Of Easter hams and meatless fish

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‘Tis the Easter season. This is apparent thanks to the frequency with which supermarket advertising circulars appear, each and every one featuring the dead, sliced body of a pig front and center. How else to celebrate the Season of Renewed Life?

Indeed. Let’s sit down to a meal of flesh from an intelligent, sentient being who was brought into the world to suffer a hideous, hellish life and die a cruel, industrial death solely to grace our tables as we give thanks to the Lord of compassion for His sacrifice born of love…and the miracle of Easter. Amen!

Lambs all over North America must wipe their woolly brows in relief every Easter: Whew, dodged a bullet! But I digress.

The foods section in our local paper is something I rarely read. Pouring almond milk over cereal is the extent of my cooking interest and ability. Or at least it used to be–until desperation to produce a vegan birthday cake drove me to find a recipe I thought I could handle–and did. Talk about your miracles!

Tilapia orgy in Malaysia -OregonLive.com (click)

But a recent foods section caught my eye with this photo caption: “For a meatless Friday meal, try tilapia with avocado salsa.” Meatless? Tilapia?? I quick looked up tilapia, just to make double sure it wasn’t some exotic vegetable or fermented, sprouted soy thingie. An article from the Detroit Free Press went on to tout the benefits of cooking and eating this African freshwater fish.

Promoted as the “new chicken of the sea” or “aquatic chicken because it breeds easily and tastes bland,” tilapia are industrially produced on huge factory fish farms in China and Latin America; the U.S. is the largest consumer at 475 million pounds in 2010 (New York Times). Along with fish farming come the many sins of industrial animal production: overcrowding of sentient beings, added hormones (in some cases), displacement of native species, massive aquatic ecosystem degradation and destruction.

Likely we’ve all heard (at least once) the proclamation, “I’m vegetarian, but I do eat fish” or “fish and sometimes chicken.” I imagine a hierarchy (“How Similar to Us Are They?”) where fish–cold-blooded, scaled, underwater-dwelling, egg-laying fish–are so alien as to merit virtually no consideration as living beings. Chickens–creatures with wings, not even mammals!–are just above them. I mean, aren’t they produced by the billions? Basically just dumb, mindless automatons?

I googled “is fish meat” and got a couple of interesting hits. One concludes that “it depends on your perspective” at which I snorted in disgust. The author was talking to me when he/she wrote, “Many people hate to arrive at the conclusion of everyone wins, but in this situation that may be the case.” To be fair, though, religious perspectives, dietary preferences, red meat vs. white meat, and a biological approach ( meat is muscle protein, period) are all given their due here.

Another site is unequivocal:

Most of us tiptoe around religious mandates regarding slaughter of animals and consumption of their bodies out of respect, out of fear of appearing insensitive, out of fear of offending. Sometimes out of ignorance. Here’s where I harken back to childhood, a half-Polish, Protestant kid with lots of Polish Catholic friends and relatives. I was eating lunch–Campbell’s chicken noodle soup–with my friend Mary, who was removing pieces of chicken from her mouth and neatly placing them on a napkin. I was baffled. “It’s Friday,” she reminded me. (The Friday fish fry was and is an institution in my heavily-immigrant, heavily-Catholic hometown.) I kept my own mouth shut–you don’t question another’s religion. But seeing Mary spit out chicken chunks because it was Friday made me wonder–is this really what God wants? REALLY? Well, turns out not God so much as the church:

This is not to come down on Catholics. Most humans whose religion has compassion at its core routinely rob animals of their lives–with or without ritual. I once attended a panel discussion on living a compassionate life; it was presented by a progressive Christian pastor and a Buddhist nun. During the Q&A, someone beat me to asking about killing animals for food. The pastor seemed uninterested in addressing this topic and sat back while the nun took it on, saying pretty much what you’d expect from a practitioner of one of the more respectful-of-animal-life belief systems.

So when will religions–many with millennia of ancient tradition behind them–come up to speed with what we know about animals today? That animals lead emotional and yes–even moral lives? That chickens show empathy? That cows make friends and suffer in their absence or loss? That pigs are social, playful, and protective? That fish are complex, intelligent creatures with memories and cognitive powers, that their “pain system…is very similar to that of birds and mammals”?

We live in a modern world and have new insights into animals’ lives. When dogma clashes with compassion and justice, which should give way and which should hold sway? If warm-blooded and cold-blooded can no longer be claimed as any kind of moral divide, what about Friday’s fish?
For an admittedly incomplete list of faith-based animal resource, visit our Vegan Living page.

This post first appeared at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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