Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Eating Animals

A propos of little except I'd already been thinking of doing so – and but then the book appeared, for no reason I can work out, out on the display table at Daunt Books in Chelsea (fooling me into thinking there was a new UK paperback edition) Eating Animals – herewith excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. I really love this book because the author undertakes – or at the very least claims – to begin from a neutral, unbiased, truth-seeking position (including interviewing people, like farmers, on all sides of the issue)… and then reaches the conclusion it seems to me anyone even modestly rational and compassionate, and who thinks about it for five seconds, inevitably ought to.

When I was nine, I had a babysitter who didn't want to hurt anything. She put it just like that when I asked her why she wasn't having chicken with my older brother and me: "I don't want to hurt anything." "Hurt anything?" I asked. "You know that chicken is a chicken, right?" Her intention might or might not have been to convert us to vegetarianism – just because conversations about meat tend to make people feel cornered, not all vegetarians are proselytizers – but my brother and I looked at each other, our mouths full of hurt chickens, and had simultaneous how-in-the-world-could-I-have-never-tought-of-that-before-and-why-on-earth-didn't-someone-tell-me? moments. I put down my fork. Frank finished the meal and is probably eating a chicken as I type these words.

We don't hurt family members. We don't hurt friends or strangers. We don't even hurt upholstered furniture.

Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about "eating animals," they assumed that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.

Dogs are wonderful, and in many ways unique. But they are remarkably unremarkable in their intellectual and experiential capacities. Pigs are every bit as intelligent and feeling, by any sensible definition of the words. They can't hop into the back of a Volvo, but they can fetch, run and play, be mischievous, and reciprocate affection. So why don't they get to curl up by the fire? Why can't they at least be spared being tossed on the fire?

Special pickax tools called gaffs were (and still are) used to pull in large fish once they were within reach. Slamming a gaff into the side, fin, or even the eye of a fish creates a bloody but effective handle to help haul it on deck. No reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog's face. Nothing could be more obvious or less in need of explanation.

Globally, roughly 50 billion land animals are now factory farmed every year. Ninety-nine percent of all land animals eaten or used to produce milk and eggs in the United States are factory farmed.

The typical cage for egg-laying hens allows each sixty-seven square inches of floor space. Step your mind into a crowded elevator, an elevator so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into (and aggravating) your neighbor. The elevator is so crowded you are often held aloft. This is a kind of blessing, as the slanted floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet. After some time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic. There is no respite, no relief. No elevator repairman is coming. The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your journey to the only place worse (see: processing).

What happens to all of the male offspring of layers? They serve no function. Which is why all male layers – half of all the layer chickens born in the United states, more than 250 million chicks a year – are destroyed. Most are destroyed by being sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified plate. Some are tossed into large plastic containers. The weak are trampled to the bottom, where they suffocate slowly. Others are sent fully conscious through macerators (picture a wood chipper filled with chicks).

DOWNER: An animal that collapses from poor health and is unable to stand back up. Estimates put the number of downed cows at around 200,000 a year. In most of America's fifty states, it is perfectly legal (and perfectly common) to simply let downers die of exposure over days or toss them, live, into dumpsters.

"I was driving around the Lancaster stockyard, and saw, around back, a pile of downers. I approached, and one of the sheep moved her head. I realized she was still alive, left there to suffer. So I put her in the back of my van. I'd never done anything like that before, but I couldn't leave her like that. I took her to the vet, expecting she'd be euthanized. But after a bit of prodding, she just stood right up. We took her to our house in Wilmington, and then, when we got the farm, we took her there. She lived ten years. Ten. Good years."

Farmed animals contribute more to climate change than transport – 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector. Omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.

The free-range label is bullshit. To be considered free-range, chickens raised for meat must have "access to the outdoors." Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch – and that door is closed all but occasionally. "Free-range" (or "cage-free") laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once "spent."

Pigs will come when called (to humans or one another), will play with toys (and have favorites), and have been observed coming to the aid of other pigs in distress. Dr. Stanley Curtis, an animal scientist friendly to the industry, evaluated the cognitive abilities of pigs by training them to play a video game with a joystick modified for snouts. They not only learned the games, but did so as fast as chimpanzees. And the legend of pigs undoing latches continues – pigs often work in pairs, are usually repeat offenders, and in some cases undo the latches of fellow pigs.

