Sunday, October 15, 2006

let them eat horse

Bo Derek and others are trying to push through a law banning the slaughter of horses in the US for their meat. The US exports 26 million pounds of horsemeat annually to Europe and Japan, and Bo and Company want it to stop, because horses are "flight animals" and "smarter than cows" and "Americans don't eat their horses." The real gist of their argument is, they ride horses therefore don't want horses to be eaten. That, plus slaughterhouses are unpleasant places.

I respect people who argue against eating ANY meat from any animal. Saying we shouldn't kill a horse or tuna or chicken for food is at least a consistent position that I can respect, even as I somewhat guiltily eat my cheeseburger.

The hard part is, once you've established that it is OK to kill animals for human consumption, where do you draw the line?

Intelligence? Maybe a good place to start, but assessing animal intelligence is notoriously difficult. I remember decades ago as a schoolkid being told that animals only operated on instinct, and didn't really think. Well, scientific research continues to blow holes thru that assertion. Crows or dolphins or other animals that learn how to use tools by observation or intuition clearly aren't acting just on instinct. Clearly there are some sort of mental processes going on in the brains of many animals that make them more than just mobile plants.

But even if you could draw up a table, top to bottom, of animal intelligence, where would you draw the line? Horse breeder Anne Russek says horses are smarter than cows, as one reason not to eat them. OK. Then how about pork? Pigs are very intelligent animals, probably smarter even than dogs and up there with dolphins.

And for that matter, what about dolphins and whales? We all think they're smart, but the Japanese eat them, and so do native Americans in the Arctic. And people in Africa and China eat primates -- monkeys, our closest cousins in the animal kingdom.

So with intelligence pretty well dismissed as the way to rank what animals we should be allowed to kill for food, we fall back on culture. People in many countries around the world eat things that we as Americans generally don't regard as food animals -- dogs, cats, dolphins, whales, monkeys, and Bo Derek's biggest beef, horses.

But Bo, if you want to make the cultural argument, how far does it go? Hindus famously don't eat beef -- in fact, they revere cattle so much that they let them freely roam the streets of India. Should we ban eating beef because cows are sacred? Doesn't that trump a horse's status in the US?

I only see two logical approaches to this. The first is the rigorous vegetarian (or even vegan) approach, that humans should kill no animals for food. It's internally consistent.

Or we all agree that we should at least restrict ourselves from eating endangered animals. That would protect many species of whale (but not all) and primates from being eaten. But it wouldn't protect Bo's horses.

So even though I think horse meat is pretty unpleasant (yes, I've tried it) I can't see a good reason for stopping the practice of slaughtering horses primarily for export. But we should all insist on better regulation of ALL slaughter facilities and for more humane treatment of animals up and down the commercial human food chain.

If you're going to use animals for food, you should at least treat them well before you kill them.


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