Sled dog cull outrage reveals our complicated relationship with animals

Sled Dogs #8 - 1
Reaction to the Whistler sled dog massacre has been swift and strong. In case you are not up on your BC or Canadian news, it recently came to light that in April 2010, 100 sled dogs were killed during an economic lull after the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Winter Olympics. As opposed to compassionate euthanasia, the cull was carried out via slit throats, bullets to the head and a mass grave. It appears to have been a brutal, bloody mess.

Everything from the communication between the sled dog company and the killer, right down to the gruesome bungling, can be found via a quick Google search.  Robert Fawcett, an experienced sledder and the killer of the dogs, has apparently been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since the incident, and in one of many articles on the web he discusses his handling of the situation:

“Some I missed, had to chase around with blood everywhere, some I had to slit their throats because it was the only way to keep them calm in my arms,” stated Fawcett.

The post-traumatic stress claim made with the WCB by Fawcett has led to a cruelty investigation by the BC SPCA.  Five years ago Fawcett was also cited by the SPCA for keeping dogs in sub-standard conditions:

In 2006 the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued orders noting dogs tethered too long on chains, not getting enough exercise. Other orders were issued after dogs were discovered emaciated, lacking dental care and concerns about the animals not being housed properly or receiving proper socialization as required by a pack animal.

According to police, death threats are being made to employees of the company, many of whom had nothing to do with the cull.  I deplore the threats as much as the original act itself, but I understand the anger that drives people to feel this way.  It’s hard to say what kinds of lives these particular dogs had, but human beings have a special bond with canines and any act that runs counter to that bond disturbs us.  We can’t imagine what kind of a person can do what Fawcett did, and we have a harder time when we begin to actually picture the act in our heads.  Unfortunately, sled dogs have historically been culled in Canada, but that story isn’t associated with a feel-good event like the Olympics and, perhaps, the RCMP members responsible never made a stress-related financial claim.

When there is an emotional investment with animals, as we have with pets and companions, then it rightly bothers us to see them treated inhumanely and to be disposed of when there is no longer a use for them.  We often anthropomorphize them, assigning them human motives and aspirations, even putting ourselves in their places and trying to imagine what their lives were like and the fear and pain they must have felt.

Animals as commodities

Let us not forget, too, that these dogs were still being used for human entertainment and profit.  I would suggest, though, that regardless of how these dogs lived and died, it was likely a better existence on any measure than the typical food animal has.  We don’t tend to afford animals ‘produced’ for food and fur the same human traits that we do companion animals.

Food

I was thinking of writing this post when I read a piece by Lesley Fox of the Fur-Bearer’s Defenders, which stole some of my thunder, but upon which I would like to expand.  In the article Fox makes the point that our society treats animals as commodities and these kinds of ends are common.  According to Fox, the number of animals killed for human use in Canada is pretty staggering:

Each year in Canada, over three million cows, 30 million pigs, and 600 million chickens are slaughtered for food. Approximately 2.5 million fur-bearing animals are killed for their coats and over 300,000 baby seals are killed on the East Coast for their meat, oil, and fur.

The numbers above, though, don’t tell much of the story.  Only a very tiny fraction of farmed animals are raised with care and slaughtered humanely, if that is even possible.  Almost all animals that make their way to our dinner tables are raised in intensive operations, and their lives are often an unnatural, short and miserable existence, as documented below.  Whether vegan or omnivore, it’s hard to believe anyone wants their food produced this way.  While the context is different, fish production is becoming more like other intensive animal husbandry industries, too.

I don’t really blame people for their apathy toward animals raised for dairy, meat and fur.  From childhood, we are culturally inculcated to feel ambivalent about most animals, with the exception of those we take as companions.  I am pretty sure we all hope somewhere deep down, that they are treated humanely – whatever that means – and killed quickly.  For the most part though, by the time an animal makes it to our plate, the cut of meat is simply a product, nothing more.  Particularly when the meat industry does all they can to ensure that scenes like those above are not viewed by most people, it is fairly easy to divorce oneself from the reality of how their meat got to their plate.  In all but a few exceptions, though, if you eat meat this is how it is produced.

While I want to focus on the animals themselves, it is hard to discuss intensive animal agriculture without at least mentioning the environmental and economic inefficiencies of the industry.  Even if you don’t feel strongly about the animals themselves, aside from corporate profit there really isn’t a strong argument to be made in favour of this method of food production.  The pollution generated is beyond dispute and the economics of the business also warrant careful scrutiny.  While you can easily find arguments in favour of, and refuting, a vegetarian diet, most people would have a hard time arguing for the benefits of consuming antibiotics, hormones and other feed additives in their meat, milk, cheese and fish.

