I am a monster, and so are millions of Americans who hunt, fish, and raise livestock. At least that’s the argument by Matthew Scully, a former literary editor of National Review, who took to these pages to present the case for the abolishment of animal cruelty. It turns out that to Scully, animal cruelty is a broad term, encompassing everything from consuming meat raised via large-scale agriculture to hunting. In Scully’s eyes, harvesting a whitetail buck or taking your daily limit of pintail ducks isn’t “normal” or “praiseworthy,” even if you donate that meat to your local food bank. Apparently all hunters are merely twisted psychopaths who take to the woods every year “for no better reason than the malicious thrill of it.” And don’t think you’re more moral than those wicked hunters, for, as Scully says, “cruelty to farm animals is the beam in our own eye, if we patronize that whole rotten system.” If you’re eating meat, apparently, you’re a monster.
Scully’s moral argument against meat eating sounds great, as long as you don’t think about the mice, rabbits, squirrels, moles, groundhogs, and other creatures great and small killed by the combines in the cornfields and green spaces where our vegetables are grown. Anybody who lives in the country has seen turkey vultures circling and swooping down on the fields where the cornstalks have been reduced to stubble, or the murders of crows that gather to slowly hop and pick their way across the earth, taking sustenance in the animals killed in the raising of vegetables. There’s a hard truth in life that many of us either don’t think about or choose to ignore: We all eat to survive, and that means that something had to die in order for you to live. Chances are, even if you’re the most committed vegan you know, animals died in the making of your last, and next, meal.
Knowing this and recognizing this doesn’t make you a monster. It makes you mature. It gives you a greater understanding of your place in the world, and the responsibilities we all have to treat the creatures we eat with care and concern. Yes, we should be concerned about wanton cruelty to animals. We should actively work to stop it where we find it. But we shouldn’t define animal cruelty down to the point that eating free-range chicken is comparable to mass murder, nor should we casually condemn millions of Americans for being “trophy hunters” without considering the benefit that their hunting provides.
Hunting is conservation, and beyond the economic impact in rural areas around the globe provided by hunters, local communities benefit from the meat that is harvested, research dollars are raised to help protect species, and wildlife populations are treated as valuable renewable resources worthy of management and protection. The Dallas Safari Club, for example, is a part of the United Nations’ International Union for Conservation of Nature, while the Safari Club International Foundation has spent $60 million since 2000 on conservation projects and education in 27 countries. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Wild Turkey Federation, among other groups, have purchased tens of thousands of acres of land to protect habitat, restored wetlands and forests, and even reintroduced species into spaces where they once roamed and grazed.
Like most Americans, I grew up not really knowing where my food came from. My grandparents all raised at least some of their own food; on my mom’s side as dirt-poor farmers in Dust Bowl–era Oklahoma, and on my dad’s side as inhabitants of a small town in Massachusetts. But my parents moved away from the countryside, and by the time I was raised in the outer suburbs of Oklahoma City, the thought of keeping chickens or heading out to a tree stand on the first day of deer season seemed like a relic of their past.
As I grew older, I became fascinated with America’s countryside. I read and reread Jesse Stuart’s Beyond Dark Hills and Whittaker Chambers’s Witness and Cold Friday (it’s worth noting that most of Chambers’ contributions to National Review were penned while he was a working farmer in western Maryland), soaking in the details of rural life and farming during the first half of the 20th century. I had a romanticized view of agriculture, to be sure, but I didn’t realize that until a few years ago, when our family had found a small farm to call our own. Since then, I’ve become acquainted with cattle farmers who work the same hundreds of acres that their great-great-great-great grandparents did in the 19th century, as well as newcomers who are raising goats, hogs, and sheep on just a few small acres. I’ve met families who contract out with one of the big poultry processors to raise 30,000 chickens at a time, as well as plenty of folks who have just enough chickens to supply eggs for the breakfast table. I’ve met men and women who live to hunt, as well as those who do, in fact, hunt to live. The one person I haven’t met is the one who doesn’t give a damn about the animals under their care or in the wild spaces where they live.
As an example, consider what happened to me a couple of weeks ago, on a cold Saturday afternoon. I was giving our hogs some fresh water when our young boar wandered over. Immediately I could tell something was wrong because he was shivering, and despite the cold wind, none of his companions seemed bothered in the slightest. When he turned around, I winced as I saw a portion of his intestine, about the size and color of a ripe plumb, hanging out of his rear end. I quickly called our vet and left a message, and began looking up “rectal prolapse in hogs” on Google. The diagnosis wasn’t good, and was confirmed a few minutes later when the vet called me back. The boar had to be put down. My heart sank as I walked inside the house and loaded a .22 pistol. I wasn’t excited or happy about what I had to do, and I certainly didn’t take any sadistic joy at what was in store. But I walked back outside, aimed the gun at the space between the back of the boar’s ear and his skull, and pulled the trigger. He dropped immediately, twitching on the cold earth. I knelt beside him, murmuring softly and stroking his rough, bristly fur as the life passed out of him. I took no pleasure in his death, but I shed no tears. When the last breath escaped his lungs, I took the carcass over to a table and, with the help of a friend who volunteered to help, began to process the meat for our freezer.
