“An Animal’s Place”

Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine 1/4/2003


1.      OVERVIEW                                                      

2.      Reason animals used for food are so mistreated is because we have lost everyday contact with animals and taken their raising and slaughtering out of public view

         a.      Solution: Glass slaughterhouses to promote humane farming

3.      Wants to recover a tradition of both honoring and eating animals

         a.      Today we either look away (let Frank Perdue the chicken magnet do his job) or become vegetarian (let Peter Singer guide us)

         b.      Pollan tries to avoid either option



5.      They don’t know any better defense: Animals on farm never known any other life

         a.      Reply: But their instincts are frustrated (to exercise, stretch limbs and wings, turn around) even if never had chance to do these things

6.      “They do it too” defense of meat eating (=animals eat animals)

         a.      Reply:

                   i.       But basing human morality on the natural order suggests that because murder and rape are natural they are thus okay too

                   ii.      Also animals don’t have other options to meat eating as we do



         a.      Higher animals wired much like we are and for same evolutionary reasons

8.      Human and animal pain differ greatly in some respects

         a.      We have language, thus thoughts about thoughts and ability to imagine alternatives to current reality

         b.      Suffering (as opposed to pain) requires self-consciousness which few animals have

                   i.       Suffering is pain intensified by emotions like loss, sadness, worry, regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread

                   ii.      “In a bovine brain the concept of non-existence is blissfully absent”

         c.      E.g., Castration; yes painful to animals, but they get over it in a way that humans do not; suffering of a man able to comprehend full implications of castration, anticipate it and contemplate its aftermath, represents an agony of another order

         d.      Language (and all that goes with it) can make certain kinds of pain more bearable

                   i.       Trip to dentist office torment for an ape that couldn’t be made to understand the purpose and duration of the procedure



10.    Modern confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) treats animals as machines incapable of feeling pain.

11.    People who work there have to “suspend their beliefs” and the rest of us have to “avert our eyes”

12.    Details of animal production (Page 8)

         a.      “Egg and hog operations are worst...Beef cattle still live outdoors, albeit standing ankle deep in own waste eating a diet that makes them sick.”

         b.      “Boiler chickens get beaks snipped off with hot knife to keep them from cannibalizing each other under stress of confinement.”

         c.      But at least they don’t spend 8 week lives in cages too small to stretch a wing –As do egg laying hens, “whose natural instincts so thwarted that they often rub body again wire mesh until featherless and bleeding” and 10% die and the bunch is force molted (food withheld for days so produce more eggs)

         d.      “Pigs weaned from mothers at 10 days (13 weeks in nature) as gain weight faster on hormone and antibiotic fortified feed, thus have life-long craving to suck and chew, so bite tail of animal in front of them and pigs are so demoralized that don’t fight it off and this leads tails to get infected. Solution is to ‘dock the tail,’ make it short and leave a stump that is so sensitive that they will fight it off.”


13.    Role of Capitalism: Mistreatment of animals in factory farms is a nightmare of unfettered capitalism (capitalism unconstrained by morality or regulation)

         a.      Tension between capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency and moral imperatives of religions/community that serve as a counterweight to moral blindness of market

         b.      Economic impulse erodes moral underpinnings of society

         c.      Mercy toward animals is one such casualty



15.    Polyface Farm is a family farm where six different food animals raised in a way that is ecologically sound and humane

         a.      Each species can fully express its nature

                   i.       Chickens live like chickens, cows like cows

         b.      Portable chicken coop put in pasture after cows grazed there

         c.      Chicken manure feeds the soil

         d.      Then sheep move in to eat lush new growth as well as weeds that cows and chickens won’t eat

         e.      Pigs happily turn farmer’s compost (looking for food);

                   i.       Compost used to fertilize his fields

16.    Here animals are happy: A sentimental conceit to see it as death camp (as say animal rightists)

         a.      Tom Regan’s animal rights view: Tidying up meat eating industry (by providing larger cages for animals, etc.) is not sufficient, because they continue to treat animals as mere means to human ends and killing them violates their rights



         a.      The good life for domesticated (food) animals can’t be achieved apart from humans, thus farms, thus meat eating

18.    In principle, animal agriculture is mutualism, not exploitation

         a.      We give them food and protection and they give us (we take!) milk, eggs, and their flesh

19.    Domestication an evolutionary development by which certain species evolved to survive and prosper in alliance with humans

         a.      Both humans and animals were transformed by this relationship

                   i.       Animals grew tame and lost ability to fend for themselves

                   ii.      Humans gave up hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became agriculturalists (and e.g., developed lactose tolerance)



21.    One: Domestic animals have survived and in greater numbers that wild counterparts

         a.      Cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished

         b.      10,000 wolves in N.A., 50 million dogs

         c.      Worries: (1) Dogs doing better than wolves both because we’ve taken care of dogs and because we destroyed wolves and their habitat; (2) Is number of members of a species a sign of success or is the average welfare of members of that species a better measure of success?

22.    Two: If we didn’t eat them, many of these animals would not exist

         a.      Rights for chickens would mean extinction of chickens

         b.      Domesticated animal can’t survive in wild

         c.      Worries: (1)Some (e.g., pigs) domesticated animals could exist in the wild (although in great numbers they would damage ecosystems) (2) Would the extinction of domesticated breeds (or ceasing to exist in great numbers) be a bad thing? Reagan and Singer’s views?

