Of Bullies and Butchers: Ethical Meat, Vegan Bullies, and the Humane Myth

How do you respond with words to someone who murders your loved ones, glorifies that killing, is praised as a hero, and then casts you as a bully when you push back against such a heinous act?

This is the question I have wrestled with for months: How does trying to stop the murder of innocents make you the bully, and the butcher the saint?

In November of 2016, Wild Abundance, a homesteading & permaculture “school” in Asheville, North Carolina held a class to teach people how to “humanely” kill and butcher a sheep. A counter-protest, organized by the Let Live Coalition and in which I participated, got derailed by outside threats that were made by anonymous, unaffiliated individuals (against organizers’ requests to be peaceful and respectful when asking Wild Abundance to cancel the class). In the end two young sheeps were killed and processed…in order to “honor” them.

“The animal will be tethered, and when all the students are here, we are going to pray. Then we are going to wait for the moment that feels right and take the animal’s life.” – Natalie Bogwalker, Wild Abundance

Natalie of Wild Abundance
Natalie of Wild Abundance “honoring” a sheep.

In the ensuing mayhem after the start of the peaceful campaign, heated online rhetoric resulted in the would-be butchers pivoting on the notion of their vulnerability in order to divert attention from the act(s) of needless murder and blame “vegans” (en masse?) for the true violence. Natalie Bogwalker, owner of Wild Abundance, was portrayed (in pictures and words) as an innocent new mother being bombarded by militant vegans, and Meredith Leigh, the original instructor (butcher) for the class, as a stalwart hero of “ethical” food, food security, and sustainability.

The threats against them are unfortunate and had no place in the peaceful protest/campaign. But as a vegan, I (and many others) found this erasure/obfuscation of the true victims–the non-human animals being killed and butchered–to be both familiar and offensive. As a vegan who rescues, lives with, and cares for farmed animals, I found such intentional human narcissism to be beyond disturbing and disgusting.

Ayelet: starved and parasite-ridden due to severe neglect by a farmer, her body was so fragile and her bones so brittle by the time we rescued her that she broke under the strain of living...
Ayelet: starved and parasite-ridden due to severe neglect by a farmer, her body was so fragile and her bones so brittle by the time we rescued her that she broke under the strain of living…

Let’s be clear about this: What we humans have done over thousands of years is create a situation, a system, in which domesticated animals are victims by design, from birth. In particular, “humane,” small-scale farmers and so-called “ethical butchers” (see photo below) play off of the public’s admittedly wishy-washy concerns about animal welfare by portraying their actions–birthing and raising animals for the sole purposes of using, killing, and eating their bodies–as the best possible life for these beings.

ethical-butcher
From Meredith Leigh’s Instagram account, at the scene of a planned “ethical slaughter”; she later denied using the “ethical butcher” epithet for herself, possibly after realizing it is even more fucking ridiculous than “ethical meat”: see http://www.mereleighfood.com/blog/2016/11/14/vegan-bullying-and-the-new-world, paragraph 5.

“ETHICAL BUTCHERS” & THE ULTIMATE BETRAYAL

Thus, If you’re a “humane” farmer, what you essentially do is create a relationship with individual animals, feed them, care for them, build trust with them…and then that “one bad day” happens, and you throw them to the ground, restrain them, and kill them. That bond is shattered, and these intelligent, feeling beings experience much more than just physical pain in this ultimate betrayal of their trust.

To many, this sort of scenario is not only acceptable but also ideal–it is the best possible life for beings who are dead, dismembered, and digested: That lamb is little more than a conglomeration of choice cuts and leftover bits, no matter how deeply a butcher professes to “love” him or her.

We always must remember that this fact means that humans always have the power, along with free reign to enact violence (of all kinds) on innocent bodies. The indelible reality of this power dynamic, which results in the killing of non-consenting individuals, also belies any notion of “ethical meat,” even if Meredith Leigh can write an entire book on the subject (which, it should be said, largely ignores actual discussions of ethics).

