This week I visited the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in the little town of Scotland Neck, NC. There were a lot of them, doing pretty much what we do — eating, cleaning, preening, playing, mating, fighting, resting, exploring. The emu (the second largest bird on the planet) took a strong interest in me, pressing against the fence as though wanting to be petted, or perhaps to kick or peck me. The sandhill cranes also seemed affectionate — so much so that it was hard to get far enough away to photograph them. Several of the birds seemed to like it when I talked with them softly.
Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, was featured in the NY Times last week discussing his cats. I like Ai’s art and his courage, and I like cats as well (though they should not be loose near birds, which they will kill).
I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life.
I’m with Ai on learning from cats, though I think he may overestimate the overestimate how rational (as opposed to emotional) humans are. Our little cat, Rita, is both a friend and a teacher. I’m sorry she dislikes being photographed, since she’s also strangely cute, and quite a good dasher and leaper for a 13-year-old.
In other animal news, Ezra Klein’s new piece proposes that we include as part of the big Biden technology and jobs plan a program to speed the development and bring down the price of artificial meat. This idea has merit. As Klein’s points out, some of our biggest problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus pandemic, and antibiotic-resistant disease, are in significant part the work of industrialized agriculture, and especially the meat industry. There’s also the massive cruelty, which could be stopped or reduced by substituting meat grown from animal cells, rather than hacked from slaughtered animals.
Of course, it’s possible right now, without a new government program, to replace the meat we eat with plant-based food. But most of us have been taught from a young age that we need to eat meat to be healthy, and the lesson got lodged deep. There’s plenty of evidence that it simply isn’t true. Indeed, it’s widely accepted that eating meat is not necessary to get adequate protein and other nutrients, but it increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses.
It is both sad and bizarre that the right wing has spun up a lie that the Biden administration wants to outlaw hamburgers. But the quick spread of the hamburger lie in the right-wing subculture is also telling. Our early intensive training in meat eating, constantly reinforced by advertising, rituals, and habit, makes it hard to change how we nourish ourselves, or even to think about changing. Indeed, even raising the subject of such change causes some to experience anger, fear, confusion, and detachment from reality.
An irony of the new hamburger lie is that historically, and still today, the US government has subsidized and actively promoted raising and consuming animal products. This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought by, among others, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one of my favorite charities. The suit challenges the US Department of Agriculture for its dietary guidelines encouraging heavy consumption of dairy products, which cause health problems for the significant part of the US population that is lactose intolerant. (The complaint apparently does not discuss other health risks from dairy products, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.)
The government’s guidelines require that schools offer children cow’s milk, and generally forbid offering them plant-based alternatives. The lesson that children or others need cow’s milk for calcium and other nutrients has been thoroughly debunked by science. Even those unwilling to think about the dairy industry’s torturing of cows may be disturbed to learn that, to increase agribusiness profits, the government is endangering the health of many schoolchildren. This is not right.