Chicken of the trees

This month has been an eye-opener for me. Two weeks ago, I was rubbing shoulders with animal rights activists. One week later, I was hunting at the Croskery farm. And last night, we dined on the spoils – a fantastic squirrel stew that gave Thanksgiving dinner a run for its money.

How did it happen?

The animal rights folks were part of a symposium on the ethics of animal use. Called “Domesticity and Beyond”, it was put on by the philosophy department here at Queen’s. The meeting brought together philosophers, sociologists and political theorists from across the country. I got the email when it went around to the biology department, and I was curious, so I signed up. As far as I could tell, I was the only science-type.

The meeting was fascinating, not least because it completely threw me for a loop. I had imagined that philosophers of animal ethics would be a dispassionate bunch, coldly reasoning about ethics from first principles. Not so. When one speaker mentioned Harry Harlow’s 1960s maternal isolation experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys, the audience cringe was audible. Some even cried out in distress. Clearly, this was a group with strong emotions about animal use and misuse.

For some reason, this blew me away. Many of the philosophers at the meeting were animal rights advocates. And many had rich personal relationships with their companion animals. In retrospect it seems obvious: of course philosophers who are animal lovers will be drawn to animal ethics. An academic career is as much shaped by a person’s history and emotional life as anything else.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that some of the discussions we had – about research on animals, and the ethics of domestic pets in particular – were based on foregone conclusions. For instance, Lori Gruen, one of the philosophers in attendance, was asked about the extinction issue. Since we don’t need to live with animals, and they don’t need to live with us, how can we justify continued breeding of domestic dogs and cats? The questioner – Christine Overall from the philosophy department at Queen’s – drew parallels to the issue of whether we can also justify reproducing our own species.

To me, this seems like an important issue – especially given that we have selected some breeds (like bulldogs) to such extremes that their very existence entails suffering. Because of generations of inbreeding and artificial selection for very short snouts, bulldogs are plagued with breathing problems and other ailments. Gruen’s response was that there are simply too many domestic dogs and cats out there for extinction to ever be realistic. Maybe so, but that doesn’t address the moral question of whether we should be facilitating breeding. We’ll likely never eradicate murder, either, but that’s no reason to accept it.

In the end, I don’t see how breeding animals for companionship is completely different from breeding them for work, or food – both can lead to some pretty grim consequences.

On the other hand, Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s presentation reminded me that the relationship between people and animals – including companion cats and dogs – can enrich the lives of the animals by opening up new opportunities that they might not otherwise have in nature. The philosopher Jean Harvey characterized this relationship as “empathic cherishing”, which entails knowing the animal as an individual, and responding to its individual vulnerabilities and needs – and Harvey argued that this should be used as the moral standard of care for domestic dogs and cats. But I wonder how recent and common these kinds of cherishing relationships are. How does this fit in with the ~14,000 year history of evolution during the domestication of dogs (~8,000 years for cats)? And is life as a family pet really that much more rewarding than life as working animal?

I learned a lot. For one thing, I stand corrected on the issue of whether vegans want fake lab-grown meat – these ones definitely did. I also found it fascinating to see how things were done in philosophy. After each talk (called a paper), a different graduate student gave a short presentation (the commentary) summing up the speaker’s views and offering salient points for discussion (or perhaps criticism). This seemed like a useful training ground, especially given that in biology, it’s often too easy for students to be opt out of academic discussion out of intimidation.

It was also interesting to see how truly important rhetoric and style are, without the distraction of Powerpoint. According to one of the student organizers of the meeting, philosophers don’t get formal training – they learn by doing. I wonder if there’s some way this could be better taught in biology – perhaps the tradition of student commentaries could help with this as well?

After the meeting, I was eager for a dose of reality, so when my friend Martin mentioned that he was going to hunt squirrels at the Crokery farm on Thanksgiving, I jumped at the chance. I’ve eaten my share of game, so I figured I should experience where it comes from at least once.

The plan was to get squirrels for an upcoming feast. I asked Martin how many we would need, and he said that four would do. I helped him spot them (grey squirrels only; the red ones are too small to be worthwhile); he shot them, and I carried the catch. We stopped to watch a few birds as well.

A few hours later, it was time to head in for Thanksgiving dinner with Charlie’s family. We had only managed to get three of the necessary four, after missing one especially wily squirrel with a knack for circling around to the side of the tree opposite Martin. As much as I didn’t like the idea of toting dead animals around in a canvas bag (and there was no way I would do any of the shooting), I was surprised at how much I wanted us to succeed. So it felt triumphant when Martin went back out after dinner and nabbed a fourth.

One week later, the cajun squirrel stew was delicious – definitely one of the tastiest meals I’ve had, and probably more ethical than much of the farmed meat and produce I eat. I’ll never scoff at chicken of the trees again2.

On the whole, I’m glad I had the chance to shake things up, since it reinforced that philosophers, scientists, vegans and carnivores are not all that different – we’re all guilty of basing what we do on intuition and emotion.

Further Reading

1. Craig McFarlane’s summary of the papers at Domesticity and Beyond

2. Sula, M. 2012. Chicago Reader. August 16.