Sunday, June 14, 2009

A review of "Animals Make us Human", or why I was crying over chickens

To whom it may concern: (and if you eat meat this concerns you...)

Have you ever been in your kitchen staring down at a big red blob thinking about how, once cooked, this substance will be so juicy and delicious? And then, have you ever turned your mind to see this red blob as a working muscle under a leathery and furry layer of skin. Suddenly you see the animal that this muscle came from walking before your eyes? I have. Many, many times, in fact. It always makes me sad, although I see the necessity of eating meat. I mean, it is a totally natural thing, and it part of the order of the world. But I am aware of the fact that what I buy at Kroger's meat department is not the same to me as that living creature. The two have been separated. I would certainly eat differently if I myself had to take that cow from creature in a field to red slab on my kitchen counter. But that ugly world of slaughter is closed to me.

Or it was. You see, in my mind when I think of the cow my meat came from, I naturally think of the cows I know. That is, cows like Junior or Sad Sack. They are two bulls that have passed through the lives of our farmer friends. Junior was a sickly calf who was bottle fed until very fat and strong. In fact, he would have retired as a spoiled pet were it not for the hay shortage that hit our area in the last few years. He had to be sold, but he certainly enjoyed his life while it lasted. Sad Sack was a bull purchased after times got better. I don't know if he still lives on the farm, but he was put out to pasture on green fertile fields with trees and water and plenty of land and girl cows.

So the life of a cow like these cows doesn't seem so bad, even if it may be shortened at the slaughter house. But Temple Grandin's book, Animals Make Us Human, made me rethink all that. Dr. Grandin is a renowned author and researcher in the area of animal welfare and the meat industry. You would think that these topics are mutually exclusive, but for her they are not. They go hand in hand, exemplifying the symbiotic relationship we have with animals. Oh yeah, and she has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

So thanks to pressure from so called extremists, McDonalds called Dr. Grandin to do audits of the beef plants that they buy from. She went in and found appalling conditions. Her goal became finding ways, through technologies and better handling practices, to give cows better lives and calm deaths. She is not a vegetarian, and she realizes the need for slaughter plants. And in nature, life would be much worse for the cows. In fact, if we did not eat cows, most of the cows living today would not be here. So she helped McDonalds make changes in those plants. These changes benefit both sides, leading to better meat and less loss through injury; and they give cows a better life.

The book is wonderful and I could not even begin to summarize all the points here, so I will skip to crying over chickens. Dr. Grandin was describing the method by which chickens are killed. First though, they are fattened up so much that they can barely walk...legs break and the animals can easily get damaged. The male birds are also bred to have such huge breasts that they can barely mate. (Some say that may happen to American women one of these days...) And then when they are killed they are hung upside down, their brains are put into water that is electrified, and that pretty much knocks them out. Then their throats are cut. This is fairly humane when it works right, but sometimes the birds are injured when being hung by their feet, or are not totally knocked out. Then they experience pain upon death.

It doesn't matter how low a creature is on the food chain or how small a creature's brain, the animals in human's care should not be allowed to die in pain if we can help it. Especially when it is totally preventable.

There are various parts to the meat processing problem. Technology and logistics is one side of it, but the other is the massive increase in consumption over the past 30 years. Other, more mainstream outlets are also starting to notice our meat consumption problem. The NY times reported on this issue. Here is a quote from the article:

"Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests...Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total. "

It amazes me when I think of the consumption of animals this way. Not only are we American obese and killing ourselves with fatty meat and food fried in animal fat, we are also killing more than our fair share of animals. We are using up more than our fair share of grain to feed those cows, while others in other countries starve. We are raping and pillaging our world for the sake of our stomachs.

I am really not a "greenie", even in saying all of this. But I do have a heart. It is not wrong to eat meat, but when we abuse animals so that we can have our fill, or more than our fill, we lose touch with the value of what we are eating.

My in-laws come from India, a very different place. They learned about not wasting food there. When we eat with them, my mother-in-law takes all the bony pieces of meat because she knows that if I get one of those pieces, I will eat my way around the bones, fat and tendons and only eat a few sweet spots of meat. She on the other hand will clean the bone wasting nothing. In the Kalahari the bush man thanks his prey before killing it, explaining his needs and thanking the animal for its sacrifice. We Americans throw food away like it is going out of style.

