Imagine that you are running for your life.
Your body is trembling with adrenaline, your heart is thudding, panic-stricken, and your breath comes in hot, quick gulps. Suddenly your pursuer sinks sharp hooks into your flesh, bringing you up short. You are picked up and dashed to the ground, breaking your back. As you writhe helplessly, your assailant begins to rip chunks out of your body. Death cannot come soon enough.
Is this a scene from a horrific slasher movie? No, this is the daily experience of prey in “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as carnivores pursue their meal. When extremists among promoters of vegetarianism declare that “Meat is Murder!” we would do well to remember the natural background against which their arguments are made.
There are well over a million carnivorous species on our world, more if you include omnivores who eat both meat and vegetation. By their teeth and their alimentary tract will you know them. We ourselves are omnivores, eating venison as naturally as we do tubers and leaves. We do not need to eat meat, of course; but it is generally a richer source of protein than is easily found in the vegetable kingdom.
What about the ethical issues, though? If we are so superior to other species, aren’t we obligated to express ourselves in a kinder, gentler, more humane manner? Unfortunately, much of our “superiority” is just an expression of being one of the top predators in the food chain. Our self-reflective intelligence is only a very recent development in our evolution, and to argue that we are free of a few million years of instinctual behaviors is anything but self-reflective.
We have generally decided that one of the ideals of civilization is to minimize pain, suffering, and death, although we tend to be self-serving as to when and toward whom we apply this ethic. Just a surely as do our chimpanzee cousins and our domestic feline companions, we sometime enjoy cruelty as if it is an entertaining game, justified largely because tormenting other animals – including our own species – is simply something that we can do. Additionally, it serves as a signal to others: Beware! We can do this to you, too!
One of the primary reasons that we have domesticated animals is simply so that we don’t have to chase after them. They’re in a supervised pasture, a coop, a barn. They are protected from other predators until we decide that it is time to use them for their labor or kill them for our food. I would argue that this is not automatically any crueler than their natural, untamed lives would be. How we treat them during that captivity, and how they meet their end, however, can be.
There are good reasons to minimize, if not eliminate, meat as part of our diet. Factory-style meat production certainly presents an ethical challenge: although it provides a cheap and easy assembly-line of meats, it depends on putting the animals in deliberately painful and unhealthy conditions and using medications and hormones to keep them alive and make them extra-productive. When we eat meats derived from this process some of these chemicals build up in our bodies, adding to the witch's brew of absorbed pollutants that may destabilize our own health. And, speaking of pollution, the lakes of animal waste from this sort of livestock productions present festering bodies of danger to the public health.
Also from the health perspective, an easily available supply of meats can provide too much of a tasty thing, ingesting excess calories and saturating ourselves in fats and related circulatory-clogging organics.
Domesticated meat-production is also a rather inefficient way to produce this choice protein. It requires up to 16 pounds of vegetable protein to produce one pound of beef and 3 to 6 to make one pound of fowl; 3 to 15 pounds of water to produce the same; and 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce on pound of beef, 35 calories for one pound of pork, and 22 calories for one pound of poultry. There is more protein-laden vegetative food to go around than there is of meats.
There is also the question as to just how primitive and predatory we personally wish to be. Disregarding "animal rights activists," most people accept the seasonal rituals of hunters who exercise observational patience, go for "quick, clean kills," and eat their quarry, but disdain those who hunt for sport or trophy. The personal administration of death-dealing can change one's perspective; we have recently heard how Facebook pioneer Mark Zuckerberg is experimenting with only eating meat that he has personally killed. I suspect that if we all had to live with such constraints our meat consumption would plummet. Could I kill a fish or a fowl? Probably with not too much difficulty if I were initially chaperoned in doing so. But a mammal like a cow, goat, deer, or pig? You mean, a member of the same Class to which we belong, mammalia? Not likely unless it was a survival scenario.
There are science-fiction procedures being developed today to grow meat without having to kill a living animal that would be more environmentally-benign and potentially healthier if the nutrients could be adjusted to add vitamins and reduce fats and glycerides. While some people might call this gross, it is much less so than slicing the throats and spilling the blood of a conscious animal before hacking its corpse apart; I would order a pound and a half of vat-grown fillet without batting an eye before touring a typical slaughter house.
Meat is tasty, and there is nothing unnatural about eating it. It may be a good decision to not eat it, or al least much less than we do. But for the nonce, I am at the top of the Food Chain; someday in the next forty years I expect that I will be at the bottom, food for the bugs and worms and microbes. I don't begrudge them their meal; so I will choose that upon which I myself dine, in full awareness of my choices.