The Unthinking Man’s Case Against Backyard Slaughter

Writing for The Atlantic, James McWilliams offers a passionate argument against a new locavore rallying cry finding a voice in Oakland, California: deregulating animal slaughter so that urban farmers can kill their own chickens, rabbits, goats, and other edible creatures.

McWilliams's essay against backyard slaughter (and, to some extent, animal husbandry in general) is cleanly written, emotive—and almost utterly nonsensical. When you boil it down, it's like this:

Anecdotes exist of urban farmers improperly slaughtering animals, and McWilliams renders one vividly, which I'll paraphrase: "One time a poorly informed woman smothered a chicken! It took three minutes! Ooga booga!" There are also stories of urban farmers mistreating animals even before slaughter (more shotgun anecdotes via Google). Those poor animals!

This makes sense for about 30 seconds, until you consider: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals.

One of the many important differences here is that urban farmers have a presumed interest in getting better at humanely raising and slaughtering their charges, since many (perhaps most) are driven by principles of animal welfare. The industrial concerns, by contrast, have only one interest: shareholders' value. Besides, are a few backyard farmers in Oakland really the issue for those who care about animal welfare?

Finally, I'll let McWilliams's closing "argument" stand on its own merits: "A final reason locavores should dismiss the Oakland initiative has to do with the psychological impact of killing animals that are kept as part of an urban household. How can we comfortably support a movement toward the local slaughter of sentient animals when we nurture and love 78 million dogs, 86 million cats, four million birds, one million rabbits, and one million lizards as companion animals?"

So, uh ... what? We'd be bummed if we killed a creature that's vaguely like another creature we like? And does McWilliams somehow think that by citing numbers of pets he's making a logical case? This guy is an associate professor writing under the banner of The Atlantic, and yet this level of logic and research wouldn't fly in an undergrad's term paper. At least I hope it wouldn't.

The widely ranging, incoherent nature of the piece raises a broad question: Is McWilliams's essay merely an argument for large-scale vegetarianism on ethical grounds? That's a radically different proposition than the supposed topic of his essay, Why We Must Not Let Our Neighbors Kill and Eat Their Ducks, and one not lightly undertaken.

Or is he shilling for agribusiness? In defense of McWilliams: probably not, since Big Ag's think tanks would probably have equipped him with better ammunition than this shoddy stuff.

Personally, I have no duck in this fight, and I'm ambivalent about the issue. That said, if the best McWilliams can do to oppose Oakland's backyard slaughter initiative is to cite a few disturbing anecdotes and a small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble about Fido and Mr. Whiskers, it might just lead a thoughtful reader to conclude: "Hey, how bad can this idea actually be?"

Image source: Flickr member stumayhew under Creative Commons