Fur

MinkFarmWisconsin2007We tend to have a stronger reaction to the use of animals for their fur, and so the magnitude of the problem is smaller, taken on its own. However, as part of the broader issue of our relationship with animals, it is still troubling and demand for animal pelts has been increasing since the turn of the century.  In particular, Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of Fox pelts.   Just as with food animals, fur animals are often raised in confinement (mink barns at right) and, ultimately, once their pelts are removed so we can wear them, the rest of the animal is either disposed of, or used for various purposes.  It is difficult to believe, no matter what the purpose we have for the animals raised, that a life lived in confinement could be considered humane or natural by any definition of the word.

Whether raised for their skins or to feed us, or in fact for any other purpose we have for them, the reality is that animal husbandry is now largely unnatural and inhumane, as a result of a purely profit-driven system.  When suggesting that we raise animals for our uses, many will say that it is our heritage and our nature to consume meat or to wear animal pelts.  I don’t deny that this is the case, but as with many things that change over time, doing so is no longer what it once was and society often changes practice to align with changing standards or scientific advancement.

This post is not really about that, but I would simply offer the following for your consideration.  We no longer raise and kill animals as farmers, fisherman and hunters once did.  We don’t eat wild and natural meat as a small part of a healthy diet. We eat a diet of processed and unhealthy food, produced for maximum profit with problematic ethical and environmental outcomes.  We are largely dissociated with the world of animal husbandry and see meat and fur as industrial products.  Given what animals raised for our use must now endure, should we be complicit in the process or should we question our contribution to it?  The industry is like any other – supply and demand and basic economics.

Why the double standard?

What I have really been trying to get to in this post is our double-standard.  For the most part we abhor the thought of any harm coming to our pets and, in general, we hope animals will be treated well whenever possible.  The outpouring of anger and emotion because of the sled dog cull is testament to that.  Yet, we allow industry to do far worse things to animals on a daily basis and on an almost unimaginable scale, to produce food, clothes and other products for our use.

As I have thought about it while writing this, I think it’s likely the same thing that drives both sides of this double standard.  We don’t only make an emotional connection with our companion animals, but we make just as strong an emotional connection with the food we eat.  From Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, to Sunday family meals, the food we are raised on is wired into our psyche.  We have fond memories of what our mothers and grandmothers cooked for us, and in the western world, those memories include meat.

BC Agriculture in the Classroom partners
Dairy promoting fruits and vegetables to kids? OK ...

The industry (via beef and dairy lobby groups, among others) has been very successful at tapping into the cultural warm and fuzzies and have used that, along with many other marketing tactics, to ensure we feel protective of their products by reinforcing the association of meat and dairy with our history, our culture and our emotions.  In fact, the marketing has become pervasive enough that industry often tries to attach itself to educational initiatives, even if its products have nothing to do with the initiative at hand.  BC Agriculture in the Classroom (ActNowBC) is aimed at increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables kids consume, so I’m not sure why two dairy lobby groups are partners.

You could say that we have been taught from childhood to consider animal agriculture products as essential to our lives with images reflective of bygone days, based on emotional, historical and cultural grounds.  Ensuring we feel strongly about industry’s products is only part of the issue.  We have had the realities of these industries hidden from us for so long, that we’ve also effectively become ignorant or unaware of them.

On the one hand, we form strong emotional bonds with the animals we care about, just as we form strong emotional bonds to the food we’ve been raised on.  I suggest we’d form similar bonds with farmed animals and not just the products that come from them, if we were exposed to the animals themselves, to any great degree.  Whether you believe keeping us emotionally connected to meat and dairy products, and divorced from the animals and the ethically messy business of raising and slaughtering them is industry duplicity or just happenstance, it’s important in understanding why we view some types of animals so differently from others.

The question I think we need to ask ourselves is whether our emotional attachment to culture and history is enough to allow us a double-standard that really defies all logic.  Why is it socially and legally acceptable for industry to cause millions of animals to suffer for our uses, while the plight of a hundred dogs elicits death threats to employees of a small business?  Can we honestly say that sled dogs are any more or less worthy of our concern, than the countless pigs, cattle, chickens, turkeys and others that experience far worse on a daily basis?

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