We have been at a Colorado dude ranch on vacation this week. Lots of fun riding horses every morning and afternoon. The highlight was spending a day off the trail, rounding up around a 100 yearling cows who were grazing the National Forest surrounding the ranch. This high mountain forest was recently ravaged by a fire, leaving behind a maze of lifeless Ponderosas. The wrangler explained that the Forest Service has been expanding the permitted number of cattle. Studies show that managed grazing is benefical to the regeneration of the land. Given our lessons this year on industrial cattle practices here and here, it was especially meaningful to participate in a more sustainable model.
One of our values this year has been making field trips to the producers and growers of the food and items we consume. The emphasis has been spending time with people with the intent of becoming more atturned to their hopes, dreams and challenges. Based on my experience with the cows, I can also see the benefit of spending time with the animals we consume as well.
I found that spending time with the year old cows gave me a new respect for them as animals. I will remember their wild eyes, their stubborn disposition, and their desperate sense of being lost when separated from the herd. There are a lot of barriers that keep us from associating the meat we consume from the animals that are parted out on our behalf, especially cows. (There is a reason we don't ask the butcher for a cut of cow. We ask for beef or hamburger.) That night at dinner when I ordered the prime rib, it felt like a statement of respect, knowing that I was actually ordering prime cow, not some some trivial piece of meat.
The other benefit of spending time rustling cows was a surprise. When I started the day I had a mostly pastoral vision for what it is like to rustle cattle. A couple hours walking behind a group of smelly, poop covered, not too bright animals that had a tendency to mount and hump their fellow travelers was enough to cure me of my idyllic visions. They are worthy of cow dignity, but it's probably helpful to understand that they are not pets or people. On one end we have a tendency, probably a greater tendency, to commodify and devalue cows, but an absence of experiencing real cows in real places can also lead us to mis-value them. For an example see this article that describes PETA's latest ad:
The animal rights group PETA has tried unsuccessfully to run a newspaper ad comparing the beheading and cannibalizing of a passenger on a Greyhound bus in Canada last week to the treatment of animals by the meat industry.
For more on this see my post here where I cite the following quote from a farmer who is rich in real experiences of real animals.
The Bible says that God created every animal 'after its own kind.' Chickens aren't people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens!