Barbarism Begins At Home

“Society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Used by figures such as Churchill, Gandhi and Pope John Paul II, the quote above, or a variation on it, has its original roots in The Bible. Its invocation is designed to inspire us into action to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But one can’t pick and choose when it comes to which of those considered vulnerable is most deserving of our concern and care. If you work in a field where the goal is to gain greater understanding of, and provision for, special needs children or adults nowhere does it say that you can’t also find it in you to care for the elderly. If you devote time to raising awareness of, and building structural support for, those who are impoverished by geography and circumstance you can also fight for those who are denied decent working conditions by their employers. It might come down to a battle for civil rights, whether that takes the form of marrying the person you love or protecting the people around you from harm.

And if those in need can’t speak for themselves you can and should stand and speak for them. Another version of the quote, as Gandhi related it, is as follows:

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

When I’ve spoken about my concern for animal welfare in the past I have occasionally been met with rolled eyes. Animals matter less than people and wouldn’t my time be better spent speaking up about the welfare of children, workers and so on? As if I should have only a certain amount of concern to spare and as if it’s an imperative to rank causes of interest in order of socially accepted importance and then allocate time in the day one should give them. Is the welfare of my family more important to me than the life of an animal in a factory farm? Yes. Does this mean I can’t regale anyone who will listen with appalling tales of factory farming? No.

As a Western consumer, I’m fortunate to have a great deal of choice at my fingertips and a wise friend once told me that the greatest power you have is where you spend your money. Four years ago I chose to never eat another sentient being. Before then I never spoke out on animal welfare issues because I felt a hypocrite. That’s just me – there’s nothing to stop any carnivore from being active in animal rights matters.

My choice often provokes a curious defensiveness. I’m quizzed with suspicion on my choice of footwear material, whether I buy goods from China, eat Nestle products or avoid Nike. If I fall down on any of these standards I’m told that I’ve failed to live the life I preach about. I’ve never claimed that it’s possible to go through any given day without sometimes having to make regrettable choices: you just try to do the best you can. Defending one’s choices is part of trying to be a person of conscience, I’ve found out. However, I do notice that vegans never question me on why I’m not one of them!

I’m often asked if being a vegetarian is hard, if it’s expensive and (the classic) if I eat fish. I smile and say no to all three. The latter question is the most common, so much so that labels like pescetarian have been adopted into common language – as if eating a fish didn’t count somehow. Well, it’s not as cute as a lamb is it? Never mind that we’ll run out of fish to eat before we run out of land to raise lamb chops on.

By making these choices and talking about them, am I subconsciously telling those who make the opposite ones that their choices are wrong? I don’t mean to but perhaps I am. I’ve never tried to convert anyone to vegetarianism, but I don’t mind presenting information should the moment arise. I’m a bore to my family, telling them tales of animal cruelty I have learned of. But even in the delivery of information, sneaking it into family dinners or events, I do my best to take the McCartney family approach, even if I lean towards a cheeky Meat Is Murder reference now and then.

Morrissey, who guilted a generation into putting down their mince, is of the militant, aggressive variety of animal rights advocates. He doesn’t care if anyone listens, he doesn’t care who makes him an enemy and he doesn’t care if anyone agrees; he’ll say his piece regardless. He won’t bite his lip about any subject and certainly not about animal welfare – many of his own fans recoil in annoyance at his on-stage sermons about eating ‘flesh’ and animal experimentation. A kindlier polar opposite, Paul McCartney, appeals to the emotional and practical side – he stopped eating meat in 1975 upon seeing a happy lamb outside the window of his farm, he promotes healthy meat-free eating by continuing the pioneering work his late wife started with her cookbooks and cuisine and his daughter Stella has recently completed designs on the Queen’s guard’s bearskin hats in faux fur. This Morrissey Vs McCartney scale is the difference between the eye-catching and aggressive shock tactics of PETA (who certainly gain victories, if not friends, by the truckload) and the reasoned and intelligent campaigns of the organisation Compassion in World Farming.

