Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Some Friends actually are Food

Anthropology and psychology, like the other social sciences, can not help but be constrained by the culture and experiences of the observers.

By studying others we hope to learn about what it means to be human.  As often than not, however, what we end up doing is revealing our own provincialism.  In this recent article reviewing a study of cat consumption in certain of Madagascar, the provisionalism of this modern American life shines forth.

The researchers had hypothesized that because cat meat was not a preferred food, its consumption would be restricted to economic hard times. They were wrong. There was no evidence that people turned to eating cat only as a last resort when other forms of meat were unavailable. Rather, killing and eating cats seemed to be motivated more by sheer opportunity than necessity or a pronounced culinary preference. 
The researchers also wanted test the notion that food taboos are culturally transmitted. Thus they predicted that the towns would differ in the strength of prohibitions against eating feline flesh. This was technically true: for example, 10% of the residents in one town had a personal taboo against eating cat compared to none of the inhabitants of another town. On the whole, however, only 3% of all the individuals interviewed in the study were disgusted by the idea of eating cat meat. As the consumption of dog meat is widely tabooed on the island of Madagascar, the lack of prohibitions against eating cats is surprising.

It was once the case that the nation's cities were populated by the excess population of the countryside.  Farm mechanization created the extra labor which helped build our cities and populated the Chair's of academic departments from Veterinary Science to Shakespeare.  

Increasingly, however, those positions are filled by women and men whose closest connection to
2015: Some friends are food.

agricultural production is ever more likely to have been a grandparent or great-grandparent to whom they can not relate.  Consequently, they are spending research dollars on questions any farm kid of reasonable insight could answer.

What farm kids understand is that human relationships to the animals surround us do not fit into an easy trichotomy of the majestic wild, anonymous meat wrapped in cellophane, and pampered fur baby of a cat or dog but rather exist upon a spectrum from pest to companion. We care for our livestock and can be saddened at sending a favorite animal to market. 

Members of a single species of wild animal can be pest, food, a majestic animal to watch from the porch, depending upon the context.   Pets can be working members of the farm and contributers to the hunt who experience the real risk of harm in the process.  

They are not babies, they are members of a tribe or family, and membership comes with responsibilities as well as rights.

When I was seven it was time to butcher the goat that I had treated as a pet.  My mother was worried
1978: "Is it ready for the freezer yet?"

that I might be traumatized so a slightly older cousin was tasked to keep me away from the carcass until it looked a little less like my pet.  The cousin but my mother realized her concern was unfounded when i asked, "So, does it go in the freezer like this?"   At a young age I understood why we had cared for the goat. I understood sacrifice for the good of the pack. I understood that we had claims on the goat as well as an obligation to care for it. Over at the Huffington Post, these are foreign concepts.
To me, the biggest surprise of the research was related to how Madagascarans obtained their cat meat. Half of the time they simply ate the family pet. Cat meat was also commonly acquired in the form of gifts from friends. And sometimes cats were caught by hand or by trapping. In one of the towns, most of the cats were - gulp -- road kill. Hardly anyone had ever bought cat meat at a market.
They didn't buy their meat at the local Whole Foods! The inhumanity!

In hunting or farming, the writers over at Downton Abbey put the idea succinctly into the mouth of Lady Edith, “there is room for sentiment" in our relationship with animals "but not for sentimentality.”

If they had experience life with livestock, these anthropologists would be able to easily understand a culture where farm animals can be both objects of affection AND sources of protein. The culture of the Madagascar villagers is not the anomaly, but rather a culture where animals are either treated as unfeeling machines of production or surrogate children based merely upon their cultural-specific purpose.   When you live with living things, you learn to treat them all as living things. Where protein can not be taken for granted it is not left to rot along the side of the road.

I ate some roadkill last week. Is it more respectful to leave an animal to rot along side the road or consume it?

Color me cynical but I believe if we took away Frontline and the rabies vaccine and our own culture would very quickly shed the "fur baby" facade for a more practical approach to our cats and dogs. If I were worried about my children's nutrition, I'd be more than happy to expand the species of which I am willing to process roadkill into meat. I mean crock pot cat can't be much worse than baked opossum.

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