And chickens? Our present knowledge of bird brains has made it "clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates." Chickens can pass information generationally, and can delay satisfaction for larger rewards.

KFC is arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history. KFC buys nearly a billion chickens a year. At a slaughterhouse in West Virginia that supplies KFC, workers were documented tearing the heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them. These acts were witnessed dozens of times. This slaughterhouse was not a "bad apple," but a "Supplier of the Year."

Virtually everyone agrees that animals can suffer in ways that matter. Even those who continue to deny that the environment is in peril would agree that it would be bad if it were. Nothing comes close to having the impact of our dietary choices. Virtually all of us agree that it matters how we treat animals and the environment, and yet few of us give much thought to our most important relationship to animals and the environment. Odder still, those who do choose to act in accordance with these uncontroversial values by refusing to eat animals (which everyone agrees can reduce both the number of abused animals and one's ecological footprint) are often considered marginal or even radical.

In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book. I never heard back from Tyson or any of the companies I wrote to. (It sends one kind of message to say no. It sends another not to say anything at all.) The power brokers of factory farming know that their business model depends on consumers not being able to see (or hear about) what they do.

We creep in. There are tens of thousands of turkey chicks, huddled in groups, asleep beneath the heat lamps installed to replace the warmth of their mothers. The closer I look, the more I see. The ends of the beaks are blackened, as are the ends of their toes. Because there are so many animals, it takes me several minutes before I take in just how many dead ones there are. Some are blood matted; some are covered in sores. A chick is trembling on its side, legs splayed, eyes crusted over. Its beak is slightly open, and its head is shaking back and forth.

People care about animals. I believe that. They just don't want to know or to pay. A fourth of all chickens have stress fractures. It's wrong. They're packed body to body, and can't escape their waste, and never see the sun. Their nails grow around the bars of their cages. It's wrong. They feel their slaughters. I hate seeing them on the truck, waiting to be taken to slaughter. They're looking back at me, saying, "Get me off of here." Killing is… it's very… It's like… they look at me and I tell them, "Please forgive me." It's wrong and people know it's wrong. They don't have to be convinced. They just have to act differently. I'm not better than anyone, and I'm not trying to convince people to live by my standards of what's right. I'm trying to convince them to live by their own.

Whereas AIDS took roughly twenty-four years to kill 24 million people, the Spanish flu killed as many in twenty-four weeks – as many as a 100 million people were killed worldwide. In 2005, the source of the 1918 pandemic was discovered to be avian influenza – bird flu. A major scientific question had been answered. New viruses, which move between farmed animals and humans, will be a major global health threat into the foreseeable future. The most devastating disease event the world has ever known, and one of the greatest health threats before us today, has everything to do with the health of the world's farmed animals.

It's hard to get one's head around the magnitude of 33,000 birds in one room. Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy. Virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chickens become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria.

The farming is done, it's now time for "processing". First you'll need to find the workers to gather the birds into crates – you will have to continuously find the workers, since annual turnover rates typically exceed 100 percent. Pay your recent immigrant workers minimum wage to scoop up the birds – grabbing five in each hand, upside down by the legs – and jam them into transport crates. Upon arrival at the plant, have more workers sling the birds, to hang upside down by their ankles in metal shackles, onto a moving conveyor system. More bones will be broken. Often the screaming of the birds and the flapping of their wings will be so loud that workers won't be able to hear the person next to them on the line. The conveyor system drags the birds through an electrified water bath. This most likely paralyzes them but doesn't render them insensible. In America, where the USDA's interpretation of the Human Slaughter Act exempts chicken slaughter, the voltage is kept low – about one-tenth the level necessary to render the animals unconscious. Sometimes the birds will have enough control of their bodies to slowly open their beaks, as though attempting to scream. The next stop on the line for the immobile-but-conscious bird will be an automated throat slitter. Blood will slowly drain out of the bird, unless the relevant arteries are missed, which happens, according to another worker I spoke with, "all the time." About 180 million chickens are improperly slaughtered each year. I spoke to numerous catchers, live hangers, and kill men who described birds going alive and conscious into the scalding tank. After the birds' heads are pulled off and their feet removed, machines open them with a vertical incision and remove their guts. Contamination often occurs here, as the high-speed machines commonly rip open intestines, releasing feces into the birds' body cavities. "Every week, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers."

