There may be a photo out there somewhere of me sitting by a deer, holding the rifle I used to shoot it dead. That’s because I was brought up as a hunter and such a photo would have been a trophy. In truth, my family started my hunting early.
I’d caught and eaten a pike half as long as me by age 10. There’s a picture somewhere of me with that fish that I wanted stuffed and mounted before I was persuaded to eat it. I’d needed a father to land it since I was too small to haul it into the clinker built rowboat with frozen hands and near frost bitten cheeks. I also needed him to turn it into quenelles or fish dumplings. I recall this because pike is neither easy to prepare nor pleasant to eat and our father reminded us of this a few times that evening in an ill-equipped cottage on the shores of Lough Corrib.
That pike has a strange life in my memory. Especially since Lough Corrib itself was becoming unfishable. We’d had to go to one of the lakes near Doon West due to the illegal dumping of pig slurry that would eventually remove the oxygen from the entirety of the third biggest lake in Ireland.
I used a 20 bore shotgun to put the first of many pigeons on a dinner plate around the age of 12. We’d stand under trees and shoot them when they landed. This was about certainty not sport. I mention this because of a man I would meet in my late teens who travelled around Europe shooting pigeons. He earned seriously good money from pigeon-shooting. This involves shooting pigeons after either mechanical or hand release. These are live birds rather than clays. It was a huge gambling sport. Indeed EM told me it had been once been an Olympic sport and I found this was true: 1900 in case you care. He also said the squab were raised for speed not for eating. Indeed he said they were generally shot so early, that the lead shot would be still be choked together, the dead birds thus packed with lead and inedible.
I learned to love feather fishing for mackerel along our local coast. Whether from pier or boat, the thrill of lifting six at once from an unseen shoal was hard to beat for a teenager.
By age 20, I was regularly involved in culling deer to ensure the herd size matched the environment they ranged. We dressed all of these animals for the freezer and restaurant dinner plates. Indeed, I thought of EM in Karachi in 1997. A car carrying auditors was targeted on a bridge I had crossed just 15 minutes earlier. All in the car were professionally executed. Newspapers carried reports of the positions the several shooters had taken. EM had taught us the same positioning skills for culling deer. Our angles and offsets minimised the chance that we’d shoot through the herded deer and kill one another. In Karachi I wondered if EM had a darker past than I’d ever known.
By age 23 I had stopped shooting after a series of incidents persuaded me to reconsider. I wrote about this a few months ago.
I would continue to eat and enjoy eating any animal other than humans for another 35 years. I really didn’t understand the industrial cruelty behind every meal. But I was successfully programmed to exclude fellow humans from my recipes.
I should have known better. I’d been in several abattoirs including one that I think was in Dalkey. I was six of seven and sent to collect the ‘messages’ including meat from the village. Not yet allowed wear long trousers, I’d seen first hand how the cold metal bolts and the large sharp hooks killed and presented blood dripping animals to be prepared for dinner.
I was among many vegetarians and vegans in whose company I lived my life. They had good ideas and intentions but sorry, I liked eating meat. It took me longer to undo my imprinted programming as a meat eater than it did to reject my passage to an eternal afterlife.
I’d like to credit many who helped me rebase my nutrition on plants. That happened just two years ago. But I think what got me over the line was grieving. I learned a word, a single new word. Anything that lives had become grievable. And for that word, that concept, I an indebted to Judith Butler whose lecture I attended in UCD in 2019. There’s more on that in these earlier Walking Commentary links.
And so I was disturbed, very disturbed, by the image of a trainer sitting on a dead horse, smiling and finger signalling V for victory. It made me recall pictures of white hunters sitting on elephants: trophies. And I recalled images of American-tortured Iraqis in Abu Gharaib: dehumanised. And I thought of intensive piggeries and rivers of fat blazing on TV.
The US pig barn fires were fuelled by the fat of thousands of restrained hogs, so called ‘finishers’. We used to say that industrial accidents were never caused by just one thing. There were always several circumstances that individually were ‘safe’ but in combination would be disastrous. The pig barn fires were the same. Scale had increased to reduce cost to satisfy demand. I helped friends who ran a piggery with tens of pigs chained in stalls in the 1970s and it really upset me to see state of the art pig pens. Commercial efficiency around the globe mandated there would be hundreds of stalls and by the time of the American pig barn fires, the hogs were chained in place in their thousands. New designs in the new buildings put the slurry into convenient storage pits under the piggeries. Then the price of grain rose to an all-time high and various supplements from brewing were used to bulk up the supply. These combined to create ever more methane. The waste also became more corrosive to metal and that corrosion created hydrogen sulphide. That was what I saw on TV news in 2012.
The Pig Site reports that ‘2019 has been a devastating year for barn fires in the US … at least 469,000 farm animals have perished so far this year, triple the number of deaths compared to 2018.’
If you read The Pig Site article, carry on to the bottom where the scale of industrial poultry immolations are simply bewildering. Unconscionable.