The Dead Thing in My Can of Tuna

Guest Blogger, Steven Peck is an associate professor and evolutionary ecologist at BYU who blogs on issues of science and faith at the Mormon Organon. He is currently doing a year sabbatical with the United Nations in Vienna, Austria working on African tsetse fly population ecology.

After class one day, I guiltily grabbed one of those over-packaged lunches so indispensable for those in a hurry to gulp down something quickly. This one was canned tuna salad and crackers. I felt guilty at the amount of unnecessary material piling up as I squirreled through the packaging to find my meal. I was taken back and shocked at what I found myself entangled in: a plastic outer covering with cardboard back, a can holding the tuna salad and its pop-top lid, a separate wrapper for the crackers, a little plastic spoon in yet another little plastic wrapper. I knew better than this—I’m an ecologist for heaven’s sake. I felt tricked and shamed, betrayed by my own hurry and hunger into buying something that produced a small heap of rubbish and clutter. I looked at the remnants of a small lunch multiplying around me and looked around guiltily, hoping none of my students walked by during this moment of indiscretion. I moved to extract the food from these layers of cardboard, plastic, and aluminum. Visions of overflowing landfills danced through my head and feeling a sneaky avarice I loaded the salad onto the cracker and took a bite. It was tasty. Yum. It was quite good but there was something hidden in that bite so disguised and camouflaged that I almost missed it.

I had been focused on the failures of western civilization in generating unprecedented waste. But I had forgotten something even more fundamental. Buried forgotten in all that packaging, was a life, hidden, unattended, unacknowledged and even unrecognizable—a being processed from all its rich biological complexity, to the simple categories of taste, color, and texture. During my hurried lunch, nothing of the lived life smashed into that processed can bubbled into my consciousness; nothing reminded me that an animated creature had died to make my meal. That life, a miracle, was masked and hidden. The unlucky tuna that (who?) had once cut through the ocean as a powerful living being—a breathing, free creature, a vital agent—had ended up packaged and unrecognizable in a convenient quickie lunch product. Even the word ‘tuna’ for me had not been associated with a life; it had become the particular flavor of a product, one among many that I might choose. The juicy mass in the can, which bore the stamp of patterns pressed from the lid, was merely a lump of whitish, firm textured food that went well mixed with pickles and mayonnaise. Just a choice of tastes I might enjoy to ease my hunger, but the significant detail that there was a life taken to provide that meal only made it into my mind by the most unlikeliest of routes, and on another occasion might not have even entered into my head at all. So it is with most of us. Our food is pleasantly presented and death forgotten.

How many of you remembered last time you had a steak, a burger, or finger-lickn’-good chicken that your meal had a life in it? I’m not a vegetarian and that’s not where I’m going with this, but I think there are broad implications for our society that we so often forget that something’s death is necessary to sustain our life. I almost always forget too. Does it mean anything important that we are so disconnected from the processes, like death, that sustain and structure life? How does this differ from our Great-grandparents who often raised and killed themselves the things they ate? Is there any reason we should remember that life goes into the food we eat? Should we show gratitude for the life taken (this, more broadly interpreted, can include both plants and animals)? Does it even matter?


  1. The Right Trousers says:

    Does it matter that we’re all Death Eaters? Probably, but I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying my cheeseburger. My three-year old daughter and I discussed the living source of our meal at McDonald’s today. She was only disgusted when I brought up eating frog legs.

    I’m much more concerned about the ritual slaughter and consumption of defenseless vegetables.

    Okay, I’m not. I also think “life eaters” fits us better. There are nice parallels with the atonement from that point of view. Giving a life to save another is built into our existence.

  2. The thing is, to be alive is to consume others. Every animal must kill something in order to live- even if it’s a lowly parasite or humble leaf. It’s part and parcel of living in a fallen world.

    Yes, we should give thanks, and often- I do think our predecessors who were more intimately connected to their food’s lives were likely more aware of these connections.

    We should remember and show gratitude- if for no other reason than it is the humble thing to do.

    Thanks for joining us, Steven P

  3. I recently had a discussion with a non-member regarding this. I rather suspect (but don’t know–I didn’t bother to ask) that they are vegetarian as well. I had made a statement about life–all life–being sacred, and they asked if that meant I was vegetarian. I said no, then went on to explain my position on the matter. What was left was a mutual understanding and respect.

    Of course it helps that I really, and strongly, respect the animals that give their life for us so that we may live. I rather strongly feel that everyone should, at least once in their life, but probably every five or ten years, have to butcher their own meat. You need to know. You really should.

    That steak was alive. It was a breathing animal, and it gave that up. Probably without choice. Forcefully. Now the Bushmen of the Calihari (I know I’ve misspelled that) and certain other tribes will pray or otherwise invoke the animal’s spirit after the hunt and thank it for its life that they may live. As LDS, how many of us truly believe that all things have a spirit? While we do not pray to those spirits, I don’t think it hurts to remember that this is a spiritual creature and that it has an eternal presence. Give God gratitude that he has allowed you to partake of this, and I think it will go well.

