THE BLOG
10/10/2013 09:36 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Does Natural Cruelty Say Anything About Livestock Farming?

For about five minutes, I just watched our cat Gregor wander around the living room carrying a mouse in his mouth. He could not seem to figure out what to do with it. He wanted to put it down, but then changed his mind. He wanted to show it to me, but then when I reached out to take it from him, he ran away. Finally, he made his decision. He batted the dead mouse around for about thirty seconds and then started eating it, head first. The crunching sound made me cringe. I wondered how it is possible that such a thing tastes good but then, apparently it doesn't because after eating about half of the mouse, Gregor stopped and started making those horrible, I'm-about-to-throw-up cat sounds and then threw up all over the floor and walked away, leaving a half-eaten mouse and throw-up on the very expensive oriental rug (don't tell my wife about any of this). I cleaned everything up while starting to ruminate on what I had just watched.

Living in a farmhouse built in 1820, I am used to living with mice, although I cannot quite get used to having them dropped, often still alive, by Gregor in our bed late at night because he loves to share. He is an excellent mouser -- in fact, he is an excellent hunter, period. During the spring, when we are plagued with cluster flies, Gregor probably gets a third of his nutrition from eating them. He can snatch a fly out of the air as easily as you or I would catch a gently tossed baseball. His brother, Samsa, who died a few months ago of kidney failure, was a terrible hunter. I do not think he caught a single mouse in his entire life. Whenever we heard the cacophonous crash of the hunt, we could be sure that Samsa would be watching Gregor go after his prey, trotting excitedly after his brother as Gregor crashed with abandon from one side of the room to the other, up over chairs, between bookshelf and stove, under ottomans and couches, until he had the mouse trapped between his paws and then clamped in his jaws. If the mouse happened to get away from Gregor, Gregor sat and waited in the spot where the mouse had disappeared. And waited. And waited. An hour later he would be waiting still. Samsa, having long ago lost interest, would have left Gregor to go curl up on a chair for a nap. Gregor is reckless and will leap five feet or more through the air off the back of a chair just to get up onto the fireplace mantel only to realize there is nothing really exciting up there and then thump back down onto the floor. Samsa would look and ponder, carefully calculating the distance and the height from the chair to the mantel, and invariably sit back down and casually lick a paw, pretending of course, as cats are wont to do, that he never had had any interest in getting up there in the first place.

Gregor's mouse exploits have a deep significance for me. I identify very strongly with him. As a livestock farmer I am, after all, the most canned of hunters, and I wonder how and if Gregor's cruel hunts reflect on my own. Whenever I hear Gregor crashing around, or whenever I wake with a fright because I feel the cool slick fur of a mouse on my cheek or sliding down my thigh through my sleep, or whenever I see Gregor carrying (proudly, I believe) a mouse dangling from his mouth, especially when the mouse is alive and struggling to get free, I think about this natural cruelty. It is cruel; I don't know what else to call it. Its naturalness does not obviate its cruelty. Gregor tortures his prey, for shorter or longer periods of time, depending on... depending on what, something that I might call his mood? Or, perhaps it depends on nothing but chance or coincidence. If the mouse happens to be clamped in Gregor's mouth in such a way that its windpipe is constricted, it suffocates and dies. If Gregor bites down too hard when he snatches it up off the ground after releasing it and letting it scamper away a few feet before diving back on top of it, he breaks its neck and it dies. Or, perhaps I am under-anthropomorphizing. Perhaps Gregor really is more intentional than that. Perhaps he does have moods that make him more or less cruelly playful. Perhaps he knows exactly what he is doing. And what is the mouse's experience of all of this?

What, if any, connection is there between the tortured cruel death of prey animals by predators, whether the torture and cruelty are intentional or not, and the slaughter, humane or not, of my livestock? Is it natural (dare I make a natural analogy?) for me to caringly raise livestock, load them onto a trailer and drive them to their deaths? Would it be more natural if I, myself, did the killing? Is the question of nature even relevant? Gregor sees a mouse, attacks it, plays with it, kills it, and, if he is hungry, eats it. That, simply, is what he does. Why, then, is what I do so hard, so complicated, so unsimple? Why cannot I, simply, do what I do? Why must I play cat and mouse with myself? Why can't I just accept what I do, and that it is bloody and messy and irrevocable?