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The thinking man's choice

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A savage and cowardly crime was witnessed over the weekend. A captive German Shepherd was shot in the head, skinned and the blood was drained from it. The criminals then proceeded to chop the carcass into large chunks, roast it and place it on their table for dinner. Well, it wasn't a dog actually. It was a pig. And it wasn't criminal. But it was pretty gross.

Funny that such a common occurrence could seem like abuse in one instance and dinner in another. When we try to determine what it is that makes these two animals deserving of such different treatment, and such different emotional responses, we find that it is merely our culture that distinguishes the two. Pigs are somewhat more intelligent than dogs, but they are comparably social beings and equally capable of suffering. Culture should be challenged by reason until this inconsistency is weeded from our society; our reaction to the treatment of farm animals is inconsistent with the rest of our moral lexicon.

While some would advance evolutionary superiority as a reason for exerting our power over non-human animals, others propose just the opposite. Our own moral evolution has moved us into a broader range of concerns, and as this process continues we will come to see the slaughter and abuse of non-human animals to be equally offensive to our moral senses as we see other abuses of the powerful over the weak.

What people should learn and/or remember over the holidays is that there is widespread suffering in the modern industrial farm. Even if one finds killing animals acceptable, few people would find their treatment in factory farms acceptable. Farmed animals are reduced from sentient creatures with complex social structures and instinctual needs to units of profit to be maximized.

The result is cows have doubled their milk production over the past 50 years. This unnatural strain on their bodies makes them more vulnerable to mastitis, a disease that causes their udders to bleed internally to the point that pus is considered an expected by-product in milk, up to 1 per cent in Britain.

The overcrowding of a variety of animals causes them to "cannibalize" one another, pecking or biting to the point that bleeding and/or blindness and/or dismemberment and/or death result. In industry terms, this is a shameful waste of "product." The "remedy" is that young chickens often have their beaks burned off in the first few days of life while pigs have their ears and tails chopped off. These processes are painful for the "unit," which still feels the distress that causes this unnatural behaviour. But the "product" receives less damage and profits are maximized. The rationality of the market becomes perverse when applied to sentient beings.

The list of abuses is long, disgusting and alternately heart-wrenching and nauseating. It is a list that we should come into contact with far more often, because the treatment of food animals is a disgrace that most people would not tolerate were they to understand the true significance of the issue. Vegetarianism is only one possible answer to reducing this form of suffering. Another option is purchasing animal products derived from free-range, humanely handled animals and simply choosing more vegetarian options in a day.

Christmas is an ideal time to talk about issues like compassion and make gestures that challenge the everyday norms we take for granted. At the same time, letting people eat in peace, whatever their choices, is a common courtesy that helps our society function smoothly. But if someone tells you talking about animal rights in the context of the food system is self-righteous, tell them to get stuffed--thinking happens. It's evolution, baby.

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