When it rains deep in the jungle, the Indonesian people of the Mentawai tribe huddle for warmth and safety in a community hut they’ve built of wood. They eat a prepared pulp of bamboo mush, an assortment of plant life, and an occasional wild pig they’ve caught, penned for fattening, and then collectively killed.
The people of this tribe have an unusual (comparatively speaking) perspective of the world: they believe animals and plants have souls. And because other-than-human beings shelter souls, the Mentawai must justify to their gods their reasons for destroying the bodies in which those souls reside. And so, the killing ceremony — whether it be for a tree or a pig — begins with a deeply felt apology.
These Indonesian tribesmen say the modern-day world (ours) breaks their hearts, for what they learn when they venture into the outside is that, in our so-called civilization, neither animals nor humans have souls.
Well, take ground beef. It is so removed from the living being. There is no communal killing hut, no collective slaughtering of animals, no apology. We have lost our bond with nature, with the animals who once captivated and inspired us. Today, they are Whoppers and suede, garment trim and gelatin. And if the dismemberments we have created are so named, we never actually hear them: pigskin, calves’ liver, lamb. That’s how lost we are. Dismembered animals can safely hide in plain sight. We never see them, never know them, never feel for them.
I see it clearest when human beings defensively defend the eating of animals. As an active animal rights advocate, I find — even without trying — that I end up in conversations about animal rights, with a grocery clerk, a garment salesperson, or my cousin. Questions about what I do for “a living” invariably end up in philosophical discussions about the rights of animals. Though it is changing in more recent times, most Americans with whom I converse are still convinced that animal flesh and fodder is a necessary evil in the human diet. But they are so far removed from the process by which meat adorns their tables that they are almost incapable of having any idea about how that process occurs. Most believe humane slaughter to be standard American fare. Few would admit that it is a contradiction in terms.
But would it matter? Would they care? If they could see what I have seen, hear what I have heard, feel the pain I have felt in others, would it change their perspective? Would there be, at least, an apology for the cruelties and the unnecessary-ness of it all? After all, one can’t be connected and disconnected at the same time.
Still, the dichotomy astounds me.
If animals are so important to human survival, why do we degrade them so? Why do we animate plucked, decapitated chickens and set their antics to silly music? Why do we find humor in the widespread massacre of millions of birds for Thanksgiving meals? “Don’t eat a turkey. You are what you eat.” Funny. Nevermind the deprived, debeaked, crammed, violent lives and deaths of so many animals for a completely unappreciated holiday — and I dare say, a tragically sad historical celebration not worth the honor. Why, I wonder, do we paint happy-faced cows on hamburger wrappers? If we need them so — if we insist that our very lives depend on their deaths — why are we so humiliating and belittling toward them and their plight?
Why, I ask, aren’t we worshipping them? Are we really that soulless?
I’m not saying I would defend the Mentawai tribe’s killing of pigs, but there is something missing in the clinical, removed, degrading way in which our so-called modern civilization regards and treats other animals. The more we have learned about animals, about their intelligence and vulnerability, the less we have respected them. They are no longer beings of supreme, divine power. They are not icons or deities or idols.
With this revelation, it seems, we have dethroned them from what they are: living, breathing, feeling, needing, wanting, thinking, dreaming, reasoning, deserving-of-respect, entitled-to-life beings.
Animals have fallen from grace. Their lives, their suffering, their rights, are minimized. Ignored. Violated. We have a warped sense of values. Put another way, in the words of the Mentawai tribe, we have no soul.
I am often accused, even by those who have asked me to share and elaborate on my views (and despite that, I’m careful to avoid telling them how to live their lives, making the charge all the more amusing to me) of trying to force my values on others. I’m really saying, they claim, that humans ought not to eat animals, and further, that we shouldn’t wear them!
Or use them in research! Or for entertainment! God forbid.
So, on second thought, there must be some remnant of a soul in there, for most people are too easily defensive. I say it comes from the guilt triggered by the underlying, subconscious remorse they feel over the sufferings they realize they’re causing.
Shame on me, I guess, for forcing them to face that soul within them. Well, hey, I’m just trying to change the world and to make it as peaceful a place as it should be.
For that, no, I won’t apologize.
And to you, I say, keep fighting the good fight.