    I hold a great deal of contempt for those who eat meat and simply refuse to think about the fact that it was alive. As if it is disgusting. It is a disrespectful attitude to say, “I want this meat, but I’m not going to thank God for the animal that supplied it, or think about that it was alive because that bothers me.” If it really bothers you that something died to feed you, then you have no business eating meat. You either need to do the research required to learn how to be a healthy vegetarian, OR learn how to respect the animals enough to understand their sacrifice, and that God has allowed this so long as we do not abuse it. Which, I think, we often do.

    Just as a comment, and this is my personal feeling only–I agree with many of the Eastern religions that feel that all things have spirits–even the plants. We kill to eat. It’s a matter of choosing what we kill. If you believe that animals have spirits, then why not plants? If you don’t believe plants have spirits, then why not? In all this we are far beyond the canon of the gospel, so let us not fear to speculate. After all, the canon states simply that we are permitted to eat meat, but with wisdom and sparingly. So we use that as license to eat it wantonly and without regard for the life that was given? Hardly appropriate, nor surprising–but that does not require one to abandon the consumption of flesh, merely to comply with the given directives.

  4. Shout out to the slow food movement. There is a reason that the sacrament was originally a supper.

  5. May be, we ought to eat in a manner that is worthy of a sacrament.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I usually don’t actively think of this, but sometimes I do, and when it comes to mind I sometimes offer a prayer of thanks to the animal itself in the Native American way (as no. 3 mentions). And I do think we would be more attuned to these issues if we had to kill our own food instead of having it all be pre (even over) packaged for us.

    My daughter has been a vegetarian for about 14 years now. I had taken the family to a trout farm, and as she was struggling to remove a hook from a trout, violently gasping its last breaths of life, she made a snap decision right then or there that she was never eating meat again. I remain a carnivore, but I admire my daughter for making such a decision and sticking with it.

  7. angrymormonliberal says:

    I grew up with the meat industry, and while I remain a carnivore, I’m very uncomfortable with the mass-produced meats available at ridiculously cheap prices in grocery stores. In fact, I delight in describing how a cow/chicken/pig is raised and slaughtered to unsuspecting people questioning me on my upbringing. If you can’t deal with the reality of how we produce meat, then you really need to source your meat or become a vegetarian/vegan.

  8. We are given dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. This is a stewardship. D&C 89:12 tells us that they have been ordained for our use nevertheless they are to be used sparingly only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

    This stewardship is abused beyond recognition even by those of our faith. Yes being disconnected from the processes disconnects us from death cheapening life and encouraging denial. I believe we should show respect and give thanks for the life that sustains ours.

  9. As Barbara Kingsolver and others have mentioned, even in vegetarianism things die for us to live. the act of eating is a life-preserving act of death. I think I may have heard that the keynote at Exponent will include some discussion of the metaphysics of eating. Get your tickets now. The state fair can be a great place for thinking about where food comes from. I heartily recommend attendance.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    “Bushmen of the Calihari”

    Rough stones rolling indeed.

  11. Hi Dr. Peck! Sarah (Kendall) Taber here. Good thoughts everybody.

    We’re planning on doing some mixed crop-and-livestock farming once we get out of school, so this is something I end up thinking about pretty often. We’ve been working on farms and whatnot, so I’m probably coming at this from a bit of a weird perspective. (That would be the “death is normal and ok” perspective.)

    I think vegetarianism is great. At the same time I think a lot of peoples’ reasons for doing it are not so well thought-out. Most hardcore vegetarians I talk to focus on not wanting to cause death as their reason for doing so. That’s good and all… but I think when somebody’s fixated on the moment of death as their defining point of animal welfare, they’re missing the point a little bit. I can’t help but feeling that that angle has more to do with human hangups about mortality than it does with easing the plight of livestock.

    What on earth does that mean? How about this: if I had to choose between being a beef cow or a dairy cow, I’d take the beef cow any day. You live outside for most of your life (even if it’s a feedlot, it still beats a dairy barn), your calf stays with you until it’s grown up, there’s social stability since there’s a bull and the cows only get turned over once or twice a year, and you only get slaughtered once. Conversely a dairy cow spends a good deal of her life getting shoved around inside a barn for twice- or three-times-a-day milkings accompanied by electric prods (all that manure in the barn? They’re poopin’ because they’re scared), loses every one of her calves within a day, is stuck in a never-ending pecking order battle because of high turnover, and survives it all just to get turned into hamburger anyway. Nevermind that beef cattle meat’s quality can be seriously degraded by stress during final handling and slaughter, whereas a dairy cow’s meat is going to be second-rate no matter what and there is no incentive to treat them nicely at the packinghouse.

    (It probably goes without saying at this point that the average dairy barn is not the kind of farm we want to run.)

    Animals have a little bit of a different context for reality than people do. A cow doesn’t think “Uh oh, our truck just pulled up at a slaughterhouse. I know what that means!” Nobody ever told her. Conversely, there are all sorts of normal activities that their human handlers know are harmless (like moving to a new pasture) that they think is the end of the world. Herbivores don’t like new things because anything that’s new is something they’re not sure yet if they can live through. (Parents can make their own inferences to toddlers here.) Anything distinctly spooky going on will also scare them: from things that seem logical to us like other cows hollering, blood smell, etc, to reflections on metal and changes in floor texture.

