Sunday, March 3, 2013

When a picture hides thousands of words

In India, what is the source of information on animal welfare and animal husbandry issues?  Animal Rights groups with a narrowly-focused mission?  Forgive me for that conclusion but it seems that way.  And information, it seems, is disseminated by these groups in the form of photographs that are shared through social media sites.  Cows that already benefit from an underlying universal human reverence for draft animals in agrarian societies, also occupy a special place in various Hindu subcultures. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most 'popular' graphic photographs doing the rounds in India, seem to be of cows slaughtered or on the verge of being slaughtered.     
The problem with well-meaning people sharing graphic, gross, bloody pictures of 'callously' wounded or dead cows lying in pools of blood is that one has no idea why these cows are dead. Have they been slaughtered for meat in an inhumane, unhygienic manner because of state-level slaughter bans rather than despite such bans?  (Refer to this article to get a picture of the unintended consequences unfairly affecting only the marginalized sections of South Asia's populations.)  Have they been killed because of caste/religious wars where one group takes vengeance against another by destroying the others' means of livelihood and their limited sources of wealth?  Or are they dead from an acute infectious outbreak which has little to do directly with people, but plenty to do with the accidental nature of this world that guarantees life for no one (except the rich and the powerful, maybe?)  

Some of my friends claim that their commitment to Animal Rights and their choice of a vegan lifestyle is merely personal.  (To some of my friends, being vegan implies not just dietary restrictions, but also an end to use of all kinds of animal products and labor).  To these friends, I usually say: Don't assume your choice of cause is personal when you are actually part of a socio-political and economic movement that, if it has its own way, will result in further marginalization and poverty of hundreds of millions of humans, and not just in India, but elsewhere as well.   If you accept the concept of animal rights, you must have some sympathy for the rights of humans (who are also animals) who still make a living through a symbiotic arrangement with animals, as our own ancestors have done, directly or indirectly, for the last 10,000 years.
If you really want to understand and ask questions, take a book and read; don't rely on shock-instilling images that hide more complexities than they depict or pretend to communicate.  Pictures may convey as much as 1,000 words, but they hide 10,000 more.  Don't assume that people who study animals, work with animals, coax animals into giving what we as humans need from animals, know nothing about animals. Don't act like urban sophisticates and intellectuals have been put on this earth to teach rural people the 'true' value of animals.  Nothing is more insulting and obnoxious than this top-down attitude with an intent to change this world overnight. I have found that some North American hunters (for food) are so much more knowledgeable, nuanced and appreciative of this complex biological world than some privileged Mylaporeans who have never had to grow even a single tomato in their lifetime or collect cow dung for a day.  In other words, some humility in some new converts to veganism would be nice. And, in this age of progressive thinking, maybe we would do well to listen to those who work with animals in our backyards, if not farmyards. Listening to only those from our privileged class (and caste) is highly irresponsible when your words are going to affect those who have no choice in how they earn a living.

In the meanwhile, academic letters are a good place to start to critically think beyond pictures that target the emotions alone.  Here is my recommendation for a good read: Animal welfare in animal agriculture: Husbandry, stewardship, and sustainability in animal production.  Ed. by Wilson G. Pond, Fuller W. Bazer, and Bernard Rollin.  A must-read is Paul Robbins' paper, Meat Matters: Cultural Politics along the Commodity Chain.  Available freely for those who care to know.  Robbins argues that the numbers of large cattle in India are decreasing (while the numbers of small ruminants like goat and sheep are increasing) because of the economic implications of not slaughtering cows.

"...The cow, it should be pointed out, is not disappearing as a result of slaughter but instead precisely because it is not being slaughtered. While small-scale, illicit and local consumption of beef is not unheard of, the lack of a viable meat component to the cattle economy makes them less valuable in the growing meat economy.  Both sheep and goat populations, on the other hand, have steadily grown in recent years."

Robbins is not alone in his argument.   Ashok V. Desai came to a similar conclusion as early as in 1971.  Rural ecologists in India have long pointed out that cows with reproductive problems and/or low milk yield, are abandoned by farmers (just like male dairy calves early in their lifetimes) because of the lack of a safe, legal, economically-meaningful slaughter system. These abandoned cattle compete for limited resources (fodder and water) with wild herbivores.  The unintended (and sometimes, unseen) consequences of protection of one over-populated domesticated species is its role in the habitat destruction of another species. Some overnight urban ethicists and activists think little about the ripple effects of no-kill policies.

And lastly, if you choose to be a neo-vegan propagandist, I suggest that you first kindly consider giving up all your medications and vaccinations, your vitamin and mineral supplements, your make-up and plastic surgery, and what-whats and what-nots, before you get on your soapbox. Because hundreds of thousands of lab and farm animals before us have contributed to the miracle of our continued living even after a heart attack or a cataract removal or an attack of depression.  That's right.  Antibiotics, immunizations (active and passive), ECGs--all examples of therapeutic, prophylactic, diagnostic discoveries and developments--are medical miracles that come to you, your children, your parents and grandparents courtesy of the animals that you so advocate that none of us have a right to use anymore.  If that is hard to give up, I understand. I am with you, and so is almost all those who use animals for every other purpose.  The way they show their gratitude -- should show their gratitude -- is to respect and honor "the symbiotic contract humans made with ... animals."       

 For a creatively written approach to the uniquely human habit of contemplating the tragic source of our vital nutrients, please read Margaret Visser's "Sins of the Flesh" in Granta 52.  

No comments: