– Gameness til the End
SPORTSMONEY 3/13/2013 @ 10:30AM Teresa Genaro, Contributor
Hal Herzog loves animals. In the acknowledgements for his 2010 book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, his cat gets special mention: “Finally,” he writes, “a Crunchy Salmon Treat to Tilly, who spent many a drowsy afternoon lying in a rocking chair, keeping me company and watching me write, occasionally meowing so I would rub her belly, reminding me why we bring animals into our lives.”
A professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, Herzog is also an anthrozoologist, an academic who studies the relationships between human and animals. He became interested in that relationship when he realized that “the justifications my cockfighting neighbors [in the North Carolina mountains] used for fighting chickens were not all that different from my rationale for eating them.”
Herzog’s book presents a convincing case that cockfighting is, in fact, more humane and more ethical than eating chickens, perhaps the most surprising–and unsettling–conclusion he draws in a book that he says he wrote to try to explain the paradoxically consistently inconsistent way that humans thinks about animals.
While little of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat deals directly with horses–in sport or as food–the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe, and the way it’s re-awakened concerns about the horsemeat industry in the United States, along with the situation’s cultural and ethical implications, are right up his alley.
“No one seems to know,” he said by phone from North Carolina, “why eating horse meat is taboo in some places and not in others.”
In his book, he says that he suspects that most meat taboos are “the result of arbitrary cultural traditions.” Humans, he asserts, “eat animals they despise and they don’t eat animals they dote on.”
The taboo against eating horse meat in the United States is a strong one. In 2006, the last U.S. equine slaughterhouse was closed by law, following intense lobbying by equine welfare advocates. Those efforts have been renewed in light of recent moves to re-open slaughterhouses.
In 2007, Congress approved an appropriations bill that forbid the United States Department of Agricultural from financing the inspection of horse meet, effectively ending horse slaughter in this country. The horsemeat that had come from these facilities was exported abroad, to Europe and Japan. Since the slaughterhouses closed, horses have been shipped to Mexico and Canada to be slaughtered.
The financing ban on inspections ended in 2011, and according to the New York Times, the U.S.D.A. is expected to approve the opening of a horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico this year.
The return of horse slaughter to this country is not likely to change Americans’ attitudes about eating horsemeat. Last fall, a restaurant at MoMa PS1 in Queens, New York quickly removed horsemeat from its menu after a public outcry. Slaughtering horses for food is such a sensitive issue in the racing industry that few organizations will take an official stance on it.
According to Herzog, it’s pretty clear that our European ancestors regularly ate wild horses; the modern tradition, he says, began in France in the mid-19th century, though it’s unclear why eating horsemeat didn’t catch on in English-speaking countries.
The current taboo, he explained, comes from the fact that horses occupy what Jenny Vermilya of the University of Colorado at Boulder calls “borderline spaces.”
“Horses have moved away from the large animal status,” she writes in a guest post on Herzog’s blog at Psychology Today, “and have become more identified with small animals. In other words, they are viewed less as a tool and more as a friend. However, they are not fully transitioned yet. They exist in a border zone, where they are assigned qualities of both.”
“Historically, horses have been tools to ride and work,” said Herzog. “They haven’t been pets.”
But, he said, that’s changing.
“When the American Veterinary Medical Association does surveys of pet ownerships, horses are included,” he pointed out.
“Even though most people don’t have horses as pets, they have come to occupy a special place in the heart of Americans.”
His anthrozoological eye, though, doesn’t stop there, and his affection for animals as pets doesn’t get in the way of his assessing the ethics of eating them.
“There are some species,” he said, “whose role in industrial agriculture is more ethically problematic than others. I’d argue that the way we treat chickens is worse than the way we treat cattle. Ethically, eating chicken is more of a problem than eating beef.”
Viewed this way, he went on, eating horsemeat is more ethical than some of our other diet choices.
“From a strictly ethical point of view, using a moral calculus and taking out the foibles of human attitudes, eating horse would probably be more ethical than eating some other animals,” said Herzog. “The horse probably had a good life, and if it can be humanely slaughtered, it would be preferable in some ways than eating chickens, which are raised in dank, dark, ammonia-filled houses.”
But he acknowledges that it’s not quite that simple.
“We can’t just look at it that way,” he said. “The issue gets entangled in culture and human psychology, and increasingly, we think of horses as pets. Pets are family members, so eating a horse is borderline cannibalism.”