    Anyway, the point is that there are all kinds of things that animals find scary. A guy with a loaded bolt stunner isn’t necessarily one of them. When we fixate on the moment of death we do a real disservice to both ourselves and for their own welfare by not understanding what’s going on in *their* heads: the corralling, the being-stuck-in-a-trailer-for-two-days-with-no-food-or-water, or having to crowd up next to that so-and-so cow that you just can’t stand. Those are the things that cause cattle misery- not the 2.5 seconds it takes to die. (Assuming all goes well, which it *usually* does… Yeah. Gross.)

    So I say, if you really want to help cows, don’t stop eating beef and dairy. Start eating beef and dairy directly from places that treat their animals right and preferably do on-farm slaughter. Good luck finding any near you! This website might help:

  12. Maybe someday we can all eat food that’s derived from vats of photosynthetic bacteria. We can genetically engineer it to have different flavors and textures. Maybe that’s what we’ll have to do in order for the lion to lie down with the lamb. I really hope that day comes soon. Eating the flesh of another living thing, particularly something I would have enjoyed being friends with when it was alive, is pretty sickening. I’ve gone years without eating any meat at all, but it’s not healthy for me because of various health issues I have. So right now I eat meat and try not to think about it too much. =(

    I know that soybeans are also living things, but I don’t have any feelings that a bean would scream and struggle not to be harvested. Plants have spirits, are alive, but do they feel pain or abandonment, betrayal, agony, etc? I don’t see any reasonable basis for thinking they possibly could. So that makes it much less troublesome for me to eat them.

  13. Thank you, Steve. That feeling of panic after sifting through pre-packaged insanity is all too familiar. It made me so stressed that my best friend finally gave me a “no-packaging” kit for my birthday: In a beautiful bag, she put a vintage bowl, plate, silverware and a tupperware container. I use this now whenever I go to a cafe, restaurant, or take-out place. I have them put the meal right on the plate, or I put my leftovers in the tupperware. Sometimes they get mad, but it always starts a conversation.

    I believe that the concept of no harm in many of the world’s religions is a beautiful example of what religion is always doing: asking the impossible from us in order to make us aware of our capacity for goodness and for harm. In Jainism, for example, even the cloths over the mouth will not save us from harming, but the attentiveness to not harming makes us aware of our failings and our gentleness–makes us aware of other creatures, period–and requires us to hope for grace–to hope that others will be gentle, too, and compensate for our limits.

    Could I ask you why you are not a vegetarianism? I know we had many good discussions in our class about not sanitizing death, and I agree that many modern “movements” sanitize the things they are hoping to sacralize, but I do believe that if we can keep from doing harm we should. Killing is harming, and I do not believe that the awareness of death I get from eating an animal is exclusive to eating the animal or that it outweighs not harming it. The idea becomes clearer if we apply it to an organism we recognize as having rights–if I said we should eat humans to recognize the sacredness of the lives they have and the contributions their deaths make, people would go beserk and insist that it is the killing that is wrong, period–that you cannot do an inhumane thing humanely, or oppress gently. I am fully aware that the world, both religiously and actually, depends on death, but I believe that if it is possible to stop death we should.

    What are your thoughts?

  14. sorry, I didn’t mean “why aren’t you a vegetarianism,” but a vegetarian. i mean, come on, steve, why aren’t you the whole movement? ha ha.

  15. The disconnect you are talking about really bothers me. I had a lightbulb moment when I realized that I seriously couldn’t imagine being able to kill an animal for food. That is when I became vegetarian. I really respect the people who raise their own animals for food – I just know I can’t do it.

  16. tristan call says:

    I think anyone that does not groan and wallow in the recognition that the violence they commit sustains their life is crucifying God, personally, directly, and thoughtlessly.

  17. Although I do eat meat, I have made a consistent effort to only buy meat that is free-range, not enivronmentally hazardous, and, preferably, local. For me, the extra money I spend on more ethical eating habits, money that for me is a real sacrifice, serves to remind me of what we owe others. Although we do act violently to sustain life, I think there are ways in which we can mitigate the damage we do.

  18. You know what I love about these discussions? They make me think. Sorry my time difference in Vienna makes me seen slow to respond.

    Sarah, it was good to hear from you. You are someone who thoughtfully is actually engaged with animals and understands them. You bring out some wonderful points that I think we who do not live the ‘farm life’ actually experience and who live with, care for, and see first hand how animals are treated.

    Hi Ash (I’m still in tears over your thoughts on loneliness . Wow.) I think Sarah said is what I feel too, death is not necessarily harming. We tend to view existence as the ultimate good. I’m not convinced of that.

