I am not a vegetarian. But I’m trying to be because the killing of animals bothers me.
As a city-bred child the first time I was confronted with an animal being slaughtered was while seeing the film Apocalypse Now, and I had trouble coping with watching something die. “At what exact point did its life end?”, I remember thinking.
It was the final scene in the Cambodian jungle, the setting for insanity and hell, when the water buffalo was hacked gradually to death by a slight man with a machete. The initial impact was a mere tap. The cow wobbles a little, its legs faltering. The second and third strikes open up the back of its neck revealing the spine and a translucent red, and the legs give way to the huge dying mass above them. It seems surprised and attempts to regain its footing. The animal, its eyes glazed with fear and endorphins, moves its mouth as if trying to grasp its existence and drag it back.
We struggle to watch our own species being killed in war footage of soldiers being ripped to pieces (dying with a neat red dot on your uniform is for the movies only) and Holocaust victims walking obediently to their graves.
On September 11 2001 New Yorkers were confronted with a reality that abattoir workers face everyday; that we’re essentially moisture and meat. There was a “pink mist” hovering near the bottom of the towers from the bodies that had come down. People eager to dissolve such horrific images will say that you pass out during a plunge from a great height. Watching these poor figures perform – “flailing and kicking” – on the way down revealed the awful truth.
Despite the harsh punishments and strong talk of some countries and states (there are some exceptions like Saudi Arabia, for example) we also have trouble killing people we’ve sentenced to death. The prisoners remain on death row for years and, until recent times, were fried or strangled slowly on antiquated or faulty equipment designed by non-professionals.
“The human body is not easy to destroy. It’s not easy to take a life humanely and painlessly” said Fred A Leuchter, JR, the self-taught execution ‘expert’.
The process of turning a live animal into a food that is unrecognisable as an animal also takes some (ugly) doing.
But we don’t mind animals being killed for our meat … as long as we don’t see it. And we don’t because the abattoirs are located in the provinces where “the hot, fertiliser-thick stench of blood” can’t be smelled and the squealing and bellowing of condemned animals isn’t heard.
Killing anything involves a moral choice. Non-vegetarians justify the slaughter of animals on the grounds that they are bred for it and thus owe their life to it, and because they’re treated humanely (it is interesting that the term ‘humane’ comes from ‘human’, the only animal really capable of cruelty.). The phrase “killed instantly” is also used as if dying suddenly is a good thing. ‘Instant’ is great for pasta or noodles but not for the ending of a life.
But you sense an unease over such reasoning; that they allow the slaughter because they just can’t resist meat.
The sight of some individuals savouring meat is enough to turn me into a misanthrope. Karl Stefanovic on Today (“Your mouth’s watering Karl!”) is groaning with pleasure over the sight of the Angus bull, its flank chalked with the various cuts of meat, on the weather segment. The presenter, done up as a cowgirl, then pretends to ride the hulking, stationary animal savaging its spine with her humping. The segment ends with the sound of Karl’s loud, liquidy laugh.
Or Matt Preston’s chin and red lips, lying on a paisley cravat, working away on a piece of pork crackling: “Aah, my favourite, this”. Between mouthfuls, “Mmm….so…so….scrumptious!”
And this is what would-be vegetarians must confront: the power of meat. Its complex flavour and texture makes it the foundation of most great meals and the best accompaniment to good wine; and that lovely smell. It has been the basis of feasts and family gatherings since recorded history. Vegetarian meals are trying hard with their herbs and spices and pseudo sausages, roasts and bacon, but will never be able to match meat’s magic “juices”.
There is a lack of respect, contempt even, for the animals we kill and eat. And that’s not including the appalling treatment of foie gras geese and veal calves, or the actions of some abattoir workers who jump on chickens because they “like to hear the popping sound they make”.
Many people, including some so-called vegetarians, consider the suffocating fish flopping about in a boat unworthy of sympathy (“not a fish left living and you laughing” – Robert Adamson).
Live crabs being tied up with string in Asian groceries depresses me, and two of our culture’s most popular and cute baby animals, the lamb and the piglet, are killed for their succulent young flesh; the latter given the indignity of being served whole on a platter with an apple stuffed in its mouth. We give our pets names and arrange funerals for them, but send pigs more intelligent than dogs to assembly line slaughter.
To mask the stench of death hovering over the produce, likeable and respected celebrities are used to promote meat and animal by-products: Sam Kekovich’s comic lamb monologues, Sam Neill explaining red meat’s importance for our children’s brain development, and Sigrid Thornton plugging fish oil tablets.
I sometimes need meat to regain strength after sport. I like steak tartare and still can’t refuse cured meats. ‘Cured’ – such a comforting name even if the horrendous killing has already been done.
Apparently salami gives us cancer. Can we really complain – having sent all those poor animals to their maker to make it?