Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Behind the Curtain

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.

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12 thoughts on “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Behind the Curtain

  1. I’ve had similar reactions at work. I just don’t care what they think anymore. They all think I’m weird anyways.

    My neighbors don’t have a problem with my small hutch.
    I did eat rabbit for the first time on Sunday. I would like to say, I love rabbit! I’m reading stuff over at backyardherds.com on meat rabbits.

    • I’m excited about our rabbits! My mom cooked us some rabbit stew when I was younger, and I remember that it was delicious.

      I’ve been over on backyardherds, and did a lot of reading there before getting ours. I think it’s a great resource.

  2. I really liked this article. There is a lot of disconnect in the source of our food (animals) and the consumable meat purchased at the supermarket. Has the process of having to kill the quails also caused you to eat meat less often?

    • I don’t know that it has caused me to eat meat less often. Jerimiah and I don’t eat a lot of meat to begin with, so we don’t buy a lot of supermarket meat. Knowing and understanding the process from start to finish has definitely raised a lot of questions in my mind. We used to buy pork and beef when it was on sale, but lately we’ve been buying the whole free-range chickens when they’re on sale at the Nugget. However, after a recent experience, I’m starting to question the term “free-range”and what this means for the animals, and I’ll be posting on that later.

  3. love the article. i feel the same way. i slaughter my own quail too. i have also been a vegan and a vegetarian at times. people are never going to stop eating meat so we just need to make sure we support safe healthy conditions for animals that will eventually be food. props to you. people who dont know where food comes from are always gonna be a lil in the dark. try not to dwell on it.

    • Good for you! I personally don’t eat a lot of meat, either. I’m hoping to eventually get into some aquaponics and to no longer buy meat from the grocery store at all. I do find the disconnect fascinating, however. I think people KNOW their meat comes from animals, and deep down, most of them know these animals are not treated well. But if these things are never in your face, in the here and now, it’s easier to maintain status quo.

      • we have quails, ducks, chickens and just had a aquaponics set up installed we live off our little urban farm as much as possible. i hate to buy meat and sugar and flour and citrus but hey thats life.i commend your efforts.

  4. Bravo! Very well put. I have never understood why paying a hit man to do the dirty work makes their hands clean. And you are going to love rabbit. Much less work per meal.

  5. Great post. I’m a vegetarian but I completely agree with you – I believe if you eat meat you have a responsibility to ensure the animal you eat has a decent life and a humane death. Good on you for facing up to your responsibilities. I have no idea how people who wouldn’t kill an animal but would buy a dead one in the supermarket can live with themselves.

  6. What an excellently written article. I was just pondering this week how none of us feel any connection to the chicken nuggets we gobble down mindlessly and feel no remorse when we dine on a well cooked burger. I little twinge of remorse is healthy when we look down at our plate. Even the production of vegetables kills and displaces animals. No food we humans consume comes without some loss to another living creature. This always has been and always will be true. Thanks, Jack

  7. Pingback: Bulk Up (The low cost of a high protein vegetarian diet) | Suburban Sustainability

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