    I’m not a vegetarian for several reasons. I think there are very good reason for being a vegetarian, among them the benefits that are derived from eating low on the food chain. However, I’ve made a conscious decision not to be a vegetarian. There are several reasons for this and it is a complex issue, but part of it is vegetarianism has become a litmus test for being a ‘true’ environmentalist. I’ve purposely disengaged from that because I believe we can be environmentalists without being vegetarian. I think the perception that the two are linked pushes people away from caring about the environment in our culture. We need all the help we can get.

    That is not my main reason though. I find in some forms of vegetarianism (and not yours!) a subtitle form of anthropocentrism. A hubris that somehow we are better and different from the lion, killer whale, or the mink. That we’ve risen above lesser forms of animals that still must kill and eat meat. That they are animals and we are humans so they are excused. We do this for many of our ethical standards of course. We don’t expect animals to be law abiding or obey the law of chastity. So we do have a higher ethical standard, but I’m not sure I want to deny some aspects of what it means to embrace my evolutionary history, like eating meat. I like the ways I am brother to the wolf. The role of meat in our evolutionary history (and actually is the subject of my next post so hang on) is in fact what made us what we are. I embrace that connection. I’m not sure I want to be completely something the polar bear is not.

    I do understand the reasons for being vegetarian as an animal rights issue. I would agree if factory farms were our only choice for meat I would be one too. As Sarah pointed out there are ways of treating animals that are seeped in cruelty. And new evidence points out that an animal feels pain the same way we do, that pain feels the same way to them as it does to us. There are ways of humanely killing. For example, Temple Grandin, an autistic veterinary professor who sees the world as a cow does has designed cattle killing facilities that are the model of humane killing. There is not a time that the animal is aware of what’s coming. It is existing one moment in whatever way a cow does, and then it is gone. This is not a loss or tragedy. Death is not the ultimate evil. It is a part of life. Every life. That’s what I think has to be recognized. Death weather it is a carrot or a cow is a part of every life on earth. It is something to be celebrated not disentangled from existence and shunned as something untoward or unnatural. Suffering yes. Death no. I think confounding or folding the two together is a mistake.

    But that’s a long question about why I’m not a vegetarian (as always I reserve the right to change my mind at some point). I want us to recognize death, but I want vegetarians as well as omnivores to recognize, embrace, and sense our connection to those plants and animals that sustain us.

  19. I really like the way you identify the packaging of food with our separation from the concept of life found within it … and that does include vegetables, etc. The French classroom next to mine has these wonderful posters explaining how ‘stuff’ becomes ‘things,’ as it were. It’s well worth thinking about the stuff more.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s a lengthy article in today’s Chicago Tribune Magazine titled “Morality Bites” by food writer Monica Eng along these lines in which she seeks to view slaughters of the kinds of meat she eats.

    She involved her children in parts of the process, and her final paragraph is as follows:

    I don’t know how this will affect their meat consciousness in the long run. But I drew hope the other day when I heard my daughter whisper to a paper-thin slice of prosciutto: “Thank you, pig. I love you, pig. Now I’m going to eat you.”

  21. I am both a former vegetarian and have lived in an agrarian society in which each family actually did kill whatever it ate (the two were different times in my life). While I lived in that society, I was largely a vegetarian because I was unwilling to kill, so on the odd occasions I paid someone to kill for me, I did have a greater appreciation for the food.

    However, the society around me did not particularly value or romanticize their animals. They ate less meat than Americans because it was inefficient to kill them (no refrigeration), not because they were “closer” to the animals. I would say that, for the most part, familiarity bred contempt, and they treated the animals, well, like animals.

    I kind of like the happy medium of hallal (don’t know how to spell it), where you actually pray over each kill. It seems fitting.

    While I lived in that society, I was horrified at packaging each time I received a care package from home (I renew this horror every time I live someplace my garbage does not magically disappear and I have to deal with it), and (for all my twenty-first century skills) proved myself totally inept at basics, like fire.

  22. This is why the Bible menu is Milk and Honey…no death

  23. Will some future generation judge us as immoral because we eat the flesh of animals? I have an ancestor who got married at age 12. Do I judge her (or her husband) too harshly based on my 21st century morality?

  24. Steven P, I like your thoughts.

    My preschool-aged kids barely believe me when I teasingly tell them that the pork or hamburger on their plate is “dead pig” or “dead cow.” They don’t seem to make the connection between the chicken or turkey or fish on their plate and the live animals that go by those names.

    What a big change from my farmer grandparents, whose meat very often came from animals that they had raised, hunted, or purchased live.

  25. I like the ideas shared in these comments. I’ve also had the experience of having my kids surprised that the hamburger was made from a cow! My daughter thought I was making it up when she was five.

    I liked that: “Thank you, pig. I love you, pig. Now I’m going to eat you.” Somehow that shows awareness that death is part of life and not something alien or foreign to it. Not a necessary evil mind you, something to offer thanks for, pray over (I first wrote ‘prey’ over adding to my list of spelling ironies and faux pas for anyone familiar with my blog), and to celebrate. Death is not evil. It’s apart of every ecology.

