A Carnivore’s Sensibility

In the last year of the last century, the Makah, an aboriginal people who inhabit the outer coast of Washington, hunted and killed a gray whale from an open boat. The death of that whale ignited a firestorm of opposition. That opposition constellated around three arguments.

  • Lack of necessity
  • Inhumanity of the killing
  • Intelligence of whales

I’ve written elsewhere about choosing your food based upon a sliding scale of self-awareness (see Devouring Intelligence) but I wonder still about what’s humane. Is the pain we inflict an inverse measure of our humanity?

Mind you, I’m not a hunter; I am a carnivore. I live by devouring life. It doesn’t seem to me fair to draw a distinction between animal and vegetable life. I don’t gut and bleed the animals I eat or rip the vegetables from the ground; I pay someone to do that for me. I risk nothing in the hunt; my prey is bred and raised from birth, held captive, often in horrendous conditions, in order to maximize profit per pound. The fact that I’m removed from the bloody business doesn’t make me less culpable. I can’t distance myself from the awful mystery: life consumes life.

Makah flensing whale on the beach at Neah Bay circa 1910. Asahel Curtis, photographer.

It seems to me hypocritical to deny our biological imperative. One way or another, we all live by devouring life. In some cultures we even eat each other. Mind you, I’m not recommending cannibalism if for no other reason than the bio-magnification of toxins in predators. My question is whether the pain we inflict on our prey make us more or less humane.

In other words, is the absence of pain our greatest good? And pain for whom, predator or prey?

Web of Indebtedness

The whole food chain is enmeshed in a web of indebtedness. Life feeds upon life. Stockmen and slaughterhouses and chicken farms keep us a safe distance from the blood and the dirt but the debt piles up until it’s too big to pay.

The Makah have been hunting whales since before the birth of Christ, maybe even before the birth of Rome. They stalked whales in open boats until they were close enough to be wetted by the whale’s spout, close enough to kill by hand with a harpoon tipped with clam shell, close enough to be killed by a twitch of the whale’s flukes. They knew there was no fundamental difference between themselves and the whale, that hunter would inevitably become hunted. Life feeds life. They acknowledged the debt; they repaid it with their lives.

The measure of our humaneness is surrendering the separation between ourselves and the world…

The Huichol are another aboriginal people. They live in the Sierra Madre of Mexico. They’re a poor people barely scratching a living from the dirt but each year they walk hundreds of miles to make a sacrifice to the sea. By the time they return to their mountains they’ve eaten all the food they could carry and walked the soles off their sandals. It’s an absurd, painful ritual but the Huichol believe that the world will end if the sacrifice isn’t made. They’re paying the debt for us all.

The measure of our humaneness is surrendering the separation between ourselves and the world and acknowledging our indebtedness to all life. Ultimately it’s not about saving the whales. It’s about sacrificing ourselves.

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