I received Jonathan Safran Foer’s newest non-fiction book “Eating Animals” as a gift not too long ago, its cover garishly hot green and covered in blocky white letters, its spine yelping for attention on a shelf of drab-colored (teal, rose, brown) books. The title of the book itself similarly clamors for attention, pointedly and politically using the word “animal” instead of “food.” It asks for a moral awareness of eating meat: Know what you eat. And at this point of my life, I’m beginning to think twice about my omnivorous eating habits.
I grew up in a Chinese-American family, where, like many other families, Christmas dinners often involved various animals cooked, sautéed, baked and presented on plates. In my family it is also a tradition to eat animals with their parts (heads, feet, eyes, tails) preserved and left on dishes delivered to the table. There were no hot dogs, no hamburgers, no chicken fingers (except the literal kind) — no animals ground up and re-worked into patties or amorphous, unnatural shapes. Instead, at our table, the plates were filled with the animals themselves, not just reconstituted, unrecognizable “food” — and this awareness recognized the lives that were given for us to eat.
On a two-page spread in his book, Foer presents a rectangle barely larger than a DVD case. At the bottom of this heavy black box, Foer presents some facts — the average egg-laying hen has a cage with 67 square inches of space: “The size of the rectangle above.” We are aware of chicken with an odd disconnection between the illusions we have seen in storybooks (the fat, happy, ambulatory hens making bread, not letting others have any) and the reality of these birds. According to Foer, they are stuck in a hand’s width of space for their entire 41-day lives waiting to be slaughtered, barely being fed, never having walked on solid ground. Their claws reportedly grow around the metal mesh of their cages.
It is this disconnect that I struggle with — a chicken versus chicken on a plate. I know, and have always known, that I was eating animals since I was a child. I went to a school that had a farm in the back that housed pigs, sheep, goats, a miniature horse, rabbits and chickens. Here I fed pigs, shoveled goat manure and picked the ticks out of the sheep’s heavy woolen coats. It was also my job to go out in the foot-high snow at 8 a.m. to pick up the eggs the chickens had laid in their coop. I was in sad awe one day when I approached a hen and gently put my hand on the back of her neck. She calmly bowed her head down, her neck gently grasped between my thumb and forefinger, and she stood there, quietly unmoving, yielding — waiting.
I’ve now come to a point of re-thinking my attitudes toward eating animals. “What we forget about animals we begin to forget about ourselves,” Foer writes. We forget animals’ deaths and so forget our own hand in it. We forget their pain at the hands of unkind and often violent farming practices, and similarly forget ourselves in relation to it. My moral assumptions about meat had stopped with my comfort eating flesh — an amorphous word more connoting “food” than “killed animal bodies.”
The translation of “meat” to “dead animal” is attempted in another section of the book where Foer presents five consecutive pages containing only two words repeated: “speechlessness” and “influence.” At the end he presents a simple factoid: The average American eats 21,000 animals in a lifetime, one for each word. I had not made this connection between dead meat and killed animal. My thoughts had stopped there, right in their tracks, on the moral road.
Then I watched a 1949 documentary film made by French director Georges Franju titled “Blood of the Beasts.” Its cheery title sequence with dancing children creates a perverse frame for the horrifying images to come. Soon a horse is led into a slaughterhouse, hit through the skull with a spring-loaded spike and, as it lays twitching on the floor, legs circling in the air in a dying desire to escape, three men cut its neck open and blood — so, so much of it — comes pouring out by the gallon.
Other scenes in the film are equally horrific — baby cows are strapped down and decapitated, one by one, the headless bodies twitching as men skin them; sheep are calmly herded and led to a similar fate. It was then that I realized that while I knew what I was eating was an animal, and that I was ingesting marinated flesh that had once moved, I could not kill these animals myself. I couldn’t put out an animal’s life.
And here is where the moral dilemma sat in my head: Eating animals and the process of killing them were now intermingled and causal even though I had put up a mental blockade, separating the idea of dead flesh from killed flesh. And I realized it was my moral responsibility to consider both of these concepts together in order to make a decision about where I stood morally and ethically on the topic of eating animals. But before I did this, I decided to read further into Foer’s book — the book that turned Natalie Portman into a “vegan activist,” as she says in her essay for the Huffington Post — and decide these things for myself.