  26. When I think of the vegetarian v. meat discussion I think of a comment by Joseph Campbell who said:

    “…one of the main problems with mythology is reconciling the mind to this brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives. You don’t kid yourself by eating only vegetables, either, for they, too, are alive. So the essence of life is this eating of itself! Life lives on lives …

    Life consists in eating other creatures. You don’t think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal. But what you’re doing is eating something that was recently alive. And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the birds picking around — they’re eating things. You see the cows grazing, they’re eating things. the serpent is a traveling alimentary canal, that’s about all it is. And it gives you that primary sense of shock, of life in its primal quality. There is no arguing with that animal at all. Life lives by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn …” (Power of Myth, pp. 42, 45)

    As I think of the onion cells I looked at under the microscope in 10th grade biology, I think of the life that is in a plant. Plant cells seem every bit as alive as the muscle cells in tuna. I have a hard time seeing the distinction. Although, I will admit that the onions I eat don’t usually talk back to me like my dog does (no, I don’t eat my dog). And, I will also admit that I find it easier to feel compassion for an animal in pain than I do the plants that I indiscriminately cut with the lawn mower. I whacked many plant cells (and probably insect cells) to death just this past weekend without any remorse; but I admit that I would feel different about my mowing if it was hitting mice and spreading their dead cells around. (Man, I “admitted” a lot in this paragraph).

    These cellular thoughts, however, have transformed my personal prayers on my food. I have begun to feel a profound sense of thanks for all that transpired to bring food to my table — from the farmer, the harvester, the transporter, the grocer, to the shelf-stocker, as well as the ancillary aspects of those jobs such as those who manufactured the tractor and the truck, the company that made the grocery cart that I pushed, and the company that made the wheels on that grocery cart that seem to constantly wobble. I am humbled by all that happens to allow me the ability to cook my food, vegetables and meat, in my microwave oven.

  27. One of the things that probably got me to thinking the way I do about animal mortality was working at a veterinary hospital for a while. A lot of vets, not surprisingly, are nuts about animal welfare issues. Vet school is harder to get into than med school, since there are only about 20-25 in the entire country; you have to be a little bit of a fanatic to make it through that kind of admissions gauntlet so you can give C-sections to terriers.

    Now this looks a bit far afield from human-food relations, but I promise this is going somewhere. One of the more interesting programs at this vet hospital (besides the feline kidney transplants… most creative way to get rid of stray cats ever!) was “Operation Catnip.” Volunteers would live-trap feral cats and bring them to the hospital, where they’d be spayed/neutered, get all their shots, have one of their eartips clipped to mark that they’d already been done, and released back into the wild. We went to all this effort because they breed like gangbusters and kill birds and spread disease to pet cats, but we can’t catch kitties and euthanize them because that’s just not nice.

    The thing is, if you’re a feral cat (or anyone…), something’s going to kill you eventually. I have to imagine that most feral cats do not die peacefully in bed surrounded by friends and family. A cursory glance down the road tells you a lot of them get run over, which is probably not a comfortable way to go. Some of them probably freeze to death; a lot of them probably get just hurt or sick enough to starve instead of dying quickly, or to make easy prey for dogs and raccoons or other cats. That’s how it works for wild animals, anyway.

    So anyway, in the name of sparing them from a cruel fate over which they have no control, we “set them free”… to face a cruel fate over which they have no control.

    So here’s where this was going. I think it would be wiser to compare a livestock animal’s life, or feral animal’s life, to that a wild animal- not a pet. (Being stamped with “family member” status by a bunch of humans is a little bizarre from the eco-existential point of view.)

    Animals in the wild die by getting eaten. Or something else equally uncomfortable. Wild animals don’t typically die of sickness or age or hunger, because they usually slow down enough well before then that something catches and eats them.

    People are pretty prey-friendly as far as predators go. (Note: the following statement does not necessarily apply to industrial agriculture.) Here’s one major ramification of that whole “dominion over the earth” thing: we’re the only meat-eating species that have the wherewithal, and the will, to protect our dinner from bad weather, hunger, crowding, thirst, sickness, annoying bugs, and even just getting scared (never mind eaten) by other predators- and then make sure that when they get turned into food, it’s *guaranteed* to be painless and fast. A botched slaughter is usually still more humane than what blessed Mother Nature has predators do.

    Once I realized that, I stopped feeling bad for (grass-fed) hamburgers. Seriously. Most people don’t get in and out of life with that little grief, not even in the First World.

  28. Geez… I mean, I guess it’s great and all to have some metaphysical awareness… but I can’t help just feeling like this is an indulgence in navel gazing. (Understand I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just trying to explain the feeling discussions like this generate in me.)

    I was raised in the suburbs, we never experienced butchering animals to learn that meat came from living things. I mean it was just clear, nobody needed to explain things to us. (I remember teasing my little sister miserably about her eating “Wilbur” when we had pork chops for dinner.)

    I have killed and gutted fish before, and a rabbit once, and occasionally eaten a bird my uncle shot, but it was never seen as any big deal- other then the fact that it was super fresh and so tasted better.

    I don’t do my own butchery because it’s bloody and time consuming, and it’s much more efficient to pay for the professionals to take care of it- but if I had to I could do it- heck I have.

