Friday, December 03, 2010

Cruelty and Contradiction

By Joel Marks
Published as "Kitten’s horrid tale contains conundrum" in The New Haven Register, November 2, 2010, page A6

A news story that was both horrible and heartwarming appeared on Saturday’s front page (“Woman saves kitten tossed from car,” October 30, 2010). Somebody threw a kitten out of a moving car, injuring her severely. But then no fewer than four other drivers stopped their cars to render assistance, with one of them whisking the kitten off to a nearby animal hospital.

Apparently the kitten will survive and then thrive under the loving care of an adoptive owner. But the witnesses to the event and the folks at the hospital remain traumatized and outraged by what they saw. Sample quotations include: “The person has to be sick. Anybody who would do this is a dangerous person. There should be a police investigation”; “so sick to my stomach I could have thrown up”; and “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

The reporter herself referred to the “cruelty” to which the kitten had been subjected. And isn’t that the word that best sums up our natural human feelings towards the abusive treatment of other animals? One of the largest animal organizations has that word in its very name. Yet there is something distinctly odd about how we apply, and especially how we do not apply, the word “cruelty” to other animals.

Look at some numbers. According to one survey, there are approximately 68 million owned dogs and 73 million owned cats in the United States. Let’s suppose – absurdly – that every single one of them were treated cruelly: That’s 141 million animals. Of course the actual number is just a fraction of this. But even if we assumed the higher number, it would itself be only a fraction of the number of animals we eat in the United States: ten billion (which does not include marine animals). And that’s every year. So if you consider the average life expectancy of a cat or a dog to be, say, ten years, then the true comparison is between 141 million pets versus 100 billion food animals.

Now consider two other salient facts: First is that the animals we eat are no less sentient, intelligent, or even adorable than our pets. Second is that the standard treatment of animals we eat would be considered cruel, indeed criminal, if done to our pets. That includes the manner in which they are housed, the actual things done to them, and killing them at a young age even though healthy.

The conclusion would seem to be that our attitude towards the cruel treatment of other animals is contradictory. For both our emotions and our pocketbooks are wide-open when it comes to the cruel treatment of cats and dogs, and even pet gerbils and chicks, but shut tight when it comes to their animal cousins in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Out of sight, out of mind. Or more precisely, since we do see the slab of meat in front of us: mental eyes closed, physical mouth open.

And this attitude applies not only to the eating of meat but to the eating of any animal products, including milk, cheese, and eggs. Thus, 50 percent of newborn chicks are thrown live into meat grinders since the males are not wanted in the production of laying hens. And male calves meet a similar fate in the production of dairy cows, being taken from their mothers and confined to crates for their entire short lives before being killed for veal.

The official position of the American Dietetic Association is that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases [“including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes”]. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.”

How, then, can we human beings be so saddened and angered by the tossing of a kitten out of a car window, and yet condone the production of food made from animals? Are not both activities equally cruel and unnecessary?

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He maintains a website on how to become vegan at

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