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The Bambi Syndrome


Here are two words you don’t often see together: turkey and extraordinary. Nevertheless, about six Thanksgivings ago I enjoyed one of the best turkeys I’ve ever eaten. It was at my brother’s house in Vermont and the turkey was wild, shot earlier in the week by a friend of my brother. The bird was a far cry from the flavorless mutants sold in supermarkets and even superior to the more expensive free-range turkeys such as those from Lobels. This freshly slain animal was all dark meat, juicy, and packed with flavor.

Click to view larger versionAlthough numbers have declined, the South is still a bastion of hunters and fishermen. I’ve never hunted, not out of disdain or squeamishness but because tramping around in the woods at dawn in freezing weather or crouching near a lake (same weather) doesn’t sound like much fun. However, I’ve had friends who hunted and on occasion I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the results of their success (venison is a particular favorite of mine) and I did fish while I was growing up.

I know people who think hunting is immoral. This is arrant nonsense – as usual when people make generalizations. It’s the intent, not the activity, that determines morality in these situations.

Hunting or fishing for trophies and not eating is immoral. Shooting hundreds of semi-captive animals (or lawyers) as Vice President Dick Cheney did is probably immoral because the activity isn’t about food or even participating in the natural world but is, instead, about inflating a (usually-male) hunter’s ego. By the same token, harvesting a 200-year-old saguaro cactus to plant in your backyard desert-scape is immoral too.

The criticism of hunters – what some call the Bambi Syndrome – is a symptom of a larger and more insidious moral quandary. It’s a subset of the larger squeamishness that has come, more and more, to typify American attitudes toward meat. As we have become divorced from the source of our food we have reached the point where we don’t even want to admit a drumstick or ribeye steak was once part of a living organism. But humans are omnivores. We have evolved to eat meat and vegetables – even grass (most grains are the seeds of grasses). We’re also at the top of the food chain. That doesn’t mean we have the right to mistreat our food animals. But it also doesn’t mean we must foresake our right to eat them.

But on this topic, there is a great deal of confusion and it’s leading to some serious silliness. Good luck finding a pig’s foot at your local grocery. I can’t find shrimp with the heads on (like the pied du cochon, a great addition to soup stock) even at the local, and decent, fish market. And all the dilemma over foie gras is just another – albeit expensive – symptom of the Bambi Syndrome gone wild. It results in this silly back-and-forth: “How would you like it if you were force fed through a tube?” To which the proper response is, “I wouldn’t, and I’d hate having to sleep outside, swim in freezing water and eat bugs. But I’m not a goose and that seems to work for them.” We won’t even allow horses to be killed for dog food anymore. More nonsense.

Some of the thinking here is fueled by some odd ideas about how we should try to live in harmony with nature, a laudable goal but one that’s somehow been hijacked to further ruin our relationship with the things we want – and should – eat. In Animal Liberation Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher argues against speciesism — the presumption that because we’re human we have greater rights than other animals. He suggests that all animals capable of suffering are entitled to equal consideration, and I agree in general. To the degree I can afford, I avoid meat that has been raised in conditions I consider cruel — not necessarily conditions I’d live in but those deemed sufficient for a mammal..

At the same time, the idea of holding my own species more ethically accountable for its behavior than the actions of a cougar or a shark is a far more insidious form of speciesism, one that seems to ground itself in the idea that somehow our place in the world is superior. Until you’re out in the wild, of course. That’s the one place where eating a human is no more reprehensible than eating any other animal — unless you’re one of the humans in question.

You can leave questions, comments, and remarks here.

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