By Barbara Corson, Department of Agriculture, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Most people feel some discomfort when confronted with the idea of killing an animal that they know as an individual. There are different ways of dealing with the discomfort, including trying not to think about it and buying the meat once it is not recognizable as an animal anymore; or discounting animals’ interests (“it’s PIG for gawds sake! Why would you feel bad about killing a PIG?”); or becoming a vegetarian and going to great lengths to avoid using any animal products. None of these solutions works for me.
The answer I have come up with (so far) is to remember that all living things die and are “recycled” in some way. Whether you are talking about an oak tree, a deer, a human being or a domestic sheep, the question is not “will it die?” but “how will it die, and when, and why?”
I believe there is a covenant between humans and domestic animals that is thousands of years old. The agreement is not “live with me and I will see that you never die.” Rather, the agreement is “Live with me, and I will do my best to protect you from painful injury, debilitating disease, and a slow, messy death. Live with me and you will have a better life and a better death than you would have in the wild. In return for my care, you will give me food, fiber, power, fertilizer and a unique kind of companionship that human society cannot duplicate.”
Of course, even if you agree that such a covenant exists, it is clear that we humans have not always upheld our side of the bargain, any more than we always honor our other commitments as individuals, to our families, communities and environment, etc. For me, these failures to attain the ideal do not destroy the validity of the concept. In my study of history, it seems to me that many of the skills of our agrarian past developed out of an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to work with and care for the animals that have made civilization possible. In the past 75 years, technology has seemingly rendered many of these skills obsolete, yet I believe they are still valuable and worth preserving for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. So I hope to see more interested people learning and teaching each other about animal skills from our agrarian past and incorporating these skills into our present lives. Perhaps we can create a future in which humans honor our responsibilities to animals better than we ever have in the past!
This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Barbara Corson, “Animal Handling 101,” in Debra Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 Conference & Annual Meeting, 151-159.