Beyond the act itself of killing, when humans pretend to be victims while slitting an innocent’s throat, we perform an act of erasure that perpetuates violence and murder by transferring human sympathies to another human, not the dying non-human animal. Period.

Yet this sort of claim to victimhood is not only possible but also preferable to our culture at large. Thus Meredith Leigh, self-proclaimed “ethical butcher,” can talk up her “vulnerability” as a butcher of bodies and launch a campaign (and a hashtag…) against “vegan bullying” in the face of strong resistance to her planned act of murder during that class.

“COMPONENTS”

Image credit: https://i0.wp.com/3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpg
Image credit: http://3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpg

We must be honest in seeing what Leigh sees when she looks at an individual non-human. Her language is deeply disturbing in how it positions living beings as already-dead bodies, “components,” not-yet-divided morsels of flesh, calling to her and her tools to be separated and consumed. To her, the murder of the individual is merely a momentary passage to what they always were…

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-28-00-am

This way of seeing and representing individuals makes Leigh not an ethical butcher, but in reality a death fetishist. What drives someone who is supposedly in harmony with nature and its constituent life forms to so visibly relish the death and dismemberment of those under her dominion?

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-25-48-am

A lamb is not a pair of legs in a field, and yet…

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-29-14-am

A pig is not a blank slate upon which humans can perform meaningless acts of universal communication, and yet…

pig-writing

Her exertions to disembowel someone who did not want to die do not make her a hero, and they certainly do not make her a victim, and yet…

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-38-12-am

These are all examples of performance art meant to gratify an ego and please an audience, a narcissistic act of consumption in itself, as needless and disturbing and offensive as the idea of an animal being murdered by a “loving” hand, which she (and I should say all “humane” farmers and butchers) so clearly wishes to cultivate.

Yet for Leigh, the human-non-human relationship is always about domination–albeit a form of domination cloaked in the vacuous rhetoric of love, compassion, connection, oneness, and “cycles of life”–i.e., euphemisms for senseless acts of subjugation and violence.

EAT YOUR PRIVILEGE

What Leigh and all other humane farmers and all their consumers do not, cannot, understand is that to truly honor a living being means respecting and nurturing them while they, like all of us, struggle to stay alive. It means becoming a family with them, not an oppressor towering over them with a boot on their throat. And then when they die, despite your best efforts to keep them well for their own sakes, it means dignifying their deaths and memorializing them in your heart, forever, as a memento to a loss that cannot be measured.

When you know the value of their lives as individuals, the mentality that sees them as “components” becomes pathological beyond words, and the betrayal lurking within the shadow of the Humane Myth becomes an unbearable offense to your very family.

Perhaps if Leigh spent as much time as I do caring for the victims of animal farmers, and simultaneously entertained the notion that they actually desire and deserve to live, she might rethink her convictions about “ethical” meat. Otherwise, as it stands she seems to be profiting in many ways as a butcher-for-hire who does not have to confront the devastating realities of love, loss, grief, and systemic violence–the ubiquitous bullying that is part of humanity’s oppressive traditions. I am sure that privilege makes her lamb chops taste much less like a dead toddler.

It must be a wonderful thing, this privilege to confront the moment of death in a position of absolute personal safety and dominance–not to be forced to experience the catastrophe of a loved one’s death, of bearing the weight of their dead body, of digging their grave and piling dirt upon them, and then of putting your heavy, heavy foot in front of the other as if your life has not just been utterly upended, forever.

I will never know what that privilege Leigh so clearly enjoys is like…but I would still rather have our sort of genuineness than ever to sink into the cozy consumption and weakly defended self-gratification of Leigh’s “ethical meat.”

