Friday, November 24, 2017

On the stewardship of domesticated animals

On November 22, 2017—the day before Thanksgiving—there was an automobile accident in Ogden, Utah, that resulted in a number of deaths. No human beings died nor seriously injured but the crash of a speeding semi-truck on an overpass wound up “…spilling cows onto Interstate 15 below and causing miles of traffic backups…”––Salt Lake Tribune

I’m not sure how many of the cattle died but judging from one image that I saw, it had to be at least six to eight.

This news made me feel kinda sad because I grew up around cattle... a number of which—after being humanely slaughtered—found their way into our freezer and onto our dinner plates. Cattle are really gentle animals and we cared very much for the many that we raised.

Most people don't think much about where their food comes from. Beef is just the patty between the buns or maybe the uncooked steak wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store. We're all so disconnected from our food as a society—especially us meat-eaters—that we rarely stop to consider that we survive on the consumption of living things.

A typical livestock auction. The odors that accompany
the experience will have to be left to the imagination.

Photo © Sarah Smith (cc-by-sa/2.0)
When I was growing up, I spent many Saturdays with my Dad at livestock auctions. Not having much personal interest in farming, the only enjoyment that I got from the experience was playing with other farmers’ kids who were equally bored and just visiting the pens to look at the animals—mostly cattle and goats.

It wasn’t until years later that I reflected on the nature of the business that was being transacted at those auctions. When most people think of “stock” in economic terms, they think Wall Street—owning shares in a company. The rule when it comes to trading stocks is universal: Buy low and sell high; one invests in something with an eye toward selling it for a profit. Of course, when considering a typical stock exchange, we imagine groups of floor traders all wearing color-matched shirts or jackets, screaming at the tops of their lungs and watching symbols associated with different companies along with their current share prices scrolling across a digital stock ticker display. They buy and they sell based on their ability to correctly anticipate “upticks” and “downticks” in the stock prices which can be effected by anything from projected sales figures to industry rumors on social media. It wasn’t until after I learned the concept that “stock has value” that I made the connection to “livestock” and what all those boring Saturdays were about.

The rule for dealing in livestock is the same as stock in a company: buy low and sell high. Of course, when dealing with livestock, one doesn’t buy shares of a single animal, you just buy the whole animal. If you have the space—preferably a securely fenced grassy field with a trough for water and maybe a small barn or shed to protect your investment from the elements—you can go to a livestock auction and bid on a calf (a young cow) or a kid (a young goat) or maybe a yearling then, assuming that you’re the highest bidder, take it home. You now own stock—livestock, to be more precise. Now, just let it hang out in your field, sleep in your barn, drink your water, eat your grass—you’ll also need to supplement their diet with some alfalfa and grain and have some salt licks handy for them, you can get all that at the feed store.

"Brand" or "Mark" used by Jess Puente(the author's father), incorporating
his initials ("JP") and a "bar."

(Image by the author)
You’re welcome to name your livestock—assuming you haven’t invested in so many cattle and/or goats that you can’t keep track of them (that’s why bigger ranching operations stick with numbered ear-tags and branding… I’m talking about branding irons, not a clever moniker with hopes of becoming a household name). Hopefully, you bought your livestock at a low enough price that after you factor in what you spend on feeding it, watering it and maintaining its health, after a time you’ll have a general idea of how much you’ll need to sell it for in order to at least break even, or make it worth your while to buy more livestock and do it all over again.

While owning cattle or goats recreationally is not unheard of, the ones that are purchased at auctions are rarely intended to be taken home as pets. They are a commodity, living products, “live stock.” The poor animals that were lost in that crash in Ogden were being transported for the purposes of industry and consumer demand. They weren't just out for a ride. They were herded and prodded up a ramp into a trailer, not cheerfully invited by a loving owner saying, “Who wants to go for a ride?”

The majority of animals raised to feed human beings aren't given names. The demand for products made from their bodies is so high that the agricultural industry does everything it can streamline the process, to make the existence of these animals from conception to consumer as efficient as possible; from relying on artificial insemination for reproduction to digitally enhanced management of livestock population to semi-automated systems for milk production. Of course, this efficiency is motivated as much—if not more so—by profits as it is by consumer demand and I am troubled by the use and conditions of "factory farms.”

I had the privilege of hearing Temple Grandin, a livestock industry consultant, speak after a screening of a film based on her life and she offered some wonderful insights on how we can take better care of the animals that we raise for food. The following quotes are attributed to her:
“In my opinion, one of the greatest animal-welfare problems is the physical abuse of livestock during transportation.... Typical abuses I have witnessed with alarming frequency are; hitting, beating, use of badly maintained trucks, jabbing of short objects into animals, and deliberate cruelty.”
―Quote #450, Humanimal, compiled by Vergil Z. Ozeca (2009)
“I believe that the best way to create good living conditions for any animal, whether it's a captive animal living in a zoo, a farm animal or a pet, is to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain. My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal's emotions rights, we will have fewer problem behaviors... All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain.”
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (2009)
“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”
Extraordinary People: A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Some of the World's Most Fascinating Individuals by Michael Hearst, Page 50 (2015) 
"Killing an animal is not the same thing as mowing the grass. A life ends. That's something you take seriously. What does the word 'sacred' mean? You do not treat it as an ordinary thing. Killing cattle is not the same as running grain through a mill."
―Quote #536, Humanimal, By Vergil Z. Ozeca (2009) 
“Most people don't realize that the slaughter plant is much gentler than nature. Animals in the wild die from starvation, predators, or exposure. If I had a choice, I would rather go through a slaughter system than have my guts ripped out by coyotes or lions while I was still conscious. Unfortunately, most people never observe the natural cycle of birth and death. They do not realize that for one living thing to survive, another living thing must die.”
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (1995) 
“I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one. There is a need to bring ritual into the conventional slaughter plants and use as a means to shape people's behavior. It would help prevent people from becoming numbed, callous, or cruel. The ritual could be something very simple, such as a moment of silence. In addition to developing better designs and making equipment to insure the humane treatments of all animals, that would be my contribution.”
“Nature is cruel but we don't have to be”
The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s (2008)