Some years ago in a Montana slaughterhouse, a Black Angus cow awaiting execution suddenly went berserk, jumped a five-foot fence, and escaped. She ran through the streets for hours, dodging cops, animal control officers, cars, trucks, and a train. Cornered near the Missouri river, the frightened animal jumped into its icy waters and made it across, where a tranquilizer gun brought her down. Her "daring escape" stole the hearts of the locals, some of whom had even cheered her on. The story got international media coverage. Telephone polls were held, calls demanding her freedom poured into local TV stations. Sensing the public mood, the slaughterhouse manager made a show of "granting clemency" to what he dubbed “the brave cow.” Given a name, Molly, the cow was sent to a nearby farm to live out her days grazing under open skies—which warmed the cockles of many a heart.
Cattle trying to escape slaughterhouses are not uncommon. Few of their stories end happily though. Some years ago in Omaha, six cows escaped at once. Five were quickly recaptured; one kept running until Omaha police cornered her in an alley and pumped her with bullets. The cow, bellowing miserably and hobbling like a drunk for several seconds before collapsing, died on the street in a pool of blood. This brought howls of protest, some from folks who had witnessed the killing. They called the police’s handling inhumane and needlessly cruel.
It’s tempting to see these commiserating folks as animal lovers—and that's how they likely see themselves—until one remembers what they eat for dinner. A typical slaughterhouse in the United States kills over a thousand Mollys a day—lined up, shot in the head, and often cut-open and bled while still conscious, an end no less cruel and full of bellowing—all because Americans keep buying neatly-packaged slices of their corpses in supermarkets. Raised unnaturally and inhumanely, over a million protesting birds and mammals are violently killed in the U.S. every hour (that's 300 per second!). Is it then unreasonable to say that nearly all meat-eaters in America participate quite directly in a cycle of suffering and cruelty of staggering scale?
Yet the idea persists that Americans love animals, largely because of their love and concern for a class of animals called "pets" (and other "cute animals" like dolphins, polar bears, and pandas). Most Americans have had at least one pet at some point in their lives, and many see their pets as extensions of their families; they photograph their pets, swap stories about them, buy them gifts and treats, spend money on their sicknesses, support taxes to build shelters for them, and mourn their deaths. Yet, the question continues to rankle, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it:
"How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious."
What might explain this disjunction? From humankind's long community with farm animals, how has it come to this?