If only we’d known when we were kids how grown ups were messing with our heads!
I’ve been thinking about kids and animals, animals and kids.
Animals are big-but-BIG in young kids’ lives, aren’t they? Kids just seem to have a natural affinity with animals, all or any, spotted or striped, furred or feathered. Have you noticed for instance that ‘doggie’, ‘horsie’, ‘moo cow’ are almost invariably among the first words they speak? That animal books march across their shelves and vie for space with animal videos? That farm and jungle animals spill out of toy cupboards? That plastic ducks and dolphins float side by side at bath time? And lying on the pillow awaiting them in bed are teddies and cuddly #rabbits, #dogs and #sheep? To small children animals are people, only even more engaging.
Observing this inevitably leads me to wonder –
What happens to those self-same kids as they grow up that allows them to happily eat the very animals they so loved in their early years?
Long, long ago when I myself was a kid in an animal-loving family, we had cats, we had rabbits, a dog called Pete and a goat called Bessie. We loved our animals. Mum was a great cook and my favourites were sausage-and-chips and her home-made cornish pasties. My brothers and I were sent along to the butcher’s on a Saturday morning to buy the sausages, a joint of meat and a big bone for soup. Not once did it occur to me that what was hanging up in the butcher’s shop and what ended up on my dinner plate was a piece of an animal that used to have a life, just like the members of our own little menagerie.
I was 29 before I stopped eating meat and fish. It was no great hardship – I was halfway there already since there were precious few pennies in the purse. It took another 30 years before I realised the necessity of striking every animal product off my shopping list.
So what exactly IS the secret that enables our own crazy species to both love animals and eat them?
There’s nothing like a good #conspiracytheory, is there? Some are legendary – the moon-landing never happened. NASA faked it to win the Space Race. The FBI has concealed evidence of alien visitations. Princess Di was assassinated by the British Secret Service. And so on, and so on.
But the Animal Conspiracy, which conceals the answer to that big question, is a mammoth one (if you’ll pardon the pun) and is very real.
It’s easiest to unpick this Animal Conspiracy in two parts. First there is the unconscious, implicit, conditioned conspiracy. And secondly, the deliberate and much more sinister conspiracy, and I mean sinister. For now, I am only looking at the first. I’ll come on to the even more pernicious one in another post.
So this is how it works (in the academic world it’s called ‘food socialisation’ Sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it, for something so monstrous)
In our Western culture, animals are thought of as falling into specific groups defined entirely by how we humans relate to them and how useful they are to us. We absorb this way of thinking completely unconsciously from our mother’s knee.
So we have:
Wild Animals with whom we have little contact
Utility Animals who ‘work’ for us – horses, donkeys, farm and police dogs, and so on
Food animals – cows, pigs, sheep, hens etc
Animals for entertainment – racehorses, greyhounds, circus animals, animals in zoos and aquaria
Animals for ‘education’ – animals in labs, zoos and aquaria, in schools and universities
Companion Animals – pet dogs, cats, hamsters, budgies etc
And let us not forget
Vermin – this category can be made to encompass any species from buzzards to badgers that humans discover reasons for finding ‘a nuisance’. Matthew Cole & Kate Stewart
It is easy from this to see how the fate of every single individual animal rests upon its perilous, precarious relationship with humans. That relationship determines its allotted group, and may at any time change. Any individual animal could drop to a lower status group where its hold on life becomes even more tenuous. If you are no longer of use in your assigned category, to you befalls the fate of the ‘food animals’ and ‘vermin’. So greyhounds and horses past their racing best, unwanted pets – even ‘surplus’ animals in zoos, are ‘disposed of’.
Children absorb this way of placing animals in different mental boxes along with their mothers’ milk. This social construct is reinforced on their TVs, in their movies and their books. To give an example of how this conditioning is sustained, an analysis of kids’ programmes, movies and books found that when the stories convey the message you should be kind and not cruel to animals, they only mean animals that fall into the Companion Animals category. E S Paul
The portrayal of nonhuman animal characters … is commonplace in children’s fiction, with an emphasis on domesticated animals and pets, which communicates pet-keeping as the only emotionally important relationship with other animals [ie. other than human] Cole & Stewart
So on the one hand kids are told it’s wrong to harm companion animals, and on the other, it’s fine to eat animals, because the animals we eat are in a different category altogether – they are simply food.
Learning this contradictory message is an important part of learning omnivory Cole & Stewart
I mentioned earlier that any individual animal can be unlucky enough at any time to drop down into a lower status group. But the opposite is also true. Some lucky animals make the leap into, from their point of view, a more desirable group. So we have for instance farm animals rescued and cared for in sanctuaries. This though can cause some confusion in kids’ minds.
In this short (and sweet!) video two animals of the same species have been placed in very different groups all on the same day! No wonder this little girl is confused. Listen carefully to what she says to her little friend at the very end of the video
Actually, she isn’t confused, is she? Not as far as she’s concerned anyway. Because her parents have taken care to prevent her understanding that the two animals are in fact the same. How distraught would she be if she discovered that the brother or sister of the animal she is petting at the sanctuary was being roasted in her oven at home. The turkeys at the sanctuary are no longer in the ‘food animal’ group. So to keep them in separate boxes in her head and avoid their daughter’s inevitable anguish, her parents have had to invent a new animal – ‘baked turkey’.
It’s amazing what a word can do to distance the ‘food’ on the table from the living creature standing there in front of you. So we have beef, sirloin, steak – never ‘cow’. Bacon, pork, ham, gammon – never ‘pig’.
Or, as Carol Adam’s puts it so beautifully
Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The “absent referent” is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep “our” meat separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep the “moo” or “cluck” or “baa” away from the meat, to keep something from being seen as having been someone C J Adams
A perfect description of what the little girl’s parents were doing.
What kids are undergoing is a kind of cultural, social brainwashing, in the same insidious way girls grow up thinking they need to shave their legs or pluck their eyebrows. The ‘brainwashers’ of course, don’t even realise they are doing it. Because we, the parents, the teachers, the storytellers, society at large are the brainwashers. And we in our turn absorbed the exact same cultural conditioning by an unconscious osmotic process seeping from each generation to the next.
This adorable video shows another small child trying to make sense of society’s paradoxical message about animals. A truly remarkable 3 year old. Few adults have his clarity.
It will take something radical to demolish the Animal Conspiracy which masquerades as normalcy. But history shows these radical social shifts can happen – emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage, gay rights … And we have the best possible tool to break the animal conspiracy open and see it dissipate in a puff of smoke.
More to come in Part 2