23.    Three: If raised humanely and killed painlessly, domesticated animals would be happier and flourish more than their wild counterparts

         a.      Life in the wild would be worse for these farm animals

         b.      They live longer in captivity

                   i.       E.g., chickens lives longer in their brief life in a pasture than likely to live in the wild

                   ii.      Worries: Does this claim depends on the species? True that most wild animals die in infancy, but once make it past infancy they live longer in the wild?

         c.      In “humane farms” die less painfully

                   i.       Way animals die in the wild is typically very painful

         d.      Instead of it being wrong to treat animals as a means, at least for working animals (draft horses and seeing eye dogs?) their happiness consists in serving as a means


         e.      Worry: Pollan seems to be using the way nature treats animals as a standard or justification for the way humans should treat them

                   i.       Is Pollan assuming this (controversial) principle: How humans treat animals is permissible as long as it is better than how nature treats them?

                   ii.      At other points, Pollan rejects idea of basing human morality on nature (e.g., he rejects argument for meat eating that says they eat each other, so it is permissible for us to eat them)



         a.      Makes Ted Kerasote point that eating vegetables kills animals too as they die in the production of vegetables (pesticides, tractors kill field mice and wood chucks) (p. 12)

25.    Oregon State Univ. animal scientist says strict veggie diet would INCREASE animals killed, as animal pasture gave way to row crops

         a.      Worries: This argument depends on percent of animals that graze versus percent that are fed crops grown for them–eating animals fed crops grown for them requires lots more crop acreage than does eating the crops (vegetables) directly

26.    To kill as few animals as possible, eat largest animal possible that can live on least intensively cultivated land (grass fed beef )



         a.      Eating meat part of human evolutionary heritage, reflected in design of our teeth and structure of our digestion

         b.      Eating meat helped make us what we are (socially and biologically)

         c.      Because of pressure of hunt, human brain grew in size and complexity

         d.      Human culture first flourished around campfire as meat was cooked

         e.      Granting rights to animals will entail sacrificing part of our identity, our own animality

         f.       Worries: But our history is not our identity. And many animals are vegetarians (e.g., gorillas, buffalo, elk) so why is giving up meat to sacrifice our animality?


         a.      Desire to eat meat is not a trivial matter, no mere “gastronomic preference”

         b.      Might as well call sex (also no longer technically necessary) a mere recreational preference

         c.      Our meat eating is something very deep indeed.

         d.      Worries: Poor analogy; better analogy would be between desire to eat and desire for sex (not desire to eat meat and desire for sex). Also, given that meat is a minor part of the diet of the vast majority of people on the planet, it can’t be all that deep



30.    Taking a life is momentous (People have been trying to justify animal killing for centuries)

31.    Slaughter does not preclude respect (can kill w/o treating animal as a “pile of protoplasm”)

32.    Need to eat animals “with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve”

         a.      Natives Americans thanking prey for giving up its life so they could live

         b.      Saying grace over a meal



34.    What is needed to redeem animal agriculture in this country is to require glass in the confined animal facilities and slaughterhouses

         a.      Tail docking, sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight

         b.      End of days of slaughtering 400 head of cattle an hour



         a.      Pollan has found it entirely possible to limit meat eating to nonindustrial animals

         b.      Look for labels indicating meat & eggs been humanely grown

         c.      American Humane Association Free Farmed label

         d.      Visit farms where chickens and pork come from

         e.      Go visit the kill floor



37.    Animal activists have trouble with existence of predation in nature

         a.      Singer wonders whether we should do anything about carnivorous predation

         b.      Animal right/liberation advocates have an abiding discomfort with our--and the animal’s--animality

38.    How to think about the killing of sentient life as a means to live?

         a.      Is discomfort toward this mere foolish sentimentality or rather a sign of our humanity?

         b.      A negative evaluation of predation expresses a profound disappointment with the way nature works


39.    Pollan’s email exchange with Peter Singer

40.    What does Singer think of a farm where animals live according to their natures and do not appear to suffer?

41.    Singer:

         a.      Better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all

         b.      If death is not painful and lives happy then farm is good and can kill as long as you replace the animals killed

         c.      Does think it wrong to kill animal with sense for own existence over time and have preferences for own future (not chickens, but perhaps pigs)

         d.      “Not sufficiently confident of his arguments to condemn someone who bought meat from one of these farms”

         e.      Worries about practicality of such farms on large scale–pressures of market lead owners to cut costs at animals’ expense

         f.       Killing animals is not conducive to treating them with respect

         g.      Because this is more expensive, only well to do will be able to afford morally defensible animal protein

42.    Pollan thinks Singer’s views are consistent with Pollan’s main point:

         a.      What is wrong with animal agriculture is the practice not the principle

         b.      We need to eliminate the suffering and also make the killing respectful

Study Questions on Pollan’s An Animal’s Place


1.         What is the basic reason Pollan thinks animals are treated so badly in modern factory farming operations? What solution to this problem does he offer?

2.         Does Pollan believe it is morally permissible to eat animals? If not why not? If so, why and under what conditions?

3.         Does Pollan think that animals can feel pain and/or suffer? Explain.

4.         Explain Pollan’s views on domestication of animals. Does he think of it as exploitation or enslavement? Why or why not?

5.         Have domesticated animals benefitted from their relationship with humans on Pollan’s view? Why or why not? Assess his position from your own perspective.

6.         Evaluate the claim that we should look to nature (to how nature treats animals) as a guide for how we should treat them.

7.         Describe Pollan’s ideal farm. Are animals happy/fulfilled on such a farm, according to Pollan? Why?

8.         Explain (and evaluate) Pollan’s suggestion that vegetarians kill more animals than do meat eaters. Explain and evaluate the suggestion that hunting is better for animals than being a “supermarket vegetarian.”

9.         What is wrong with the following account of Pollan’s views about eating animals: “It’s okay to eat animals if they have been humanely raised and slaughtered. What’s wrong with current practice is the pain we inflict on the animals. Painless killing of animals is not a serious moral issue.”