So what can we do? Here is my challenge, because one or two extremely self-controlled people becoming vegans is not going to make a huge difference, so I am not advocating that. We all must make small changes in order to get bigger changes to happen. So first, I want to say, thank you for thinking about this issue. Second, think about this issue every time you buy meat in the grocery store. Labels are for marketing, but we all need to make efforts to identify brands that treat their animals more humanely and who are following better animal handling guidelines. And the more local you buy, the better, as far as that goes. Third, let's all eat a little less meat. If you eat meat every day twice a day, cut it back to once. Or every other day. I am personally going to strive for 2-3 times per week. I think I can handle that.

I would love to know what you think about this issue and what you might try in order to make a difference.

Your friend, who just wishes she could change the world,
CaDh 8


brd said...

I read one of Grandin's books a while ago. Animals in Translation was a book I read to help me understand why my horse Nebuchadnezzar reacts so strongly to things like the tarp I threw over the hay bales or a butterfly on the trail or a shallow stream.

I was reminded of that book recently when I read William Faulkner's account in the book The Hamlet of the boy who fell in love with a cow. The boy had a profound disability, an autism or down's or something. But everytime he walked in a stream he expected the surface of the water to hold his weight. He could not understand why that surface gave under the weight of his foot and he fell at each crossing of the stream. Grandin explains that animals do not trust puddles of water, they do not know when streams are shallow or deep. Of course they can be distressed when asked to cross a stream or a puddle.

Back to my comment on this post. My husband calls me a carnivore, for I eat more than my share of meat. But you are right, I should change. Perhaps, the life of the vegan is not for me, but I should become a more discriminating eater, as you suggest. I will think about this. Thanks for your wise suggestions.


cadh 8 said...

Yes, that is the thing. This is not a call not to eat meat, really. EAting meat is natural, nay, essential to our lives and a healthy diet. It is meant to be. But treating animals badly is not. It is supposed to be a symbiotic relationship. That is the part we have lost.

And I also found the other sections of this book that focused on dogs, cats, and horses VERY interesting. It kind of makes you go "Ooohhhh, that is why they do that." She discussed Cesar Milan (the dog whisperer)'s theories about dog behavior and talk about her take on it. IT was really good. But even in that arena, it shows that all animals are having to give up their more "natural" lifestyle in the current age.

cadh 8 said...

Oh, by the way mom, knowing your carnivore status we would not expect you to really cut back too much on meat. But really, you are already a fairly moderate person in so many ways. You barely eat lunch most days as it is. So I really don't think you abuse the priviledge of eating meat, even...And you are NOT a wasteful person. You eat leftover meat from dinner for breakfast very often. And even meat that gets too old for human consumption usually goes to some animal...bears now, I suppose. They are omnivores, and would probably be happy to have an old rind of roast!

brd said...

Yes, the bears!! Did I say that I loved the smile on your cow picture?

It's hard to say what a "natural" lifestyle is. Humans have adapted to a lifestyle that includes refrigeration and central heating. Animals have adapted to living in more domesticated situations too. Like you pointed out, they probably live longer and healthier lives now than when they are left to their own devices.

Anne G G said...

dear brd and cadh8 -

This is a very enjoyable post for me, and since cadh8 and I have already been talking about this topic lately, I feel like this is just a continuation of an exciting discussion.

I feel a little torn by my response to this post. On the one hand, there is a part of me that prefers the extreme response - cut all animal products out of life! To lift one's self above the taint of factory farms and slaughterhouses seems like it would bring some kind of purification. And, though I do see and agree that meat consumption is natural and normal, I don't think of it as a necessity - I certainly know people who are successfully living without it. I believe, and actually hope, that we are moving toward a vegetarian society - but that's a different discussion for another time!

On the other hand, I have tried and failed to be a vegetarian so many times, that I think I've realized that maybe there's something to this idea of everybody becoming more moderate - and of course, as cadh8 and I have discussed in the past and she reaffirms here, a handful of people becoming vegans really won't change the world, but everybody moderating their behavior will.

