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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Animal charisma

You have probably heard that Barbaro, the former Triple Crown contender racehorse, was put down after a struggle to save his life. It was big news, and a lot of people got emotionally invested in the whole story. The Times editorialized on the death, noting the grief that many felt and that "nearly every horse — Barbaro included — is pure of heart."

It's sad he died, and it's nice that his owners tried to save him. But seriously -- who are all these people who can muster so much concern for the life of one horse when the meat industry treats millions of animals atrociously every day? I'm not a vegetarian and I don't work for better treatment of farm animals, but I just think the enormous disparity of our response is astounding. Part of what makes the Barbaro story compelling is that instead of putting him down right away when he was injured, his owners put lots of effort into trying to save him. (Barbaro has been a boon to horse health care, with the Barbaro Fund raising $1.2 million and the State of Pennsylvania giving $13.5 million to a clinic at the University of Pennsylvania.) In contrast, animals raised for food receive not help, nor even indifference, but practices that actively make their lives miserable. You know the story: They're kept in tiny pens where they can't turn around, teeth and beaks are cut off so they can't injure themselves amid their desperation, and they're fed things they don't naturally eat and pumped full of drugs. Intelligence (and thus capacity to experience suffering) should probably be a factor in animal welfare decisions, but pigs, for example, are by most accounts more intelligent than horses.

We like horses. But I don't think whether we find animals charismatic or not is sufficient moral grounds to determine how much pain and suffering we are willing to submit them to. We'll raise millions of dollars so that horses can have surgery that might help them survive, but don't care about the ongoing suffering that enables us to buy $3.99 pork chops. Are pigs not "pure of heart"? Granted, the PETA slogan that animals are "friends, not food" is ridiculous -- we eat animals. But we have very selective empathy if we get this upset about one horse and ignore all the other domestic farm animals that we bring into the world. I realize that most people are only aware of factory farm conditions in a vague sense, and that everybody saw Barbaro on TV, but there's nothing more infuriating than a good instinct so spectacularly misdirected.

(For a less pedantic tone on this subject, see the very clever Meatrix cartoon. And if you're bored, we did a show on meat back at Periscope in my KRLX days at Carleton.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Onion currently has a pretty funny take on Barbaro's funeral.

My favorite line -
"Barbaro was a great horse, but an even better person"

- Matt

teague said...

Thanks for telling me about that...that is a hilarous line, pretty much sums it up. I also really enjoy the photo they made up, with his nose sticking out of the coffin.

lj said...

I can't help noticing the "clearchannel" in that KRLX URL and being a little confused...

teague said...

I noticed that, too. I'm not sure what the deal is. "Clear channel" is a radio term for, well, an open channel, so it's possible it's being used in that sense, but it's also possible that Clear Channel has some sort of hosting service for nonprofit radio stations...