A friend took me to a CIWF meeting last year and, while I do support and appreciate PETA’s stunts, from naked models to forceful lobbying, I found that the practical idealism of the CIWF lectures spoke to me. Their approach was simple enough. People are going to eat meat. Most will never give it up. But what they can be persuaded to do is find a moment to think about what they’re eating and how it arrived on their plate. At the
CIWF lecture we were shown two side-by-side photographs of chickens, not yet matured. One had been raised free range, in a farm’s outdoor space, and the other in a wire cage. The difference between them was clear to see. One had bright, abundant feathers and sturdy legs; the other was considerably bigger, with paler feathers and bent legs. Due to being injected with hormones, but denied outside roaming, the bigger bird would provide more meat but could not hold its own weight. Any larger and its legs would surely break. It was then that I realised that I was being given the information on how to appeal to people who were fine with breaking this bird’s neck and eating it. Do you really want to eat a chicken stuffed full of hormones? Or a cow injected with a mystery serum to make it produce more milk? It’ll taste better if it’s had a good life, I started saying, with plaintive persuasion, to those around me.

It helps my case that the British public is, on the whole, a compassionate nation of animal lovers. One can’t imagine this country tolerating a condition I read about on a farm in Japan where, to prevent the pigs from moving in their cramped cages, a metal spike was speared through their jaws to keep them stationary.

Of course there are endless issues to address: animal labour worldwide in zoos, circuses, bullfighting, horse-racing and more; the passion for hunting that some barbaric sections of, among others, Africa, America and Canada still have; the status symbol dogs that I see far too often in the UK and the now sadly resurgent appetite for the fur industry. It would certainly also be desirable to break the hold that cheap, poor quality fast food has but doing that would be partly connected to breaking the hold that cheap, poor quality booze has and that, I fear, is a mission too far!

It is the issue of factory farming that is most easily addressed and prime for legislation and change.

So can we all agree on one thing at least? That if you must eat animals they should be treated well before slaughter. If you’re going to eat them, why not avoid torturing them during their short lives? Of course, there are different levels of torture. There’s being kept in cages, never seeing the light of day. There’s being mistreated by workers at slaughterhouses before the throat-slitting day comes. But there is only one delicacy that has physical torture built into rearing: foie gras, recently described to me as ‘animal water-boarding’.

The literal translation of foie gras is fatty liver. Mostly produced in France, it is made from ducks and, to a lesser extent, geese. For a few weeks prior to slaughter, the animals are subject to gavage, French for ‘to gorge’. In short, it’s force-feeding. A tube is inserted into their throats and two or three times a day they are pumped full of boiled maize and fat, in order to increase the size of the liver by up to ten times, which then leads to production of an expensive and, I’m told, delicious meal. After this process many farms then put an elastic band around the animal’s neck to stop it from throwing up the food.

During the rearing period, it’s possible that some of these birds may have access to the outdoors but not enough to produce their natural behaviour. If they are allowed outdoors, they can forage for food but are not given any other food before the force-feeding begins. However, it’s more likely that they are confined in tiny cages, day and night before being slaughtered at six months old. This force-feeding in human terms would be like having 45 pounds of pasta pumped into your stomach every day. It’s cruelty, it’s torture and for what? So posh restaurants with pretentious menus can serve it to their customers.

Force-feeding for foie gras production is prohibited or prevented by general animal welfare legislation in many countries, including most provinces in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. EU laws that allow free movement of goods mean importing it can never be banned so a consumer boycott is the only option. The following places, in London alone, still serve it:

As Harrods continues to sell foie gras, chains such as Selfridges, House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols have banned it. AirCanada, AirAsia, Virgin, United, Delta, SAS and KLM have removed it from their menus. It has been removed from menus at all royal functions, thanks to Prince Charles. Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Tesco, Whole Foods and Asda will not stock it while Waitrose sells CIWF-approved ‘faux gras’. And thanks to Tamara Ecclestone, PETA’s foie gras campaign ambassador, it has been removed from the menus of Formula One teams such as Williams, Cosworth, Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus.

I’m sure foie gras tastes great - people wouldn’t eat it otherwise. The choice is your stomach or your conscience. Whether you love animals or couldn’t care less about them, anyone with an ounce of compassion shouldn’t sanction and participate in this kind of cruelty.

(all photos from