Maybe you saw the recent New York Times op-ed about the “myth” of sustainable meat and the need for us all to be vegans. Several rebuttals have already been written, including one by Joel Salatin, who rose to the occasion with his usual flair. So you can breathe easy: I’m not about to launch into one of my own.
In that op-ed, though, one phrase jumped out at me. Late in the piece, in censuring farmers for the inefficient production of manure fertilizers, the author protests that slaughters occur “before animals live a quarter of their natural lives.”
I knew what he meant, of course, but I wondered: How long would a chicken’s “natural life” be here in rural New England without someone supplying food, shelter, and protection from predators? Why does extending a bird’s life count as “natural,” yet ending its life does not?
It would be silly to make much of one phrase in one essay. But it isn’t alone.
It reminded me, for instance, of my sister’s comment, years ago, about a giant lake trout caught by an angler here in Vermont: “Too bad it didn’t get to die naturally.” I imagine that the fish’s death seemed less than natural because the creature was killed by a predator—a human, no less—rather than dying quietly in the deep.
It reminded me, too, of one vegan’s response to a line in my book. In Chapter 5, I write about how a ruffed grouse—despite its efforts to stay alive—will, in the end, “be plucked from the air by hawk or owl, or from the ground by bobcat or fox.” The reader responded by asking rhetorically, “Is this truly the fate for every grouse . . . or other prey animal? Do none of them die from old age or disease? Are they all only and always prey?”
I sympathize with his sentiment. It’s unpleasant to think that Mother Nature is always “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. And she isn’t always.
For grouse, though, here’s the deal:
- Chicks, like the young of many species, have an extraordinarily high mortality rate. Many become food for predators. Many also die of pneumonia-like conditions, especially in cold, damp spring weather, thus becoming food for scavengers and microbes.
- Adult grouse, like the one I was writing about, almost always end up as prey. About 95 percent are killed and eaten, the vast majority by winged and four-footed predators, not humans. (Disease and other health deficiencies contribute to grouse mortality mainly by making the birds more vulnerable to predation.)
- The chances of a grouse dying of old age? Basically nil.
What, I wonder, is so compelling about the idea of life lasting until an organism gives up the ghost of its own accord?
It occurs to me that most of us have a particular vision of a “full” and “natural” human life: one that lasts seven or more decades, ending in “old age or disease.” On a coroner’s certificate, I bet death by grizzly bear or alligator would not be chalked up to “natural causes.” We think and speak of ourselves as being above the life-and-death cycles of nature.
And I suspect that some of us have begun to extend these ways of thinking and speaking beyond ourselves. I think some have begun to imagine that, for all animals, “natural lives” end in “old age or disease,” not in being killed and eaten.
It seems a strange disconnect. We do not, after all, need to be terribly observant to recognize that becoming prey is one of the most common and natural ways to die, if not the most natural way.
I can see it from our front porch. Right now, robins are snagging earthworms near the flower beds. Before long, raccoons, crows, ravens, hawks, and blue jays will be snagging robins’ eggs and nestlings.
Tragic? Yes, since I empathize with robin nestlings and am moved by parents’ calls of distress as a little one is carried away. Less so if I also empathize with hungry hawk nestlings.
© 2012 Tovar Cerulli