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A Vegan Among the Deerstalkers

Another Dispatch from the Other Summerland


When I was a kid, I had this fantasy of farm life, where I’d have a barnyard composed of a happy harmony of pigs, chickens, cows, horses, and other suitably agricultural animals. The animals wouldn’t actually do anything – we’d all just live on the farm together, them eating or grazing or whatever, me taking care of them. After all, Old MacDonald’s farm animals were just – there, right?

This fantasy persisted until I started spending time in a real agricultural community in rural New Zealand, among real farmers. Then I got my wake-up call about the role of animals on farms. They are tools, valued for what they produce, and disposable when they stop. The other night I was at dinner with neighbors; the man grew up on a farm here, although he’s also lived and worked in a big city. This couple told me they’d once had chickens for eggs (very common here). When I asked where the chickens were now, they explained that the birds had gotten too old to lay and thus had “got the chop.” The birds laid eggs and got fed; when they stopped laying, there was no point in feeding them, so they got killed instead.

Lee Heller

By now, I should know better than to be shocked by such pronouncements. Still, I was disturbed by the purely utilitarian value placed on animals, even by my sophisticated, iPod-owning, ex-farmer neighbors. Animals are a means to an end in their calculus, and no more. That an animal might have a right to life, independent of its use-value to humans, does not figure into the equation.

I got this rammed home again last week, when I spent a night in the remote Cobb Valley at a New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association (NZDA) hunting hut, as part of a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. One of the women in the group is a member of the NZDA and got us in – quite a luxury, since the hut has electricity, a wood stove big enough to cook on, a small gas range, and even hot water for showers. Great, but of course there was a pair of antlers on the wall, along with a corkboard full of braggardly photos of hunters with their kill. Jean, the host member, had her binoculars out until it got dark, trying to spot deer – not that she’d brought her gun, but for practice against the next time she came out to kill one.

Now, I get hunting for food. Indeed, there is no more humane way to be a meat eater. Hunted animals live in nature as they should until the very last moment, and if killed quickly by a competent shot, suffer far, far less than domestic meat animals – who might stand in shit-filled feedlots for months before being trucked off to be slaughtered in abattoirs.

What I have trouble with is the pleasure that hunters seem to take in killing a living being. Yes, hunt successfully for the food it procures. Yes, hunt competently so as to minimize suffering to the animal you kill. But the excitement of killing for its own sake, for bagging the big one – I can’t get my head around that any more than I can imagine killing a chicken simply because it has stopped laying eggs for me to eat.

I think that it’s this difference that characterizes the divide, in Santa Barbara County, between the ranching interests up north and the environmentalists that dominate south county politics. If you’re a rancher, your land exists to graze animals that in turn exist to be turned – ultimately – into money. It’s no wonder that they’d oppose regulations that interfere with this outcome. (I am generalizing here; there are ranch owners who have more of a stewardship model than this, of course.) On the other side, most environmentalists operate with the belief that other species have a right to exist, not to be mowed down (literally or figuratively) by humans who see everything in the landscape as either an instrument for, or an obstruction to, making money.

It’s not an easy thing, persuading a New Zealand farmer, or a California rancher, that the land and animals on which they depend for income might have an autonomous right to exist. After all, once you admit that your cows should get to live even when they stop making milk, you then have to consider that their calves should get to live even if they aren’t female (future milk producers); and then the cows become individuals, not implements – and then, well, it’s a slippery slope to veganism, isn’t it?

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