I don’t think too much about factory farming. It’s depressing. But I sometimes feel compelled to give the topic some attention. This isn’t an issue on which I’ve changed my mind over time. Ever since I first heard the arguments against what we do to animals as a teenager, I’ve thought there is no way that the way we produce meat could be morally justified. I just think about the subject more or less at different times of my life. At one point I managed to be a vegetarian for a few months when I was much younger, but that’s pretty much been the extent of my sacrifice. I’ve at times slightly adjusted my eating habits towards beef over chicken and shrimp, but the universe is cruel, which is why the most ethically fraught foods are the best sources of lean protein.
That being said, I’m not a vegan. Why? Well, I like the way animals taste, and I want to be in good physical condition. If it was just about taste I would probably find a way to get everything I needed from plants, but a diet filled with meat is the only one that can provide what I find to be an acceptable calorie-to-protein ratio while allowing me to avoid overeating.
One of Adam Smith’s many insights is that the world’s most enlightened philosopher would care more about losing his little finger than an earthquake that swallowed all of China, and those of us who accept the ethical arguments for veganism while continuing to eat meat, like much of the rest of the world, prove him correct every day.
Earlier in the season, a cardinal was at my feeder. He took off, miscalculated in mid-flight, and collided with the window next to my desk. It was a devastating mistake; he should have seen me behind the glass but failed to make the turn in time. Now he was lying on his back, wings outstretched, motionless.
By the time I reached him, he still hadn’t moved, and he didn’t protest when I lifted him into a cardboard box. He only twitched his head, his black eyes staring emptily into space. A friend and bird expert advised us to close the box, poke some holes for air, and give the bird several hours: If nothing was broken, he would likely fly again. By the end of the day, he was able to flutter away but then took hours to finally fly. His chances in the wild seemed slim.
But he found a mate — I was certain he was the same bird we had rescued, a feather on his back remained forever crooked. They nested in our boxwood bush, the first cardinal nest we had ever seen in our yard. Anyone who has witnessed this marvel knows the sheer joy it brings, especially to children. The gaping beaks were visible from a bedroom window. A couple feet over, a robin family set up their home as well.
Then one day the cardinal babies were gone. Far too young for flight, there was no question they were dead.
A few days later, the robin mother was screeching, helplessly witnessing the slaughter of her children as the rat snake, a type of constrictor, was about to strangle one of them. My wife was working in the garden, her own mother instincts swiftly reacting to the cry. A stick as her only tool, she hoped to beat the living daylights out of the serpent, which eventually but reluctantly retreated. All efforts to fortify the bush against the intruder with rose brambles were useless. The next morning, the robin babies were gone, their mother occasionally returning to mourn her loss.
This is why I killed the snake. It was a ruthless killer, a voracious glutton, a vicious beast whose contempt for helpless fledgling life knew no bounds. And the cardinal, whose life my window almost ended and whom I had saved, lost all he had. I owed him.
The birds left the nest. One day they were scrawny beaks cheeping incessantly when the parent showed up with grub (which was, probably, grub) and then they were big, too big for the nest, it seemed. Then they were out! When I came home from work and looked up – the nest is directly kitty-corner from where I sit – I saw one sitting on the beam.
The other three were gone. One returned. One parent returned with some food, out of duty. Sara was worried that the one on the beam would have to fly low to get out, once it tried to fly, and I told her not to worry. Literally, don’t worry about birds. It’s not like Natalie is out for the first time with a driver’s license.
We were sitting around after dinner chatting in the gazebo, when the bird decided to try. It fluttered down, and perhaps it was a foot too low because its starting point wasn’t way up in the trees.
Birch got it.
I mean, why wouldn’t he? It’s moving, it’s alive, it’s small, it’s right there, it’s the chance to get a bird, and he took it. I chased him and he dropped the bird – wasn’t the morsel he expected, maybe, too feathery, ick. The poor bird laid on the grass and I could tell he was a goner.
Well, Sara was inconsolate, and I understand, and felt the same way. We’d watched these guys from the start of the nest to their great escape into the world, and felt protective of them as you do with anything alive and non-invasive and interesting. You can’t be mad at the dog, but of course you’re dismayed when NATURE asserts itself in its usual calculations and indifference.
What was the worst, perhaps, was that all the other members of the robin family were around, it seemed, the other hatchlings and the parents, because from every direction there was a wild mad chatter of dismay and distress – fury, fear, anger, whatever rote noise the situation provoked. It was, to be honest, a horrible, damning sound.
I tried to say some consoling things – three out of the four made it! We don’t know if this one would’ve been picked off by a hawk out of our sight. And so on.
I note now, sitting in the gazebo, that there are two still hanging around in a nearby tree. If they are the hatchlings. Of course they are birds and do not remember any of this, for which you’re glad.
The nest is empty. I suppose I’ll glove up and take it down tomorrow, although my wife will probably want to do it. I know that whenever she sees a robin around here this summer, she’ll think it was one of the ones that hatched up there and made for a fortnight of watching them grow, and she’ll think of the one that didn’t make it.
The mother – if it is the mother – just appeared and sat on the edge of a chair and cheeped, looking around. It just flew to a tree and did the same, then flew to another tree and cheeped some more.
Then it flew away.
In a digression on human exceptionalism, Baddiel seems to suggest that the strongest argument for atheism is not that God is a reaction against our dread of nothingness. Instead, it is that God promises immortality only for our own species. I could not agree more strongly. Who wants an afterlife without our fellow animals?