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Natural born killers

BY EILEEN STAHL

Published September 7, 2008

I love animals. I keep a tropical lizard in my room that I absolutely dote on. I find naked mole rats delightful, and I routinely rescue drowning worms with my bare hands. My friends know me as an encyclopedia of animal factoids (some sharks give birth to live young).
Given how fond I am of God’s little creatures, it shocks people when they learn I’m equally fond of eating them.

There’s a big vegan and vegetarian presence here on campus. Even small stores tend to have vegan sections, and I often see people wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Kiss the vegan — taste the difference.” But when I expressed interest in joining a group against animal cruelty and also mentioned that I love me a burger, two vegans debated me about my sinfully carnivorous lifestyle. Their argument boiled down to this: Causing suffering to innocent creatures is immoral because we’re so much more advanced than they are, and they can’t protest. It would be like a certain overzealous president firing a rocket launcher at a kid in a sandbox.

That’s a good-hearted philosophy, but the problem is that animals are about as innocent as guerilla warfare. As someone who’s had her own small menagerie over the last 20 years, I have seen animals kill for food, torture for fun and even murder in cold blood. (Rest in peace, Toby Rattykins. You shouldn’t have crossed onto Houdini’s turf.)

Many people have a romanticized view of nature and animals, but in the wild, wolves gorge on still-breathing prey, lion males eat the cubs of prospective mates and herring gull chicks practice fratricide while Mommy smiles on. Just to prove Mother Nature is always looking for new ways to be horrifying, on the Scottish island of Rum there are deer that eat the heads and legs of live baby birds. You read that right: carnivorous deer.

So at any given moment, millions of animals are maiming, killing and eating the stuffing out of each other with astounding finesse. When you consider that, the amount of suffering eased by dropping the bacon is pitifully negligible, especially since humans have the courtesy to make sure their food isn’t twitching before they chow down. I want to clarify that I admire people who make it a personal choice not to contribute to nature’s bloodbath. My beef, so to speak, is with those who see it as a universal solution.

Animals are neither good nor evil, but they kill when it’s the best method for their survival. Humans are hardly different. Even if the entire world were weaned onto a vegetarian diet, consider the practicality: Meat is cheap in many places; what about people who can’t afford fresh vegetables? What about the millions of people and their families who rely on the meat industry for income? Would it be moral to put them out of a job in an already-miserable economy when even Bambi is gnawing on Woody Woodpecker’s spinal column? Never mind that something would have to be done with all of those animals we’re no longer eating. (I’m imagining flocks of feral chickens terrorizing the Midwest, pecking the eyes out of any fool daft enough to stop them from crossing the road.)

I don’t support undue suffering. In nature it’s an ugly reality. Yet as humans, we can make the lives and deaths of feed animals as humane as technology and resources allow. But we can’t escape killing entirely. A 2002 study by Oregon State University revealed that even vegetarian diets result in the deaths of millions of small animals, which are slaughtered when fields are tilled and harvested by machines. Preparing an alfalfa field, for example, cut the local vole population clean in half.

Such techniques are necessary to create a massive produce supply but can cause more loss of life than an equivalent amount of meat. Why is it all right to murder rodents for food and not bovines, especially when wild animals survive quite nicely on their own and many livestock species have been bred for thousands of years to live alongside humans?

I wish the world were more like a Disney cartoon. It breaks my heart every time I see a hapless critter eaten on Animal Planet. But Alfred Tennyson’s profound observation — “nature red of tooth and claw” — can’t be denied any more than humans can claim we’re apart from it.

Eileen Stahl can be reached at efstahl@umich.edu.