The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

The domestication contract

PETA protesting eggsI know that many of you are still stuck on the ethics of eating meat simply because you can't bear to think that you were personally responsible for the death of a cuddly cow or cute chicken.  If you're going to go that route, you should definitely become a vegan, since being a vegetarian doesn't prevent the death of livestock --- check out my essay about the bloody side of eggs, for example.

But I hope you'll consider the fact that most of the animals that we kill are domesticated livestock that wouldn't be able to survive in the wild if turned loose to fend for themselves.  We've entered into a contract with our cows and pigs, just as we have with our cats and dogs (although the terms are a bit different.)  We feed them, shelter them, and give them a happy life...until the day the guillotine falls.

Chickens in a village in ThailandIn nature, omnivores (like humans) eat other animals, and death is part of life.  It just made sense to those first Red Jungle Fowl to hang around human villages, staying where the food was copious and the predators were few.  In effect, the chickens-to-be traded a dangerous life full of wild predators for a safe and easy life with only one predator --- man.

On the other hand, pain and suffering are not part of the contract --- I believe that CAFOs void the terms of our domestication agreement.  On our homestead, chickens are raised on pasture, live a happy life, and are killed quickly, so I consider this a valid way to honor the agreement early humans and Red Jungle Fowl made when the latter started hanging around camps of the former.

When I was in high school, I knee-jerked toward semi-vegetarianism, but since then I've examined the issue in more detail and concluded that eating meat in moderation is better for the planet.  In many ways, I think that being a vegetarian is a lot like washing the birds caught in the oil spill --- both actions make us feel better about living in a dangerous world in which things die, but neither action actually helps that world become a better place.  I'd like to make the world a better place.

Want to make your chickens' world a better place?  Add a homemade chicken waterer and improve their health while preventing feather pecking.

This post is part of our Ethics of Vegetarianism lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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We've entered into a contract with our cows and pigs

I think this is somewhat dodgy, because when people enter into contracts with each other, they can discuss the terms of the contract, negotiate back and forth, get third parties involved to make sure everyone understands the terms the same way, etc. Animals don't have that option, and I think it's misleading to say things like "we can treat animals this way, because that's the contract we agreed to". When the Red Jungle Fowl started hanging around humans, that may have been a good move for them, but they clearly didn't do it because they talked to the humans and decided that the terms the humans were offering made sense.

For that matter, once you start down that path, why can't you argue that part of the "contract" was that the humans get to abuse the birds in agonizing ways before they die? Maybe living a safe but painful life for three long years is still a better deal than living just one year while being constantly hunted by predators. For all we know, physical pain inflicted by humans is way more tolerable to a chicken than the emotional anguish of constantly running for its life from predators. My point is that you can't actually ask them, they can't actually tell you, and they certainly can't make agreements with us based on their preferences, at least not in anything like the way humans can with each other. (e.g. I'd rather get paid a lot of money to work in a boring but physically safe office job; someone else might take less money to do something more exciting, even if it's more physically dangerous.)

I don't mean to be argumentative; I just don't think that it works to frame your position this way. I think it's entirely fine to say "chickens are dumb things who can't make deals with us, so we're entitled to do basically whatever we want to them, but for our own sake as humans, we should treat them kindly". But I don't think the language of contracts helps support that view.

Comment by irilyth [] Thu Jul 1 13:55:12 2010

My point is that you can't actually ask them, they can't actually tell you, and they certainly can't make agreements with us based on their preferences...

you most certainly can actually ask them, and they most certainly can actually tell you

and yes, they can and have done and do make agreements with us based on their preferences

communication with another being (chicken or human or whatever) only takes making the effort and paying attention


thanks anna and mark for a fantastic blog

i read often and always learn something new/become inspired to try something new

best, teri

Comment by teri Thu Jul 1 15:31:13 2010

I have to say, Anna, your recent posts have given me renewed food for thought on topics I thought I had solid opinions on.

In my mind I had subconsciously disconnected the 'minnows in the puddles' and 'oil spill wildlife rehabilitation' merits and consequences. I'm with you on the fish, but the birds present a problem. The fish will perish on account of the natural processes of nature-- that is, no living creature (unless you consider the earth a superorganism) caused the puddles to be intentionally or unintentionally formed casting the fishlets to their eventual doom. The birds, on the other hand, are perishing as a direct result of human activity and mishap, and as stewards of nature, from which we subsist, it seems like the rational thing to do to attempt to prevent needless suffering.

Does this mean we ought to rehabilitate or humanely kill, as the article you linked suggests as an alternative to the efforts to rehabilitate wildlife which will ultimately die due to toxin exposure. I always try to empathize the situation by drawing human analogy-- would it have been better to humanely kill Chernobyl victims of acute radiation sickness before their eventual death?

I used to support the death penalty. (I might still, I'm not sure anymore now that you've shaken up my internal Magic 8 Ball. ;)) Deep in the recesses of my brain it made no sense for a life to go by wasted without rehabilitation or meaningful pursuits, locked away forever on the taxpayers' dollar. At the same time, I sit in no place of judgment on those who feel it is their right control their life, even when they leave it.

So my knee-jerk reaction was that society would pitch a fit if the Chernobyl victims facing slim hope of survival had just been killed. Had they decided themselves when and where they were to expire via assisted suicide, knowing that radiation sickness is a rather horrible fate to face, then I think there'd be less rioting in the streets and certainly not even a bat of an eyelash from me.

Then the difference is choice? And I think that's the long way of saying I agree with irilyth, that the negotiations of the contract have broken down due to our lack of Dr. Dolittle qualities. I'm also not sure that we can claim domestication of these animals as our badge of superiority over them, seeing as how we're a domesticated species ourselves (see The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan)-- who's domesticating whom and ought we not consider the reciprocal nature of relationships like contracts?

Though if I were to suspend this digression-filled line of thinking, I would agree with the sentiment your expressed, Anna, that CAFOs are decidedly inhumane, unsustainable, and push this domestication 'contract' to extremes. How many people would eat 7 cheeseburgers a week if they had to slaughter the cow or make the cheese? How many would enjoy lamb chops having to take the knife to a cute little fuzzbutt? Fewer, I'll put it that way. This irresponsible disengagement from our food web has pulled the wool over our eyes (pun intended, haha)-- and the same is true during wartime when we're selectively fed media. Life is a giant Milgram experiment, and ignorance isn't bliss it's unsustainable.

Dang, have I conjured enough taboo topics yet? :o Anyway, thanks for the seeding my garden of thought!

Comment by W.E. Junkie Thu Jul 1 16:35:22 2010

Boy, I've been lax in moderating comments today! Thank you all for keeping the ball rolling with very thoughtful discourse in my absence! (And I think I probably won't get to the other entries until tomorrow --- I'm not ignoring you!)

Josh and Teri --- Josh has a very good point that using the term "contract" is a very human term. On the other hand, Teri has a very good point that our livestock do tell us what they want and need --- when our chickens get out of their tractors or pasture, they wander around the fence for a while then pop back inside. Worst case scenario, all it takes to get them back in is to rattle a bit of grain in a cup, and they come running for their captivity. Clearly, our chickens think they've got a pretty good deal with their current domestication contract.

On the other hand, they almost certainly can't put two and two together and realize that the eight cockerels who went missing a few weeks ago went into our bellies. It's clearly up for debate whether they'd still choose to live their life of ease if they could wrap their heads around that future concept. I guess my conclusion is that our domesticated animals each make their own contract with the individual people in their lives, based on the contracts their ancestors made with our ancestors. And there are domesticated animals that choose to leave the agreement --- they go feral and end up being the cats slinking away behind the dumpsters or the wild ponies on our barrier islands. I agree that my terminology is dodgy, but I do think there seems to be some agreement on both sides.

And, yes, humans have the upper hand. We're able to treat our animals in ways that are inhumane, and I think it's incumbant upon us, as the species with more ability for forethought, to prevent that.

Teri --- Thanks for your kind words! I'm always glad that people don't mind being forced to think far more than the average American wants to. :-)

Walden Effect Junkie --- I agree with a lot of what you said about the oil spill. I think that the additional piece of feeling/data I add to that --- which to me separates the Chernobyl victims from the oil spill victims --- is how terrifying it must be for a wild bird to be cleaned by well meaning humans. I've been present when scientists mist-netted birds, and it made me sick to my stomach, even though I knew that the data was important. The birds were so terrified by being handled, that they froze in place and often couldn't fly away when the scientist opened his hand. Now, if we knew that our actions were going to save the lives of the oil-covered birds, that pure terror would be worth it. But I think that the treatment we gave Chernobyl victims, while probably very painful, wasn't as terrifying as the treatment we gave the birds.

I really like your point about our co-domestication. Botany of Desire is a wonderful book, and I recommend everyone read it!

Comment by anna Thu Jul 1 21:15:41 2010
the thing about rescuing birds, is that it varies with the type of bird, yes rescuing terns and gulls is probably not a good idea, they tend to die of heart attack while being handled and thus have a low survival rate. Brown pelicans on the other hand don't seem to mind it much and research from previous oil spills has shown that there is over 90% survival with birds found years later happily reproducing.
Comment by Rebecca Fri Jul 2 10:22:41 2010
That makes a lot of sense. I haven't looked into the specifics, and it does sound like pelicans might be on the list of birds it's worth trying to save.
Comment by anna Fri Jul 2 11:31:40 2010

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