Monday, July 12, 2010

A Scary Thought

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan tells of visiting a model sustainable farm. The farm sold pasture-fed chickens, and on "chicken processing day" Pollan felt obligated to slaughter a few chickens in order to experience every level of the trajectory of meat from farm to table.

He was shown how to place the chickens in the killing cones, how to hold their heads at just the right angle and sever the carotid artery with a single stroke of the knife. At the beginning, he was full of trepidation about the chickens' state. Were they distressed when they were placed into the cones? (They didn't seem to be.) Did they suffer when their throats were cut? (It was over quickly.) Would he be able to do the job neatly and efficiently, inflicting as little pain as possible?

He steeled himself and killed a chicken. Then a second, and a third. And he was utterly surprised by how quickly the sequence of actions became mechanical for him, how by the time he had "processed" a dozen chickens he was completely immersed in the technical aspects of the job, and dissociated from the animals he was slaughtering.

I know just how he felt. I had the very same thing happen to me in my first job after college. It was a temporary job, to fill a few months between graduation and graduate school, and I was happy to be hired by a research institute as assistant in a cancer lab. My job was to inoculate hamsters, mice and rats with cancer cells, divide them into treatment groups, inject them with various drugs, and keep track of every single animal--its weight, the growth rate of its tumor, and its date of death.

This was in the 1960s, long before the animal rights movement.

On the first day I was issued a thick leather glove for my left hand, for holding hamsters while my right hand did the injecting, measuring and weighing. I was taught how to catch and immobilize mice without getting bitten (the leather glove didn't work with mice, because you had to be quick and dexterous to work with them). I was taught how to hold big struggling rats without losing a finger. I was handed a very large forceps and shown how to "sacrifice" an animal by breaking its neck.

Sometimes, at the end of a short-term experiment involving, say, 200 mice, most of the animals were still alive. It was too time consuming to kill them one by one, so I was taken to a garbage pail full of dry ice and shown how to empty cage after cage of mice into it, where they would eventually suffocate.

At the end of the first day, I could barely drive myself home. My hair and my clothes reeked of the place, and I was shaken to the core by having had to kill small, warm, living things, and witnessing the suffering of the ones that were still alive.

But I was a biology major, and had prided myself in dealing dispassionately with fetal pigs and other animals on the dissecting table. As a very young woman in a world run by men who were ever on the lookout for signs of female weakness, I had learned to hide all symptoms of empathy and tenderness. Besides, it was a good job, and I couldn't very well spend the summer sitting at home reading French novels. So I stuck it out.

The first few days were terribly hard. At one point I messed up an experiment by using my forceps to euthanize some hamsters that I knew were at death's door. What difference could it make to record their death during the a.m. versus the p.m. check? "You are interfering with the natural progression of the tumor," my supervisor told me kindly but firmly. "The animals must die on their own time, without your help."

I will spare you further descriptions of that place. But to me the worst horror was how quickly I learned to tolerate it. Like Pollan with his chickens, I soon got immersed in the technical aspects of the work. I became the fastest weigher and measurer in the lab, kept meticulous records, helped my colleagues capture mice that had gotten loose. And while I didn't enjoy what I was doing, neither was I inwardly weeping for those animals.

I remember how shocked I was at the extent of my adaptability. And I remember how, suddenly, chapters in the history of humankind that had seemed inconceivable when I studied them in class became not only understandable, but plausible. Roman circuses, the Inquisition, Napoleon, the Holocaust--I could have been right there, cheering for the lions, lighting the pyres, slaughtering Spanish peasants, "doing my job" as a camp guard. Just how far was I capable of going? How much horror could I learn to tolerate?

I still haven't gotten over that experience. It taught me to mistrust myself and the rest of my species. But I don't know what to do with this insight into human nature--except perhaps to try to keep the mistrust of myself and the sense of horror alive.


  1. Hmm. I've never done any of that, but I dove too far into my darkness the first year I taught when I realized I had ceased to see many of the children I taught as human persons. I had become a sort of camp guard and started to lose my own humanity in the process. Terrifying. And so I had to get out.

  2. And that, I think, is what Arendt meant by the "banality of evil." How quickly one can adapt and dissociate from what was formerly thought of as detestable behavior. I am sure we have all experienced it in some form.

  3. Bridgett, it does happen to people in the caring professions, and the trouble starts when many, unlike you, don't realize it.

    Jaimie, part of the problem may be that humans have difficulty maintaining any one state of mind for very long.

  4. Oh wow, Lali. Wow. What a powerful post.

    Without even having that experience, I'm pretty sure I'd be the same. I've had long discussions with friend who was a young teenager in Chile during Pinochet's regime about evil and "doing something" or not.

    As for your first sentence -- when I was teenager and young adult (and a vegetarian for animal rights reasons) I vowed that if I ever ate meat again I'd kill an animal first -- because otherwise I would be a hypocrite and, at the time, being hypocritical was the worst thing I could imagine being.

    At 53 I am a hypocrite.

  5. Dona, at 50, I too am a hypocrite. My husband and I eat mostly vegetarian, but every once in a while I crave flesh. What is that?! Lali, re your comment of maintaining any one state of mind - maybe that is another good reason for me to keep up a better practice of meditating!

  6. Dona and Jaimie, the only way I can reconcile myself to eating meat is to support the kind of farming that gives animals the best possible life and the easiest possible death (Temple Grandin is my heroine). Still, I feel that I should be doing more....

  7. One of my favorites lines from literature is from a short story I read years ago - so long ago I can't remember the name of the famous author (blushing) Anyway, it a story about wartime Warsaw and the protagonist is a man who has to work at the only job he can find which is retrieving corpses from the street and preparing them for burial. One day he picks up a body and notes without emotion that it is the body of his father. Years later reflecting on his numb indifference he says "God save us from what we can get used to" That line has stuck with me because it sums up so much of what is truly frightening in us all.

  8. I have nothing more to add to this wonderful discussion, but thank you all for it.