Ideas and actions are two very different things. They can act in a cyclical way – one informing the other, and sometimes they can be very separate.
Academia seems to have a very obvious bias against western thought. Almost everything I have read so far has blamed the current poor state of wildlife, animals and the environment in general on western thinking; Judeo-Christian belief systems and its resulting actions.
This seems extremely simplistic and quite narrow. Surely not everything that is wrong with the anthropocene has stemmed from western belief systems?
It feels a bit like putting the baby out with the bath water. Slavery and colonisation are horrible realities, which we are continuing to deal and not deal with, but they are of course not uniquely western actions.
And, in terms of animal cruelty, habitat loss, pollution, deforestation, species loss and animal holocaust, these are hardly western-only atrocities. What is curious is the action towards, not the idea of animals in so called western and eastern realms.
While western thought and belief systems are being blamed for everything, actions in both realms are abhorrent regardless of idea. Sharks have been decimated for their fins for soup, bears are milked of their bile, set to fight, and have their paws amputated, monkeys are kept in cages to eat coffee beans which are prized or have their brains eaten whilst still alive. This is not fiction, these are real practices. The ‘idea’ of the animal or the belief systems surrounding them has not saved these animals from persecution, torture and in some cases, extinction.
Western factory farming is indeed abhorrent and is and should be challenged on a wide scale. The treatment of domesticated farm animals as meat in waiting without comfort, agency, freedom, dignity or peace is a very disturbing practice and a disturbing thought. Actions speak louder than words and they are certainly more powerful than ideas or systems of belief.
Yes, the western world has a very sanitised view of our food – it’s wrapped in cellophane and fluorescently lit in large halls – we are detached from the animals we eat in a disappointing and profound way.
Growing up in Canada, my uncles frequently hunted deer in the autumn for a cheaper and more environmentally friendly form of protein. As a child I would be very distressed by the whole ordeal and would frequently not be told what I was eating to avoid the histrionics.
Another uncle had a farm and my parents purchased a beef calf that lived at his farm for the year. My parents named him ‘Riblets’ and he was jet black and didn’t mind a head scratch now and again when we visited. My parents would laugh and point to the parts of him which would taste the best to tease me.
Although all this sounds sort of sick, and it sort of is for those not within the unique humour of my wonderful family, it was a good experience for me to be so close to my food. Yes, I loved patting and interacting with Riblets in his large outdoor paddock where he had fresh food and what I hoped was a carefree life up until his death, but, I can’t deny that I enjoyed eating him too.
At first I found it difficult when my family would tease me at the dinner table that I was eating Riblets, but at the same time, in hindsight, there was something finite and circular about the experience. Could I have killed him myself? Very highly doubtful. But, knowing he spent his life outside, not force-fed corn in a factory farm gives some comfort to the idea of him as sentient animal whose company I enjoyed and a source of food for my family and me. The same goes for the deer in a sense. There is no way I could imagine being able to pull the trigger to shoot one, but knowing that they were free living and as a result of being shot, didn’t have to suffer through the winter with the others for very little food, gives me a perverse and perhaps ill-suited sense of justification.
Within this realm of meet before you eat, a visit to an Asian marketplace is an assault on the senses as I have experienced a few times. I have seen12 ducks tied by the feet on a sweltering footpath in Shanghai, a large snapping turtle is in a waterless bowl smaller than its body so it could not extend its head out of its shell, a small chipmunk-like rodent in a wire cage the size of a paperback book with deep lacerations on its feet from the wire; it looked at first like it was sleeping but on closer inspection, it was near death.
These are just some of the things I saw during 10 weeks in Shanghai. The suffering of animals was profound but more importantly, needless. I hate the whole east / west debate thing, it’s boring and old and seems to be counterproductive since we are all reliant on the same sun, water, air…, but I can’t help but wonder where this anti-western thought bias sits within the present realm of animals.
The current trend of China away from shark fin soup is heartening and astounding. While people often hold up culture as a defence for animal cruelty and slaughter, and as an excuse for an inability to change, China has not only bucked the trend, it is shattering the whole idea. While some cynics may argue that it is a soft power ploy, it seems to me to be a wonderful turnaround in events. To have a nation of 1.3 billion people to think differently and most importantly, critically of its food, is an astounding achievement. Yes, the idea and impetus for the change came from the west, namely Wildaid, but the action came from the east. Now, if all countries could assess their consumptive patterns of animals in the same critical way, we will be off to a good start.
Animals are food and have been food and will continue to be food. Humans are food and have been food and will continue to be food (God willing if the sharks, vultures and maggots survive) If western thinking’s so-called human / nature dualism is putting humans above animals as seems to be the common idea, what is the alternative? I saw nothing in China that made me want to change my views on animals; it merely strengthened my concern for them.
I don’t want sharks to have their fins hacked off while they are still alive (or when they are dead). I don’t want to see wild animals in cages in zoos or in markets. I don’t want animals force-fed anything so that they taste better to humans. What does all this mean in terms of western / eastern thought about animals? I don’t know. All I know is actions are more important to me than words, ideas, belief systems, ideologies or dogma. And China’s current actions away from shark fin are a beautiful thing.