1 September 2006

Kenya: Vegetarian Mankind a Threat to Wildlife


Nairobi — Chicago forbade Foie de gras to be served in the city's restaurants. This highly priced delicacy consists of sick goose liver resulting from force feeding: stuffing the geese. The procedure is regarded as torture.

The European Union has decided to phase out the pig slaughter practices in the traditional eastern countries: the sticking with a knife of the struggling animal, because of its gruesomeness.

Most countries regulate the manner of killing of animals and have laws on the treatment of domestic species. Animals must be treated and killed "humanly".

Contemporary agricultural practices, designed to maximise returns, are considered to be increasingly "inhuman". Classic cases are the egg laying hens confined to "batteries", calves deprived of movement in order to keep their muscles weak and tender, the fattening of pigs, the feeding of "unnatural" food to almost all domestic fowl and stock, the cruel manner of transport etc.

Bioethicists and animal rightists have sprung up to defend the animal kingdom from man's merciless depredations. In law, animals cannot have "rights" because animals are not persons. This does not mean that mankind can treat them without consideration. Animals, mammals in particular, are our nearest relatives and we are bound to treat them with consideration and compassion. It is obvious that animals do experience pain and discomfort and it is cruel and inhuman to ignore their plight.

Yet without coercing animals, putting them to work, breeding them according to selected characteristics, humans would not have attained the level of development they have - neither would they have without the control of species that are detrimental to agriculture, storage and civil engineering.

Long before animals were domesticated, they were important food resource. Homo erectus, who lived in Africa two million years ago and migrated to Eurasia about 1.5 million years ago, was omnivorous. Meat is easily digestible and it takes less time to hunt and consume meat than does foraging.

The robust Australopitheci, living on low calorie high fibre vegetable matter, spent much of their time eating like do most herbivores. Snatching a carcass from a carnivore and devouring it allowed early Homo to do other things: to make tools, for instance, so that, eventually, the scavenger could become a hunter, a processor of meat and then an animal catcher and domesticator.

Hominification was conditional on meat eating. Without it, there would not have been enough protein to sustain the growth of the brain. Meat eating supported human development, although some cultures eschew meat eating and animal products. Such practices require protein rich cultivars, are elaborate and can be expensive.

Radical animal rightists and bioethicists would like meat to be phased out of human nutrition altogether and turn the population into vegetarians. Such a policy would be disastrous at least in four respects.

- It would make the fuel crisis and deforestation much worse, as cooking vegetable matter, particularly fibrous plants, requires much more energy than does the preparation of meat;

- It would divert time away from production, for cooking and eating vegetables is more time consuming than the preparation of meat dishes

- It would lead to the disappearance of entire domestic breeds and eventually species;

- It would create a nutritional crisis in many parts of the world, leading to starvation, stunting and interference with brain development.

People, deprived of meat, will eat more carbohydrates and fats and obesity, diabetes and their consequences will assume catastrophic dimensions.

To try to change mankind into vegetarians simply because of compassion with animals would be foolish. On the other hand, animals must be treated better, husbanded with care. Their continuing supply must be secured (this is most notably so with regard to fish and other edible marine species which are depleted because of the "tragedy of the commons": they do not belong to anyone).

Similar considerations apply to wildlife, whereby the situation of wildlife is akin to that of fish: as no one "owns" game their numbers decline (and, in Kenya, as a rule, their demise is exceedingly cruel).

The industrialisation of animal keeping and processing has caused hardships to our mammalian and avian relatives. As to what extent they "suffer" is difficult to judge. Most bioethicists and animal rightists overstate the case because of sentimentality and anthropocentric concepts. They imagine themselves enclosed in a small cage or made to eat something that they do not like, or being stuffed like the geese to produce foie de gras and then they try to project their own feelings onto animals.

Once emotional, people do not think.

To treat animals well is an obligation. To kill them with circumspection is dictated by our own dignity. To eat them is not a sin: for most of the world's population it is a necessity.

The writer is a retired surgeon and a former chairman of the East African Wildlife Society

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