 

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Published by

Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

15 thoughts on “Of Bullies and Butchers: Ethical Meat, Vegan Bullies, and the Humane Myth”

  1. I have tried asking her on several of her social media platforms why she only shows the animal before and after she kills them and why she doesn’t share videos of her doing the killing. Promptly blocked every time. Not that I am surprised. She recently shared an article that claimed those who kill animals are not just a kid with a rock smashing a fish for fun. No, they are much worse- taking the life of someone who trusted them. Or shipping them off so someone else can. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Your points are dead on. I’ve also contemplated the bizarre, very unsettling thought process behind your statement, “Thus, If you’re a “humane” farmer, what you essentially do is create a relationship with individual animals, feed them, care for them, build trust with them…and then that “one bad day” happens, and you throw them to the ground, restrain them, and kill them. That bond is shattered, and these intelligent, feeling beings experience much more than just physical pain in this ultimate betrayal of their trust.”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Micah. It is so deeply disturbing, that situation you raise, and I think about it very often when interacting with our microsanctuary residents…especially the ones whose trust is hard earned. I cannot imagine what “humanely” slaughtered animals experience.

  3. I am vegetarian, but I dont deceive myself into thinking my food decisions are more ethical than non-vegetarian ones. Plants are alive too, and want to live without being dismembered. Moreover, there is some good research out there suggesting that plants feel fear and pain too. Plant agriculture kills countless small creatures too. I dont know, the whole thing feels disingenuous to me.

      1. Everything Justin said.

        Also, the idea that plants “feel” is actually not supported by research. It’s the click-bait article titled that say things like “sorry vegans, plants feel pain hrr hrr hrr” but the actually article doesn’t say that. Scientists’ research is regularly misrepresented in media for clicks.

        Plants respond to stimuli such as growing towards the sun in order to maximize their light source, having official and chemical reactions to damage, and so on. Even nonliving things respond to stimuli in some way with chemical reactions. Plants are amazing things- some with vast networks of connections like forests. They are part of ecosystems. This means that to harm plants is something we need to take seriously such as not clear cutting and so on. But the idea that plants are “afraid” has not been shown in any research.

        I understand that you’re trying to be realistic. All humans have an impact on our environments somehow. But veganism will always have less negative impact on plants, human, and nonhuman animals than eating animals and their secretions.

    1. Well, let’s start with your main point, that plants feel pain and so forth and so it makes taking an ethical stance about eating animals…complicated? Moot? There’s a lot of research going on into how plants respond to their environments and stimuli, but even in the field of “plant consciousness” there is a lot of uncertainty as to how far to take the “awareness” conclusion. Regardless, every form of eating animals and animal products results in more plants being killed than if we just ate plants. Animals have to convert all those calories into flesh, milk, eggs, babies, and so on, and we know for a fact that these conversions come at a great loss. Thus animals we consume are themselves consuming many times more calories than we would get back from them, and many times those are calories that humans could be directly consuming anyway (most of the wheat, corn, and soy crops go to farmed animals…). Even if we accept your argument that plants deserve moral consideration, the worst possible thing you could do to help plants is eat animal products. And in the end we know for a fact that animals are sentient, have rich emotional lives, and try to avoid being killed; we’re not there yet for sure on plants. So since we have to eat something, and unless we’re talking about totally synthetic calories, the plants argument is a terrible one to make in favor of non-veganism, and it is in no way an ethical shield for people intentionally breeding, raising, and killing animals.

      As for the fact that plant ag kills small animals, yes that’s certainly true. The extent of that is debated, but we know it happens, just as we know all agriculture takes habitat away from free-living animals wherever it occurs, and has devastating effects on the ecosystem (e.g., deforestation for pasturing livestock). But see my comments above about how much plant material (usually grown via agriculture) farmed animals consume en route to becoming food for humans. Also please realize that NO vegan who understands the agricultural system will see this collateral damage as ethically neutral or desirable. Vegans did not create the modern food system, and we are by no means the ones primarily propping it up. I would love for a different model (no-till veganic permaculture and edible forest gardening, for example) to take over for monoculture and reliance on a few crops. So even here, the roads all lead back towards stopping animal agriculture as a crucial means of overhauling the system as a whole.

      I’d recommend this article for some good summary information: http://freefromharm.org/eating-animals-addressing-our-most-common-justifications/.

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