Thursday, May 28, 2009

On eating meat, generally (and dog, specifically)

I read this post by Matt and thought I'd add my own point of view on caninophagia.

I eat meat. Probably less than most developed world people, but probably more than most developing world people. For most of us rich people (and I define rich pretty broadly here as anyone who earns more than, say, $10 a day), eating meat is a lifestyle choice. We can get most of what we need from vegetables, so why do we eat meat? Because we like to. We feel, rightly or wrongly, that some combination of the taste, the sociocultural factors, the nutritional content, and a whole host of other factors present in meat justify the slaughter. In recognition of the fact that there is some "sin" (for lack of a better word) committed in the slaughter of an animal for my personal pleasure, I try to think about the slaughter whenever I do eat meat. If I'm going to have a part in the killing the thing, I at least owe it the dignity of recognising that it was once an animal and not just a hunk of tasty goodness that popped into being one day in my fridge.

I was talking to a guy over dinner a few months ago and he expressed the opinion that hunting was murder. We were eating steak at the time... This is very common in the developed world because we completely divorce the eating of meat to the slaughter of meat. We don't kill animals, we have poor people to do that for us. Calling someone who kills the animals a brute and then enjoying their handiwork is the worst kind of classist hypocrisy. It's outsourcing of the nasty moral issues to the poor bastards who have to work in the industrial slaughterhouses so that we can enjoy our tender cut of meat with a squeaky clean conscience. Eating meat is still killing, it's done by proxy, sure, but it wouldn't have been killed if your demand for it didn't exist.

Meat is murder. If you're not comfortable with that, don't eat it.

So, the way I try to justify my meat eating to myself is by asking myself: would I be happy to kill this animal myself, or - at the very least - be there while it is being killed and not look away? If the answer is no, then I shouldn't be eating it.

My set of criteria for deciding whether or not to eat meat is pretty hazy, but tends to depend on the following three factors:

  • the quality of life that the animal lived,
  • the manner in which it was killed, and
  • the sustainability of the raising and harvesting method.

To my mind, kangaroos are just about the perfect meat. They are often culled in Australia, saving them from a slow death from starvation. They live a pretty good life out in the wild and - as long as we're killing them anyway - we might as well put the calories that they have stored to good use. I try not to eat feedlot raised animals (or their products including eggs, milk, etc.) but I probably do on a semi-regular basis. Where I'm reasonably certain that hunting is not done sustainably (e.g. turtle in most places, fish caught using dynamite, non-dolphin safe tuna, etc.) I won't eat the products of it, but other than that I have no problem with hunting generally as long as the animal is killed quickly. The massive uproar in Australia every year about the JAPANESE KILLING OUR WHALES OMG!!!1!!1!1 leaves me quite bemused... I don't really see any difference between a whale and, say, a cow... As long as the populations are monitored and the fishing rate is sustainable then what's the big deal? Arguably, the battery hens that lay eggs that most of these outraged teenage girls eat for breakfast suffer more in their lifetimes than the whales being killed by the Japanese fishing vessels.

This brings me to dog. Specifically dog in Timor. Eating dog is a big thing in Timor. People love it. I was sitting around at a Timorese friend's house a while ago and he told me all about it. Apparently the best way to cook the dog is in what they call "RW" style, where it is basically steamed in a large dutch oven with a whole bunch of herbs and spices and (the secret ingredient) a can of "bir hitam" (stout). Dog is not the sort of thing that you whip up for an afternoon snack; it's a big community event. Even if you don't tell anyone you're cooking it, by the time you take off the lid of the steamer, you'll find yourself surrounded by dozens of new friends ready to share your bounty. Apparently even the Muslims turn up!

In principle, I have no problem with eating dog, as long as it fulfills the three criteria I stated above. As I understand it, pigs are just as intelligent and I eat them. From a public health standpoint, bats and freshwater fish in Jakarta are certainly more worrying, and I've eaten them (though the bat was awful, but not because I was grossed out, it just tasted foul. I'd try it again though). And the way in which the cooking of it brings communities together makes me want to try it sometime. They live pretty good lives on the streets of Dili. They basically eat garbage and turn it into calories that humans can use which is great from an environmental standpoint (though possibly not from a public health standpoint, but I digress). The issue I have is with the slaughter...

To get yourself a dog for your community feast is not as straightforward as buying a pig or a cut of beef (or more likely ox) at the market. People don't sell choice cuts of dog at the corner store. You need to go wandering from door-to-door asking people if they have one they want to sell. Apparently the going rate is about $20. So eventually, you find someone who is willing to part with their pet for this tidy sum, then call it over (often you need a piece of meat to call it, as Timorese dogs tend to be pretty wary of strangers - apparently with good reason) and stuff it in a sack for the trip home. Unsurprisingly, the dogs get pretty worked up while stuffed in the sack and can be tricky to extract to slaughter. To overcome this potential barrier, the Timorese folk have come up with an ingenious solution: a large stick. You make sure that the sack is still securely tied, then you take the stick then beat the dog to death.

Like I said, I have no in-principle objection to eating dog, in fact, I'd rather like to see the party that accompanies the cooking of it, but I feel like the method of slaughter is needlessly cruel.

I feel like it would be a shame to leave without eating dog though, so now I'm torn. I might ask some friends to let me know the next time they're cooking dog so that I can go with them and witness the whole process. Do I have to wield the stick myself to feel comfortable with eating it though? I don't feel necessarily like wielding a stick to beat a dog to death is something one needs to be particularly skilled to do so maybe I should. It's brutal, sure, but like I said, by eating it I'm proxy killing it anyway. If I want to enjoy the meat, I should be viscerally aware of where it comes from.

Maybe I can find a better way to kill them that might be more analagous to the slaughter of, say, a pig. Any tips?

Mr. John Blogs Bonus Feature!

For those who always wondered what RW stood for, the Indonesian Wikipedia article for Dog has the answer. Yes, we all knew it meant dog, I'd asked people all over Java, Bali, Timor, Flores and Papua what it stood for and no one could ever tell me. It turns out, that's because it's Bahasa Tombulu, one of the main languages spoken by the Manadonese people; notorious in Indonesia for eating anything that moves. It stands for Rintek Wuuk*, or "soft hair", being a euphemism for dog that they put on warungs so as not to offend the Muslims.

* Note the similarities between Wuuk and Fuuk (Tetum for "hair")**. I always enjoy tracing cognates across languages...

**Note that I could be completely wrong here, I know nothing about Bahasa Tombulu, it may well be that Rintek means hair... I doubt it though...


Patung said...

I had thought that the term of reference for dog meat was "B1", "B2" for pork, when non-Muslims are trying to be sensitive.

mr_john said...

That one comes from North Sumatera. "B1" comes from "Biang" which means dog in Batak, "B2" comes from "Ba-Bi".

johnorford said...

I suppose we all come with our cultural baggage which is fairly difficult to shake off.

Be it pork, dog, beef, meat in general or cruelty of slaughter...

I read in Jared Diamond's book 'Collapse', that the Vikings who inhabited Greenland for a few generations never ate fish (which led to their downfall).

Anonymous said...

bu'uk is low sundanese for hair.

mr_john said...

Funny, I recognise a lot more cognates from Javanese (not that I speak Javanese at all) in Tetum than I do from Indonesian; e.g. asu = dog in low Javanese as well.

I guess it makes sense though, Javanese and Sundanese are closer, geographically, than Melayu is...