In the U.S., where I sit here and write, the proportion of households with pets is higher than those with children. Who knew?! That number (63%) is much higher than the U.K., and more than triple Japanese households, but the fact can’t be disputed: humans love pets. And how could we not? If your lifestyle and funds allow for it, it’s pretty dang sweet to come home to your very own adorably innocent and perpetually pleased four-legged furry creature who thinks of only two things when its owner is away: food, and its owner (I am of course referring to dogs here, because from my experience cats never jumped for joy whenever I arrived home).
Let’s dig a little deeper. I might be alone in this, but I’ve always loosely equated the term ‘domesticated animal’ with ‘pets’- dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, goldfish. As it turns out, the list of domestic animals is much longer. Sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, chicken, donkeys, horses, geese, koi, and hedgehogs all make an appearance. According to Wikipedia, these animals have all undergone significant genetic changes from their wild ancestors, which is why they are now deemed ‘domesticated’. There are actually three classifications of domesticated animals, which include 1) animals which have adapted to a human environment (dogs, cats, guinea pigs, etc.) 2) prey animals which are kept for food (cows, sheep, pigs, goats) and 3) animals kept for working/nonfood purposes (camels, horses, donkeys).
My question is: how are we as humans so easily able to separate the first classification from the second, or even the third? In other words, why would most of us be horrified at the idea of eating cat meat, yet chickens, ducks, pigs, sheep, cattle, and turkeys are all fair game (no pun intended)? I’m not an expert on animal meat, but I’m willing to bet the flavor of dog and cat meat isn’t too different from at least one of the aforementioned meats. So, why don’t we eat them? Why do we, instead, give them cute names and buy them toys and beds?
The reasons why cats and dogs are the most common types of pet make sense. Obviously, keeping a horse or pig in the house and taking them on walks isn’t quite feasible. The size, trainability, and behavior of cats and dogs makes them very suitable to keep as pets. But the broader idea here concerns the disconnect between pets and animals we eat. Though ethically it seems more appropriate to keep all of these animals on the same plane and think of them all the same way we think of our cats and dogs–as innocent creatures that deserve happiness and safety. Unfortunately, our minds have been trained to separate some types of animals from other types, so we now value the life of a pig, cow, or chicken, much less than a cat or dog.
But is that fair? We don’t need meat to survive, and the methods by which this meat is produced is beyond inhumane. So doesn’t it seem like high time to destroy the disconnect?
It’s actually a broader topic than I originally thought, due to the crossover that sometimes occurs. Some people have pet snakes, but eating rattlesnake meat isn’t entirely uncommon. And another example: I have a friend whose parents own a small ranch where they keep goats and hens. His parents absolutely adore the goats; they bottle-feed them, pet them, hang out with them. The goats are not used for any other purpose rather than being pets. However, the hens, while also adored and never killed for meat, provide the parents with a tasty egg breakfast each morning. In a strange way (and I know this may be a “non-vegan” thing to say) this almost seems like the healthier, more ethical practice, because it destroys the disconnect between animals as food and animals as pets.
We simply don’t think of meat as being what was once a live animal. And that’s not anybody’s fault, really–I think it’s largely in part to the secrecy of the meat industry (along with the dairy/egg industries). And I wrote about it in another post but I’ll mention it again: there’s good reason for the secrecy, because their practices are repulsive. So, that along with the fact that most of us grew up eating animal products from a young age and likely did not realize that we were eating live animals contribute to the disconnect. Because by the time we were old enough to understand that we had been eating breeds that we know and love, animals we visit at the zoo or pet at the fair, it was too late. It’s tough to reverse something that was true in your mind for years, and for years we just thought, “this is meat, it comes from the store, I would never actually want to eat a cow, or a chicken, or my dog, for that matter!”
So it seems the least we can do is be honest with our kids about what they are eating and where that food is coming from. Obviously, we don’t need to give our three-year-old the graphic details of how bacon is created, but I think that being forthright about the origin of meat with our children is one solution to breaking the harmful barrier between the way we think of pets and the way we think of meat.