We shouldn’t define animal cruelty down to the point that eating free-range chicken is comparable to mass murder.
Was it cruel to kill that hog? Or would it have been crueler to let nature take its course? What would have happened if I hadn’t pulled the trigger? In nature, his fellow pigs would have eventually smelled the blood trickling out of his anus and would have eaten him. Pigs have no compunction against cannibalism, because they’re pigs. They don’t know any better. But it still seems like a pretty cruel way to die.
Scully’s ultimate argument, I suppose, would be that I never should have had that boar to begin with. I can’t agree. In the seven months or so that the young Ossabaw boar walked the earth, he lived a good life. He had plenty of green pasture to eat, a constant source of fresh water, a plethora of lovely and delectable sows to mate with, and more. He got to experience summer sunrises and the taste of morning dew on fields of clover and moonlit nights where crickets and bullfrogs lulled him to sleep. For those of us that believe life is precious, that’s worth something. The goal shouldn’t be to eradicate meat from our diets, it should be to strive to make that life possible for as many animals as possible, including those that end up on our plates.
I recognize that’s also not the experience of most hogs raised on large-scale industrial farms, and I agree with Scully that looking at animals as nothing more than commodities is bad for the soul. But those who are morally opposed to eating meat don’t seem that interested in improving standards. Scully believes that even with better standards for large-scale farming, “we are only refining practices that are better abolished. One day, as Charles Krauthammer predicts, humanity will be done altogether with feeding on animals, for reasons of ethics along with the health and ecological reasons that are also staring us in the face.”
Scully implies that he would really like our meat-raising and meat-eating ways to disappear; from the vast hog lots in the Midwest to the small farms in central Virginia where I live. That vision would mean the eradication not just of massive chicken processing plants but also hundreds of varieties of heritage breeds of chicken, cattle, hogs, and other livestock. If we’re not eating these animals, after all, there’s no reason for them to exist. Farmers aren’t going to make a living by running petting zoos. Those animals currently living will be slaughtered, and no offspring will replace them. Tens of thousands of Americans would need to find new employment, have to leave their family farms, and change their way of life. Oh, and it would require massive government regulation and intervention to enact these changes.
My friend Trent Marsh, who lives, hunts, farms, and writes in rural Indiana, thinks that Scully’s argument may make sense from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or among those Americans who only view animals as a commodity, but it’s different for those raising and hunting these animals. To those Americans, these creatures aren’t abstract ideas or data points. “To the farmer the hog is a partner, both in life and death,” Marsh told me. “For the hunter, the hunted is the embodiment of the wild they seek to protect. These aren’t lives that can be read about in books. They can’t be studied, or made into role-player games for the masses to enjoy. These lives are earned through nights spent tending a laboring sow, or moving a herd of cattle into safer pastures ahead of a blizzard. Because for the farmer, large or small, reliance is a two-way street.”
There’s nothing morally wrong with eating meat. But we do owe it to ourselves, and to the animals under our care, to treat them with respect.
There’s nothing morally wrong with eating meat. But we do owe it to ourselves, and to the animals under our care, to treat them with respect. Fortunately, it can be done. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms has been providing a good life for his farm animals as well as a producing a steady paycheck to support his family, and more and more farmers are starting to look at rotational grazing and other practices that will allow a better life for all the creatures on the farm, humans and livestock alike. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 75 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms are considered “small” in terms of annual sales. Those small farmers can and should be a driving force in adopting practices that allow for a better life for livestock. I would rather support them than try and drive them out of business.
Perhaps it’s possible that one day we’ll all eat meat grown in labs and vegetables grown in hydroponic indoor farms in Brooklyn. Maybe one day the guns of hunters will fall silent across the country, and they’ll learn to love quinoa loaf instead of venison backstrap. Would that make life less cruel for the animals in the wild? Would the coyotes and the bobcats suddenly lie down with the mule deer and the rabbits? Of course not, but maybe that’s not Scully’s intent. Maybe it’s really about how vegans feel about their fellow humans, and if we’re treating animals by the rules they want to apply to society, they’ll feel better about their fellow men. Perhaps they even believe that they can make humankind less cruel if we would all replace our Christmas hams with a PETA-approved wheat-gluten loaf (yes, the recipe exists, and no, I won’t link to it or recommend you try eating it).
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe it would make humankind any less capable of cruelty if we were to stop eating meat. Besides the fact that most of us would be really cranky from the lack of bacon in our diet, we would simply be even more removed from that most basic fact of nature; something has to die in order for us to live. We would be more removed from a fact of civilization, as well: experience is the best teacher. We need more Americans to know what their food looks like before it ends up shrink-wrapped and packaged on a grocery-store shelf. If we want others to treat the animals we eat with more care, we need to find ways to get closer to our food, not farther away from it.