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Society

Christmas season animal cruelty that gave rise to vegetarianism

slaughter house in Elburgon
Workers slaughter goats at a slaughter house in Elburgon, Nakuru. In the eighteenth century calves and pigs were whipped to death with knotted ropes, and bulls killed only after dogs had baited them. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE  

Christmas is a special time of the year for many people around the world. Families get together to share food, gifts and happy times. It is supposed to be the festival of peace and happiness yet it has never been a good season for animals.

Goats are the favourite delicacy of choice in Kenya and they are slaughtered in their thousands during this festive season, in homes, abattoirs, hotels and other places of entertainment. Chicken come a close second and often go side by side with goat. In many western countries, turkey is the favourite meal for Christmas.

But if you think that this is cruel, the situation was rather worse in England two or three centuries ago. According to Ian Jack, writing in The Guardian, Christmas dinner was preceded by an artisanal cruelty in all its terrible variety. For instance, poultry: the less they ran and flattered about the fatter they got, so geese would be nailed by their webbed feet to the floor, while chickens and game birds were confined to windowless cells, sometimes after their keeper had taken the extra precaution of blinding them or cutting off their legs while still alive.

Mammals were, literally, a tougher proposition. Popular belief said that meat was best tenderised while it was still alive, so calves and pigs were whipped to death with knotted ropes, and bulls killed only after dogs had baited them. Succulent Dorset lambs, according to historian Keith Thomas, arrived at the tables of Georgian gentry only after a lengthy imprisonment in “dark little cabins.”

A desire for paler meat led to longer deaths. A calf’s executioner, having cut the animal at the neck, would let it bleed for a while and then staunch the wound for a day to let death come slowly. As for turkeys, the custom was to snip a vein inside their mouths and hang them upside down, so that their blood dripped out little by little. The upside-down position remains a constant of turkey slaughter today, though the process is industrial, possibly less painful and necessarily quicker.

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Bread and cheese kept the poor alive in 18th century England, but the middle and upper classes stuffed themselves with roasts, steaks and chops; a morning, noon and night gluttony that turned England into the most carnivorous country in Europe and left many of its wealthier population corpulent and suffering from gout.

In his excellent history of vegetarianism, The Heretic’s Feast, Colin Spencer suggests that the consequent revulsion against the obese and the drunk, slobbering under their cockeyed wigs, made the idea of a strict vegetable and water diet almost fashionable.

The “almost” is important because people like Benjamin Franklin who took up the vegetarian diet usually put it down again, seeing it as a cure, the equivalent of two weeks rehab in the Priory, rather than a lifetime commitment. Percy Bysshe Shelley was probably the cause’s most celebrated advocate until George Bernard Shaw and Mahatma Gandhi came along adding economic efficiency to a list that already included human well-being and the humane treatment of animals.

Other than sounding like an animal-rights activist, I hope I have made you feel better about your murderous pursuits this festive season. It could get a lot worse, if that gives you cold comfort!

Spare a thought for those that are less fortunate this Christmas and of course those poor animals and fowls!

Merry Christmas!

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