    This makes me remember when I was on my mission and an investigator caught a couple catfish- and then didn’t know what to do about them. My companion was a mechanic’s boy from a small town so you’d think he’d be fine with it, but he wouldn’t even touch the fish.

    My first response was to point out that she hadn’t killed the fish. You don’t just let fish suffocate to death, you bash their heads against the side of the bucket to kill them. I mean, that’s just what my grandfather taught me, but it was just common decency, it wasn’t like we were all touchy feelie over a fish we were going to kill and eat anyways.

    So, there I am trying bash the fish’s head against the concrete to kill them before I gut them, cause you know that’s just what you do, you don’t cut thing’s bellies open before they’re dead.

    I soon discovered that Catfish have skulls so hard that they might as well be solid granite. I tried stabbing the brain, but that didn’t work either, so I realized that oh well, I tried, but I was going to have to gut it alive.

    I certainly didn’t feel remorse over it, just kind of thought of it as a botched job, and wished I had someone with catfish gutting experience to show me what to do. (It’s always been trout for me).

    So I cut it open, take out the guts, and then flay it.

    I didn’t feel any closer to the food when I ate it then something I could buy at the store. It was a lot of bother, and the only real benefit I felt was that it sure tasted good, being so fresh.

    I guess I’m trying to convey my feelings with this story, not sure if I did a good job. But lots of things have begun to point out to me that my family (despite being more than 5 generations since we left the soil) still tends to have a worldview grounded in that of the old German yeoman farmer.

    And I got to tell you, that conversations like this would just make make us stare at you in confusion.

    I sort of understand, and I figure it’s a nice thing for you, but I just can’t seem to get very worked up over the matter. To me it’s like getting excited because the sky is blue. I mean it is, and yeah, when you think about it I guess it’s rather neat, and the actual explanation is probably cool and all, but… well, getting excited about the sky being a normal color like blue is a little weird you know?

  29. SM Waters, I appreciate you sharing the complexity that goes into our food system. It is complex and is something we do need to be grateful for. We have so much it’s hard to imagine. When I was in Ethiopia this spring, kids in the back country were vying for our plastic water bottles because they could be so usually employed in their lives. These are things we recycle as worthless; there they were an important part of their daily water delivery and storage system. We do have much to be grateful for.

    Mellifera, you’ve pointed out something that most people miss. Nature is unimaginably cruel. A few summers ago I was with some students and we saw a hawk take a squirrel. It held it, pierced through the shoulder and thigh, tight against a branch for a long time. The squirrel would thrash, rest thrash, rest and then the bird began to pull the flesh off bits at a time. What does that mean for us? It’s clearly not an argument or justification for cruelty, but it does point out that our efforts to kill humanely, as you say, should be better compared against the life they would have in the wild. Your example, of the cats is a good example of misplaced compassion that adds to the overall misery of the world in the form of wounded birds and the loss of song birds, cats suffering themselves, ecosystems of mice and voles destroyed upon which natural grasses depend. We promote an immediate kindness (not killing the cat) at the expense of huge swaths of suffering in natural ecosystem and ultimately the cat itself. It reminds me of the Animal Rights activists that released the dolphins in Hawaii who had been born in captivity. The Dolphins were generally happy in their life as evidence by the fondness for their captors, the shear delight they had playing with each other. It was a good life. In the wild they could not survive. They suffered a cruel starvation, and were found dead washed up on the shore. The cry of the activists to be free was nothing less than a form of slow torture for those animals. Imposing our own ideas of what an animal wants from life, is hard and should be compared with the demands of the very real and dangerous struggle for existence that exists for most creatures. In the natural world, most things end badly. Starvation in old age, predation in young. Death is all around and it’s usually not a pretty sight.

    Cicero, what can I say, maybe you should gaze at your navel a little more often. If you sense that no gratitude is warranted for the lives given to keep you sustained then I suspect they will never matter to you in a way that will want you to protect and defend Earth’s vast support system nor understand these deep relationships of being (see smwater’s quotes above). But even if you feel nothing for those lives, we’ve been commanded to ‘receive them with thanksgiving.’ Maybe it’s like tithing which you have to pay to get a testimony. Try giving thanks for those lives given for your meal and see if you notice a change.

  30. Mellifera,
    Something that your response doesn’t take into consideration is the fact that we are not taking wild animals and killing them in a more humane way. Rather, we are breeding animals as fast as we possibly can, keeping the ‘useful’ females pregnant as much as possible. We then keep them confined in truly disgusting cages, whether they be cows, pigs, chickens, etc. The ways we raise each species differs (obviously, you can’t treat cows and chickens the same way), but each is treated in a uniquely unnatural way. Cows are fed mountains of corn, which destroys their digestive systems and would kill them if we didn’t pump them full of antibiotics and increase their growth rate with hormones so we can slaughter them before the damage to their digestive system kills them. This isn’t crazy stuff that I’m making up, it’s just the way that the industrialized meat-production system works (and the free-range, grass-fed, etc. part of the meat production system is so small as to be almost negligible, except to those who participate in it to sleep easier at night).
    Comparing this life to an animal’s life in the wild doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Our industrial meat-production system turns animals, God’s sentient creations, into machines. They never actually live life, they just sit in a feedlot or in a huge, dark shack, being pumped full of calories, hormones, and drugs to get them as big as possible as quickly as possible so they can be slaughtered and packaged as soon as possible.
    It is true that in nature, animals die painful deaths. But we’re bringing into existence millions of animals with the intent to deprive them of their natural existence and kill them as quickly as is economically profitable.
    I hope this doesn’t come across as aggressive; I am interested in understanding the other side.

