Monday, November 30, 2009

Eating Animals: Hiding / Seeking - the fourth chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm wearing black in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. There are surgical booties around my disposable shoes and latex gloves on my shaking hands. I pat myself down, quintuple-checking that I have everything: red-filtered flashlight, picture ID, $40 cash, video camera, copy of California penal code 597e, bottle of water (not for me), silenced cell phone, blow horn. We kill the engine and roll the final thirty yards to the spot we scouted out earlier in the day on one of our half-dozen drive-bys. This isn't the scary part yet.
Thus begins the fourth chapter of Foer's book, the chapter entitled Hiding/Seeking. A lot happens in this chapter. As you may have gleaned, it begins with our hero pretty much breaking into a factory farming facility. He does so with a woman we call "C", who seems to do such things on a fairly regular basis. But she is not radical or extremist. We actually get to know how she feels about it, because it is in this chapter that Foer begins to use the device of personal narratives - that is, short segments actually written by various people he interacted with while writing the book (rather than just about them). Whereas his description of the event has the subheading, "I'm not the kind of person who finds himself on a stranger's farm in the middle of the night", her section, which immediately follows, is titled "I am the kind of person who finds herself on a stranger's farm in the middle of the night." {Emphasis added.} Get it?

Unlike the black bandanna-wearing members of the ALF that you sometimes see around NYC, chanting things like "We will drive the final nail!" (sorry guys, but what does that even mean?), C seems like a person you could comfortably take into your living room.
I am not a radical. In almost every way, I'm a middle-of-the-road person. I don't have any piercings. No weird haircut. I don't do drugs. Politically, I'm liberal on some issues and conservative on others. But see, factory farming is a middle-of-the-road issue - something most reasonable people would agree on if they had access to the truth...

It's crazy that the idea of animal rights seems crazy to anyone. We live in a world in which it's conventional to treat an animal like a hunk of wood and extreme to treat an animal like an animal.
Well said, C. (But, you know, it's so convenient to treat them like hunks of wood.)

Foer, somewhat needless to say, is moved by his experience of witnessing conditions at the factory of animals. But what disturbs him most is the difficulty they have finding a door to the animal sheds that isn't locked.
We spend several minutes like this, looking for an unlocked door. Another why: Why would a farmer lock the doors of his turkey farm? It can't be because he's afraid someone will steal his equipment or animals... A farmer doesn't lock his doors because he's afraid his animals will escape. (Turkeys can't turn doorknobs.)... So why? 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.
The next section, surprisingly enough, has the heading "I am a factory farmer." Reading this is sort of like talking to a rational republican. You think, Well, I see what you're saying, and clearly you've thought it through. But I think you may be missing some things... For example: "Sure, you could say that people should just eat less meat, but I've got news for you: people don't want to eat less meat." No, many people do not want to eat less meat. People also don't want to go to school, work eight hours a day, pay rent or a mortgage, follow driving laws, have their teeth cleaned, go visit grandma in the hospital, clean the house, take the trash out, or pay their taxes. There are plenty of things that people don't want to do. But in order for society to function, and for individuals to remain safe and healthy, they do them. It is part of being a responsible adult on the planet earth which has an ever-increasing population. What am I really saying here? Sorry folks, suck it up. Your 99 cent cheeseburger has just got to go.

The chapter goes on to say a good deal about chickens. Given that an estimated 99% of chickens come from factory farms, they become a good icon for this system of creating food animals. (I have seen this number cited in numerous places, but unfortunately I can't find you an unbiased reference for it.) "As described in industry journals from the 1960s onward, the egg-laying hen was to be considered 'only a very efficient converting machine', the pig was to be 'just like a machine in a factory', and the twenty-first century was to bring a new 'computer cookbook of recipes for custom-designed creatures.'" *shiver*

The last segment of this chapter is one called "I am the last poultry farmer." It is written by a man who raises turkeys, and loves them as if children. Except, of course, that he eventually kills them so that people can eat them, which most people will not do with their children. He is, however, the first of the contributors to give a name: Frank Reese. He doesn't support or want to have anything to do with factory farming methods.
Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can't even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won't allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can't reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that?... What the industry figured out - and this was the real revolution - is that you don't need healthy animals to make a profit.
As you may have guessed, he raises what are now referred to as "heritage birds", rather than the genetically adulterated birds generally raised for commercial uses these days (i.e. for the past maybe 50 years). His birds can fly, and jump... and have sex. Frank makes a statement in his diatribe that I strongly agree with: "If consumers don't want to pay the farmer to do it right, they shouldn't eat meat." There's that 99 cent cheeseburger again.
Just the other day, one of the local pediatricians was telling me he's seeing all kinds of illnesses that he never used to see... Everyone knows it's our food. We're messing with the genes of these animals and then feeding them growth hormones and all kinds of drugs that we really don't know enough about. And then we're eating them.
Couldn't have said it better myself, Frank.

And people still wonder why I'm vegan?


Krysta said...

I just finished reading this book. I loved it, but I have one major problem with it: Foer lets himself off the hook with just being a vegetarian. He doesn't even TOUCH the dairy industry. But all vegans know that drinking milk and eating eggs is just as bad as eating meat. Not being directly involved in the death of an animal (eating meat), is just no good enough when the problem that needs solving is animal cruelty. Anyway, I'm enjoying your reviews, so keep going!

melissa bastian. said...

Hello! I don't know how it is that I didn't see your comment until just now. Anyway yes, this has been a major point of contention in the vegan community, and from what I understand Foer himself recognizes the folly to an extent. I have heard him quoted as saying (from fairly reliable sources) that he is "working on transitioning to veganism" (that's a paraphrase). So we'll see.

Krysta said...

someone should tell him it's not work to be a vegan! Anyway I hope you're right, it'll make me even happier about the book.