We Ate a Lot of Hearts, Because You Could Get Them for Nothing
When I watched hens dumped into trash bins to be gassed at A&L Poultry last year, I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, isn’t that appropriate…this is exactly how the egg industry sees unwanted hens. They’re trash to them.” It was such a powerful visual metaphor.
The title of this article is a partial quote from a recent Smithsonian article, a sit-down conversation between two food critics – Ruth Reichl and Michael Pollan.
The full quote from Reichl, “We ate a lot of hearts of every kind because you get them for nothing.”
The heart, that incredible muscle beating, pumping to keep living beings alive diminished to nothing. How can we move forward with cherishing life if we demean that most powerful muscle? The value of a heart - nothing.
Of course those of us who feel other animals are not here for us to eat, wear, or exploit beg to differ. Reichl does not advocate we stop suffering, in fact, through this flippant statement, she enables the suffering of billions, the violent cessation of so many hearts.
Later in the piece, Pollan talks about how empowering food choices are, that they are one of the decisions we make in which we have complete control. He’s absolutely right. The food choices we make have an impact on our friends, family, colleagues and social peers. They also have an impact on other animals, the environment, our health, and the welfare of workers employed/exploited in various food industries.
Afterwards, he shares a story about a pig he raised who ended up dying during a poorly executed introduction between two pigs. He could not eat that pig (Kosher) but goes on to say, “I think now I could raise a pig and kill a pig for food. I didn’t feel a sense of attachment. Clearly a pig is a very intelligent animal, but I think I could probably do that.”
It’s true, pigs are smart. They can learn to turn on heaters when they are cold and turn them off when they get warm. They have learned to play simplified video games. I love telling visitors about the intelligence of pigs, because few people think of pigs in terms of their cognitive abilities. Even if pigs were not smart, though, they have an inherent right to be free of exploitation and harm. Intelligence should never be a determining factor in whether we violently end the life of another being.
Pollan’s description of farmed animals gets worse, though (bold faced my own, for emphasis). “I raised chickens, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to kill them, but by the time they were mature, I couldn’t wait to kill them. They were ruining my garden, abusing one another, making a tremendous mess. Meat birds are not like hens. Their brains have been bred right out of them, they’re really nasty and stupid. And every other critter for miles around was coming after them. … In the end, I couldn’t wait to do the deed, because otherwise, somebody else was going to get the meat.”
When people say these things outloud, I can’t help but wonder if they actually spent any meaningful time with the nonhumans they so despise.
I mean, first of all, “meat birds are not like hens” is simply factually inaccurate. The types of birds raised for their flesh are male and female. This means that some are in fact hens (female chickens).
That’s minor, compared to his next statement, “Their brains have been bred right out of them, they’re really nasty and stupid.”
My visceral reaction was “Geez, what a jerk!” because I and other chicken lovers have spent time with Cornish crosses (the “type” of bird raised for their flesh) and haven’t had this experience.
Upon further reflection, though, the statement is a common method employed by those in power to further dis-empower, disenfranchise, blame, and demean those not in power. It is classic victim-blaming. Because it does not matter if chickens are really nasty and stupid, they still exist for their own purposes, desires, and wants. By calling chickens nasty and stupid, Pollan enables others to continue abusing and consuming chickens. It’s a lot easier to slaughter and eat the flesh of a nonhuman you believe is “stupid” and “nasty”…very pejorative terms.
Of course the experience Pollan had and the experiences I’ve had are very different. My knowledge of “meat birds” is through the lens of a sanctuary where nonhumans live out their lives. The Cornish crosses I have met have been engaging, inquisitive surveyors of their world.
It’s true they have been artificially selected by humans to be voracious eaters. That is not their fault. At the sanctuary, we provide them with ample space to forage and fillers to keep them as satiated as possible. But they are always edgy around food, always.
I could wax poetic about Cornish crosses and their awesomeness. But that is just as meaningless, on some level, as Pollan’s vituperative statements about chickens. Whether these birds are nasty, stupid, sweet crooners, or gentle is moot. They want to live. They experience emotions and pain, joy. They have desires outside of our palate preferences. Ending their lives violently for no other reason than a moment of gustatory pleasure? That seems to be a far nastier act than trouncing a garden bed.