric shocks of increasing intensity to someone they couldn’t see by pressing a button.  85% of subjects administered the highest level of electric shock, even though they knew the other person suffered.  When subjects had to actually press the person’s hand to a plate to administer the electric shock, the number fell from 85% to 30%.

With this curtain drawn between us and the lives our food lead, this separation, it is simple to keep pushing that button, keep swiping our card at the checkout – indicating, by our actions, that we consent to how our food is treated.  Killing our own food is hard to do.  I don’t enjoy it – in fact, I often put it off.  I cringe every time one of our quails die.  However, as a person who loves to eat meat, but also loves animals, raising and slaughtering my own seemed a happy medium.

Should we all keep quails in our backyards?  What about chickens, cattle, and pigs?  Perhaps not.  Slaughtering my own meat was, and is, a bit of an experiment.  I won’t suggest that all apartment-dwellers resign themselves to vegetarianism.  But by looking upon slaughter as a necessary ill in order to get meat, and not something that should be kept out of sight, mind, and conversation, we can force ourselves to confront the process by which livestock goes from animals to meat.  By acknowledging that our steak was once a living, breathing cow, capable of feeling pain, we may be more inclined to purchase meat that comes from cows kept in better conditions.

Civility need not be measured solely by how much blood we’ve had on our hands, but also by how we treat those we are not required to treat well.