The steer who escaped into our conscience

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July 22, 2007

The story many Long Islanders have followed during the past few weeks of an escaped steer on the North Fork whose notoriety landed him a refuge away from the abattoir gets more perplexing the more you think about it. From a strictly agribusiness point of view, of course, the fugitive livestock presented only the problem of recapturing an ornery investment before its due harvest. Bad cow – get back into the pen.

But from the perspective of animal rights, the tale takes on a different tone altogether. “Moo,” as he came to be nicknamed, represented the fiery spirit of independence even domesticated animals still harbor. He broke free in a bid for liberation, impressed the public and was rewarded with sanctuary in the end. Good cow – move on to greener pastures.

Listen to animal advocates’ viewpoint, and you’ll be forced to confront what we normally prefer to leave hidden and forgotten: the ultimate destiny of farm animals, namely (dis)assembly-line slaughter. If you have the stomach, you can visit a slaughterhouse or else watch the recent documentary “Earthlings” (at to reacquaint yourself rather graphically with the gruesome details.

Interestingly, once we remember or first learn of this reality, it’s not so much that Moo gained some unfair advantage over his tamer brothers (as some have been tempted to think), but rather that none of these unfortunates deserve the treatment their demise typically entails. Indeed, the bottom line of supermarket meat-eating is that the consumer buys and ingests something for the sake of taste that cost its original owners their very lives!

Put this way, and realizing that vegetarianism is a healthier option for dietary nutrition, it’s a wonder that we don’t close the slaughterhouses and wind down the livestock industry in a massive display of collective shame or gustatory grief.

And yet we don’t. Instead, we usually suppress the knowledge and keep a tight lid on our conscience.

This willful ignorance manifests in all sorts of ways, from the careful tucking away of killing and corpse-processing plants to the renaming of animals’ body parts once they are offered for consumption: steak and beef – never steer or cow; sausage, pork, bacon – not pig.

Still, quite inconsistently, we are capable of empathetic identification when a story such as Moo’s develops. Is this just a temporary lapse of civilized reason, a childlike indulgence in anthropomorphism? I think not. There is something more profound at stake, and at steak if you will.

“Those who become guilt-ridden about the productive beasts we cannot humanize feel a corresponding yearning to reconnect” with wild animal energies, historian Richard Bulliet has suggested.

I think Moo tapped into this desire of ours to rediscover some indomitable force that survives even our best efforts at control, that can’t be expunged even by the machine of exploitation to which farmed animals are routinely subjected.

Bulliet calls this paradoxical mind-set “post-domestic,” because it shows that we no longer accept the project of domestication wholeheartedly – we have now attached a touch of irony to it and thus become somewhat confused in our feelings and thoughts regarding the entire enterprise.

I would argue that such confusion is part of a larger conundrum that haunts late-modern civilization, namely that we live in the kind of society made possible economically through the subjugation of nature and other life forms, and yet we are troubled ethically by that very conquest of nonhuman being(s).

The predicament to which I refer is not new to humanity – it’s an old story, really: Domination breeds alienation in the master, which in turn makes him anxious and ambivalent about his underlings and himself.

Through technology and quite a bit of bravado if not outright hubris, humankind has cast itself in the role of biological lordship. It should not be surprising, then, if we suffer the psychological maladies endemic to that position.

So what are we post-domestic people to do?

There are two main options available: full-speed ahead with our program of biotechnical mastery and the mental pathologies that go with it – or else ease up, tread lightly on or with our fellow earthlings, and maybe the species-schizophrenia will evaporate.

Our reaction to Moo is a hint that the second alternative is probably worth a try.

Ralph R. Acampora is an associate professor of philosophy at Hofstra University.

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