  31. Collin, You appear to be imposing what it’s like to be a human on animals. The evidence is strong that they experience pain the same way we do, but they do not look to live a meaningful life out on the open range with a rugged individualism. You castigate Millefera but she at least is trying to make a difference in animal husbandry, which given the world’s growth is only going to increase. Reducing pain, working to make humane changes in a system that is not going to go away seems much better option than trying to throw anthropomorphic human values onto animals. I look at ELF’s recent releases of mink and think of the cruel and painful deaths they imposed on those creatures with the perspective that those minks ‘wanted’ to be free and live ‘natural lives’. Add that to the harm to the environmental movement where people are trying to make changes in complex social systems and you see that blind faith in their own perspective, masksthe deeper truths and risks that require us to work together and try and find workable solutions to difficult problems. I love the animal world, look at the blog on my site and you’ll see my faith that they deserve respect, honor and good lives whatever that might mean. But I hate to see the kind of anthropomorphism that suggests that animals ‘want’ a ‘meaningfull’ “natural’ life. I’m encouraged the way you ended your comment. Dialogue is the most important thing in this, but also look at some of the scientific animal behavior literature and you can learn something about what it is like to be an animal. They are not just mute humans.

  32. I grew up spending summers on my Uncle’s dairy farm. The cows all had names, they knew whose turn it was to go into the milking barn, and we treated them with kindness and respect. But we still milked them, and my uncle and grandfather would occasionally cull one for the meat.

    That is an experience that is getting harder and harder to come by as we get further removed from the farm. My own kids don’t have it. Steve, good thoughts on being aware and thankful for our lives. There certainly is a huge gulf from the reality of food production to what we get at the grocery store, in most cases.

    I had a thought about vegetarians who consume dairy products who don’t like the thought of cattle going to the slaughterhouse, but are okay with them working in a sweatshop, but that’s shallow of me. I’ll forgo the thought.

  33. #30-

    I know, sugar bomb, I’m an ag student- it’s my job to be up on this sort of thing. Your post doesn’t come across as aggressive, but it does come across as if you didn’t read very carefully since I did give a couple tip-offs like

    “I don’t feel bad for (grass-fed) hamburgers”


    “It probably goes without saying at this point that the average dairy barn is not the kind of farm we want to run.”

    So, no offense taken. : ) I think you might enjoy some of Joel Salatin’s work. His writings are mostly directed toward farmers, but I say so much the better- they give the rest of us a good look at agriculture that way.


    Anyway, here are a couple links that some of you may find interesting. Gene Logsdon is an agrarian writer a little along the lines of Wendell Berry, and Walter farms pigs. Well. (And Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is fabulous, especially the hunting chapter.)



  34. Max Seawright says:

    SteveP, I don’t think it’s anthropocentric to argue that animals have their own sphere of joy, delight, contentment etc. Reason and judgment afford us a different kind of mortal experience and delight, but that doesn’t make it okay to kill animals incapable of of “rugged individualism.” That may have some far reaching consequences for the mentally disabled. Sentience should be the qualifier for moral patienthood from us, the moral agents.

    Mellifera, a comparison between “humane” slaughter techniques and death in wild seems irrelevant to the question at hand. The number of domestics cattle, chickens and pigs “humanely” slaughtered does not significantly affect the number of Banteng, Red Junglefowl or Bush Pigs killed in the wild. The death and suffering in the wild is, more or less, constant. The slaughtering we do as humans, no matter how humane, still increases the amount of animal suffering in the world.

    I realize that whatever we do, whichever our dietary choices, we cause suffering and violence. I agree with Tristan’s comment. But there is a difference between the violence that my life will necessarily cause and the unnecessary violence that goes into satiating taste buds for enjoyment. A diet free of animal products is healthy for people of all ages, including pregnant or nursing mothers, athletes. Everyone. That is, barring some particular allergy combination or health complications (which perhaps don’t make it impossible to be an herbivore, just less convenient).

    We don’t need animal products to be healthy or happy. Every animal on our plate represents avoidable, real suffering.

  35. Hi Max,

    Holy cow how did I end up arguing for meat eating. When I want to argue care for the environment?

    I’m not arguing that animals don’t have experiences including joy (see my whale post at the Mormon Organon where I argued that they do!) I do argue that we cannot extrapolate from human experience to animal experience. I do not think they have beliefs and desires in the same sense that we do, for example. What makes an animals life a good one might just be freedom from fear of predation.