The origin of food-borne illness is, overwhelmingly, an animal product – 83 percent of all chicken meat (including organic and antibiotic-free brands) is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase. The CDC estimates there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness in American each year. Your friend didn't "catch a bug" so much as eat a bug. And in all likelihood that bug was created by factory farming.

More than 99 percent of all chickens sold for meat in America live and die like this. All birds come from similar Frankenstein-like genetic stock; all are confined; none enjoy the breeze or the warmth of sunlight; none are able to fulfill all (or usually any) of their species-specific behaviors like nesting, perching, exploring the environment, and forming stable social units; illness is always rampant; suffering is always the rule; death is invariably cruel. Every year fifty billion birds are made to live and die like that.

In the United States, about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but a whopping 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock. The implications for creating drug-resistant pathogens are quite straightforward. Study after study has shown that antimicrobial resistance follows quickly on the heels of the introduction of new drugs on factory farms. The AMA, the CDC, and the WHO have called for a ban – but the factory farm industry has effectively opposed such a ban.

The source of the industry's immense power is not obscure. We give it to them. We have chosen, unwittingly, to fund this industry on a massive scale by eating factory-farmed animal products.

Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science I've discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit.

Beyond food-borne illness and communicable diseases, there is the now widely recognized relationship between the nation's major killers (heart disease, number one; cancer, number two; and stroke, number three) and meat consumption or, much less obviously, the distorting influence of the meat industry on the information about nutrition we receive from the government and medical professionals.

Vegetarians and vegans (including athletes) "meet and exceed requirements" for protein. Excess animal protein is linked with osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers. Despite some persistent confusion, it is clear that vegetarians and vegans tend to have more optimal protein consumption than omnivores.

The ADA reports that vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have a lower BMI and lower overall cancer rates.

If it's sometimes hard to believe that eschewing animal products will make it easier to eat healthfully, there is a reason: we are constantly lied to about nutrition.

Consider, for example, the National Dairy Council – whose sole purpose, according to its website, is to "drive increased sales of and demand for U.S. dairy products." The NDC promotes dairy consumption without regard for negative public-health consequences. As a trade group NDC's behavior is at least understandable. What is hard to comprehend is why educators and government have, since the 1950s, allowed the NDC to become arguably the largest and most important supplier of nutritional-education materials in the nation.

The pig is then hung up again, and someone – Mario's son, today – cuts it lengthwise down the middle with a power saw. One expects – or I expected – to see the belly cut open and so on, but to see the face cut in half, the nose split down its middle, and the halves of the head peeled open like a book is shocking.

It's a powerful thing to be so close to such large, intelligent animals so near to their deaths. Apropos of nothing or everything, Mario starts talking about his dog. He didn't used to like small dogs. Thought they weren't real dogs. Then he got a small dog. Now he loves small dogs. The knocker comes out, waving his bloody arms, and takes another pig. He tells the story of a cow that had been brought to him. As Mario was preparing to kill the cow, it licked his face. Over and over. Maybe it was used to being a companion. Maybe it was pleading.

God. That actually only gets me about halfway through (my highlighting of) the book. But it's an awful lot. There's more, on the horrible sewage and waste of factory farms, the sadism endemic to slaughterhouse workers, the "by-catch" killing of billions of aquatic creatures, conversations with vegetarian ranchers, Thanksgiving, social aspects of eating, the difficulty of speaking out, how the veil of secrecy is breaking down, progress in animal welfare, and on and on. Like I said, it's already a lot, and (believe it or not) I'm very aware that people's attention is a limited resource, and I try to be conservative with it. (If you want more, of course I really recommend reading the book.) I guess I'll close with a few of his conclusions – or, more often, questions:

What should we all expect of one another when it comes to the question of eating animals? Where should I respectfully disagree with someone and where, for the sake of deeper values, should I take a stand and ask others to stand with me?

Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn't motivating, what would be?

We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?

  animal rights     books     veganism  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
ARISEN : Last Stand
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 1 - The Collapse
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 2 - Tribes
Black Squadron
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 3 - Dead Men Walking
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 4 - Duty
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 5 - The Last Raid
ARISEN : Fickisms ][ – This Time, It's Personal
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple
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