I suspect my meat consumption remains higher than I think it is; however, I now only occasionally eat meat at lunchtime, and I've learned to make a lot of delicious dinners that don't include any meat. I'm slowly learning to love the vegetable and to use a wider variety in my cooking. I already love beans, and I've started to make substitutions - for example, I sometimes make this moroccan chicken recipe with chickpeas:

I love falafel- yummy and fatty:

I made this crustless quiche the other day, and though it looks kind of gross in the picture, you wouldn't believe how light and delicious it was (the cheese really helps with that! I used mozzarella and feta instead of Muenster, I think):

And though we've gotten tired of them now, I used to make these bean and rice burgers about once a week!

Maybe someday I'll be a "real" vegetarian, but for now, it's exciting to hear more of this discussion taking place and to think about ways to make meat consumption more humane and decent.

cadh 8 said...

I am very glad to get some recipes, I was actually going to email you, Anne GG for some ideas. I have been fairly successful in cutting meat consumption, but not quite as much as my goal. But I fear that I have been left very hungry!! This is partially because I am trying to not fill the void of meat with tons of bread, rice, and pasta or with junk foods, which I am sorely tempted to do, but would not be any good for my midsection.
I have however been introduced to sushi (so far just the all veg kind or the kind with cooked seafood) which is great and I probably would never have gotten into otherwise. Also, I want to eat more fish (yes still some moral dillemmas there, but I can only tackle so many moral dilemmas at a time!)
So there is progress on the homefront and things are getting better. That is all that we can do. I won't say I am doing my best yet, because that is not true, but I am doing better.

Cate said...

An interesting post and something I have been thinking a lot about lately, too. I often buy eggs that come from free range chickens. And there are several types of meat we don't eat: lamb, baby back ribs, foie gras, things that involve killing babies or what I and David perceive to be pretty inhumane (i.e., foie gras). I've also been paying attention to sugar consumption (I know, that's a different post).

I am frustrated by how much more expensive trying to eat more healthy is (locally-grown food, organic milk, cage-free eggs, etc.) Maybe someday it will be more expensive to eat unhealthily!

I am also interested in Temple Grandin, but that's another post too.

Cate said...

Bears!! Say it ain't so!!!

Anne G G said...


I made my crustless quiche again last night; the first time I made it, I made it with 3 eggs and 3 egg whites. This time, I made it with 5 eggs as the recipe suggests.

To my infinite shock, I found it was MUCH BETTER the first time - so 3 eggs and 3 egg whites! I also use cheese substitutions, mixing feta, mozzarella, and ricotta to my own preferences - but I figure pretty much any cheese will work.

Carrie, if you have a George Foreman grill, try cooking salmon on the grill if you haven't already (yes, another dilemma; I have not tackled it). Soak it in lemon juice for a few minutes, then sprinkle spices to your taste - we sometimes use garlic, paprika, chili powder, Old Bay, and/or basil. It takes about 10 minutes on the grill and comes out both well-cooked, flaky, and tender. Yummm.

For more filling dishes, anything with beans might be right up your alley. Whole wheat pastas also might be a good way to go - it takes a little getting used to, but once you are used to it, you almost stop noticing the difference.

Vegetable lasagna:

12 whole-wheat lasagna noodles
1 package ricotta cheese
2-4 cups mozzarella (2 is dietarily responsible. 4 is Yummm)
1 can spaghetti sauce - I use a basil variety
1 squash
1 zucchini
fresh spinach
1 can tomatoes

Heat the spaghetti sauce on the stove, and immediately add the squash and zucchini (sliced or diced), fresh spinach (maybe 4 cups?), and can of tomatoes, and any other vegetables you might want. Let boil for a couple of minutes, or until vegetables are slightly soft.

Boil the noodles until nearly soft.

In a baking dish, layer. Start with a thin layer of sauce to keep noodles from sticking, then layer as follows:


Repeat 3 x

Cover and bake at 425 for 30 mins, then uncover and continue for 15 more minutes (or to desired brownness.)

brd said...

I really must try some of your recipes!!!