    Mellifera’s arguments are very relevant. You seem to think that somehow death in nature is not full of horrors. I would even go so far as to say that few animal deaths of any kind escape suffering. You seem to think that human caused deaths are unnatural, where as other deaths are allowable. We do not necessarily cause “suffering and violence.” Just because animal suffering is constant in the wild it doesn’t argue that it’s not relevant. Or I don’t see it anyway.

    I think what you are arguing is that it is unethical to eat meat. This is where I disagree. I think vegetarianism is a good thing. I think there are good reasons to be a vegetarian, but if you are making it an ethical requirement of all humans to lead a good life. I have to disagree.

    First, modern vegetarianism is a function of Western availability of commercial protein sources. Most places in the world, Africa I’m particularly familiar with, protein comes on the form of animal protein and necessary to a flourishing life there. There are places were it works to an extent like India, due to the lucky convergence of some crops but diets usually has to be supplemented with animal protein. Vegetarian diet then becomes a form of western elitism that ignores much of the world. Think of the Inuit. (Or is their way of life ‘primitive’ and you would excuse them of not knowing better like the wolf. Now that’s Western elitism.) Just because you can go to the health food store and get variety of proteins doesn’t mean that this can happen all over the world. In some ways vegetarianism as practiced in the West is a rich person’s sport. Therefore it cannot be an ethical imperative for everyone.

    Second, as an ethical categorical imperative, I think it fails death is a part of every life. There is no escape. WE should reduce the harms and suffering in the world. I just think conflating death and suffering is mistaken. They are often correlated, but they are not the same thing. For example the squirrel story I tell above has a relevant ending. The squirrel with its wounds was dropped alive on the ground, suffering horribly. The students stood around saying poor squirrel what should we do. I killed it. I think that was the ethical choice. I believe there are ways of killing that do not entail suffering or entail less than any experienced in nature, including our own death.

    I see a growing sense in the Western Vegetarian movement that separates people from nature. They misconstrue death as violence. Read my comment above. To conflate them is a huge category mistake.

  36. Max Seawright says:

    Thanks for your reply SteveP,

    First, I admire any effort to get people thinking about what they eat. Thank you.

    I agree that vegetarianism is not an immediate ethical imperative for everyone in world. I don’t even think it’s something I can demand or expect of my next-door neighbor in a veg-friendly metropolis.

    I agree that people do not have to be herbivores to be good or ethical. However, I do believe I can reduce unnecessary animal suffering and death through my dietary choices. Those choices, because they affect the amount of suffering and death in the world, are ethical choices.

    I agree that a vegetarian lifestyle could be considered a form of western elitism, but no more so than every part of our lives in the “first world” can be considered western elitism. That label doesn’t help me, or the majority of the readers here, make decisions about how to live life in a developed country. I am not excused in my ethical decision making because someone else, somewhere else, must eat meat to survive.

    I must insist that I am very aware that death in nature is full of horrors. I think you made the right choice when you killed that squirrel. My argument is that those considerations shouldn’t affect what we eat. Because a domestic cow suffers less than a Water Buffalo in the jaws of a Crocodile doesn’t make the domestic cow’s suffering acceptable on comparative grounds.

    I also agree that death, violence and suffering are very different, even when considering their strong correlation in animal industry. I do think it’s important to point out that sentient animals have an interest in both not dieing and not suffering. Situations like those of the squirrel, where inflicting death prevented suffering, are not generally relevant to our diet. By killing a “food” pig we don’t do it a favor by ending its misery; we are responsible for any of that pig’s suffering in the first place. I have a hard time believing that by bringing a domestic animal into existence, purely for human ends, that we create a good animal life based on the criterion of freedom from fear and predation. We’ve created one more animal with artificially-selected traits that is removed from the joy of its natural sphere.

    I have a hard time believing that a steak on my plate brought something positive to the world, rather than negative. I believe an herbivorous diet makes a significant, positive ethical and environmental impact on the world, as well as a positive health impact on the personal level. I don’t think freedom from fear and predations overshadows the unnecessary pain and death.

    That’s not to say I couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. I’m just not convinced yet.

  37. You know, Max I’m not sure I disagree with much you’ve said. Partly, because I haven’t sorted this out in my mind and in someways think I might not in this life. You are also right about we have to live in this western culture as Westerners and my comments seem to be a cheap shot in light of your point. Touche! value animal life deeply. I also see the harms done by especially factory type farming and find myself confused by it all because I don’t know how to weight the value of existence. Is it better to have been a feed lot cow, then to have never existed at all? Maybe so. Maybe not. I really can’t get my mind around it. I appreciate that you seem to not be militant about your vegetarianism and allow others in some complexity. I do appreciate those who are trying to live with a lower ecological footprint and I think your attitude admirable. As I said in my post, I do worry about only seeing horror in death rather than is complete naturalness. Anything that separates us for what it means to be a human in nature and all that means.

  38. Max Seawright says:

    Thanks SteveP, I myself can’t totally get my head around all the complexities of this issue. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss your points, which have been some of the most thought-provoking I’ve come across. For what it’s worth, consider me your new LDS environmentalist, vegan ally.

  39. Thanks Max!

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