Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Would You Eat a Monkey?

As I learned growing up on a small farm in Arkansas, pigs are smart. Not just dog smart, but really smart. Like, the pigs would learn tricks so fast that they would help the dogs learn. I had pigs that would jump through hoops, roll over, play dead, and even speak on command. It broke my heart when one got sick, and I spent days hand scooping corn mash with molasses into its mouth and spraying the sores on its skin with some sort of medicine with purple dye in it.

Of course, I was a kid more obsessed with beer and girls than ethics, but later in life, after studying bio-ethics and getting a philosophy degree, the smart pigs haunted me. Eventually, when I got old enough to worry about my cholesterol and whether I was doing the right things, I really started to feel bad about eating pork. The more I learned about factory farming, the worse I felt. I never thought I would say it, but I started losing my taste cravings for bacon (I used to joke that a pile of crap would taste good with bacon and cheese on it).

Then I learned about Michael Pollan. I heard him make the argument that pigs are at least as smart as dogs (in reality, new research shows that pigs are much smarter than dogs), and you wouldn't eat your dog, so why would you eat pork?

As ethical arguments go, that's a damn good one.

After that, I was convinced. A few months later was the Chinese New Year, starting the year of the pig. I convinced my fellow prosciutto loving wife Robin to quit with me. And we've been pork free for almost three years now. Even our son has joined the cause.

Since we moved to upstate NY, we found Nectar Hills Farm where they treat their animals with respect. The pigs are free range and appear happy. To be honest, they look delicious. But I'm still not eating them. However, if you can get past the intelligence problem (I've also stopped eating octopus due to research that shows how intelligent they are), then you should at least consider only eating free-range pork. The evils of factory farming are impossible to deny, from the treatment of the animal to the effects on the environment (see the chapter on massive pig shit geysers in Senator Al Franken's Book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them).

Recently, I had been debating around the edges with questions like eating wild pigs (which are very bad for the environment, especially in places like Hawaii) and I'm still not sure about that. Possibly. But I don't think I would eat a monkey that was messing up an ecosystem somewhere, so...

These are tough questions. We all have to come down where we decide. For me, it's a question of how smart an animal will I eat? For now, I'll stick to the oblivious seafood (but only the good stuff per the Monterey Bay Aquariums Guide to Sustainable Seafood), idiot chickens and other birds, and the only slightly smarter cows (but we're moving to only grass-fed beef as much as we can afford). The environmental choices are actually pretty easy: eat free-range, organic, grass-fed, pasture raised, keep it as local as you can, and stay away from factory farmed as much as possible.

Choosing what you eat based on the intelligence of the food? Well, I'll just have to keep thinking about that, and adjusting along the way. It's the least I can do for a species that looks, based on this new research, to be at least as smart as dolphins.

As Dr. Lawrence Schook said in yesterday's NYT article, "Pigs like to lie around, they like to drink if given the chance, they’ll smoke and watch TV." When I'm coming up with rules to live by, this one comes up near the top: I just can't eat anybody who would sit around with me watching a movie (Animal Farm?) drinking beer, and puffing on a good cigar.

Photographs of Nectar Hills Farm by Robin Supak.