Captivity

Ethics is, by necessity a complex topic. To discuss ethics requires the juggling of perspectives, emotions, facts, actions, intentions—almost every facet of everyday and extraordinary life. Additionally, under changing circumstances and evidence, they must be able to bend and rearrange, or risk shattering, I imagine, that some, including Peter Singer, would argue with me on that last point, but I don’t intend to spend much time directly contesting that point. Instead, I intend to make a case for my own ethics; at least, my ethics as they pertain to what I eat and—for I believe the two are essentially linked, at least in my case—my ethical views towards human’s relationship with animals, both wild and domestic.

I first want to admit to having spent most of my life willfully ignoring any thoughts on where my food came from. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the controversy surrounding the modern food supply system—I read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and watched the documentary “Supersize Me” at a relatively young age. I had vegetarians as friends and family. I knew more than the average person probably did and it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was that I didn’t really that I mattered what I thought or did, and to be entirely honest, part of me still believes it doesn’t much matter.

I did always have strong ethical feelings towards the treatment of animals (in a broad sense) and the way we share the world with them. And eventually, my feelings around these areas began to bleed over into my ethical considerations around eating. These feelings were strongly influenced by working at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore for four years as an educator and assistant zookeeper and by starting to work as a bird bander with the New Jersey Shorebird Project. I take a big picture view that the species is the most important thing to conserve and protect. It is important to note that I do not believe that this means captivity is wrong or harmful. It isn’t and, if I’m being entirely honest, I have relatively little patience who contend that captivity is an inherently immoral thing. I think that this view is naive and requires intentional omission of important facts about the world we live in today. However, in order for captivity to be successful, the care of the animals must be humane, safe, and decent. This would, of course, disqualify me from supporting the food industry, who’s animal care is generally appalling.

In practice, this looks something like this: I eat a lot of salads, pastas, and seafood. Working in my favor is that I don’t particularly care about most GMOs. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time discussing that here, but briefly—they have no demonstrated side-effects to human health and basically every food we consume except wildlife is a GMO or derived from a GMO. I avoid the vast majority of red meats and poultry. And when I do eat them I do try to find food that was raised at free-range farms that are somewhat local.

I feel like this is relatively uncontroversial, except for maybe the fact that I do still eat seafood. I eat mostly wild caught seafood from fisheries that are sustainable, and so hope to avoid driving species to extinction with my actions, and hope to avoid environmental degradation due to fish farming. I use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” to help me make my decisions—it is a highly respected and professionally compiled source of information of ethical and environmentally friendly seafood consumption, and so I generally trust the information it provides about all species.

In conclusion, I want to go back, for a moment and address my earlier thoughts on animal captivity. I think that it is important to explain this a little more thoroughly since it was my starting point for this discussion and for the development of my opinions, in general. A sixth mass extinction is currently underway. The world has already been irrevocably altered by human activity—current scientific evidence suggests that we have already passed a point of no-return in the progression of global warming, the old growth rainforests cleared for agriculture would take centuries to fully reforest, even if we would let them, the rate of coral bleaching may now be exceeding the ability of new polyps to form, dooming some reefs to permanent extinction, to name just a few examples. I bring this up to offer as proof of this—there is not enough room in the wild anymore for many species to exist at healthy self-sustainable levels, and the situation will only worsen from here on out. Panama Golden Frogs’ habitat may be permanently uninhabitable due to human-introduced pathologies. In all but the most heavily guarded reserves (yes, by concrete, barbed wire, and armed military guards) African Elephants are poached at rates approaching 99 individuals per day. The size of permafrost is shrinking so rapidly in the arctic, that polar bears may literally run out of dry land in the next fifty years.

These species will cease to exist without captivity. And I feel like I cannot accept and praise captivity in wild animals without also praising and accepting it when it is executed humanely in domestic food-producing species.

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The (Almost) Cod War

I want to start by pointing out something that is a personal struggle of mine—I have issues with the kind of philosophy that is presented by Peter Singer in the book. His ethical proposals, in terms of his view of how animals should be treated are, to say the least, problematic for me. Even before I begin to recap sections of this book, I feel the need to put that out there in the world, to acknowledge the difficulty I have in coming to terms with the logic used in some of these passages.

In any case, the second section of this book, The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, investigates a household comprised of people who are labelled as “conscientious omnivores”. This family is characterized as being more aware, perhaps, than the average family, and more willing to take the time spend the money to make morally conscious choices. This part of the book also looks at some topics that are characteristically involved in the decisions to eat in a morally conscious, and still omnivorous, way. The difficulties involved in sustainable seafood are tackled, along with fair trade and the ties ins with human rights, for example.

The sections from this book that resonated the most deeply with me was the chapter on seafood. When I have the chance, I prefer seafood to chicken, turkey, and certainly to red meat, so this chapter touched me more directly than some others thus far. Further, I try to only buy seafood that is environmentally non-harmful, and sustainable to the species in question’s population. I use the Monterey Aquarium pocket guide and app that are mentioned in the chapter to decide which kinds of fish I should buy and in what parts of the world I should try and buy them from. Aside from the direct connection to my own habits, this chapter also displayed some of the more dramatic storytelling, thus far. The authors recount how Britain and Iceland were brought close to war when Iceland attempted to shut down cod fishing by claiming some of the bets fishing grounds as its own international waters they write how “Icelandic gunboats threatened British trawlers” (pg 113) and how the country’s came surprisingly close to war over control of the fishery.

The story of fishery collapses all over the world is a familiar one—growing up among recreational and professional watermen, I was raised on stories of oyster beds so thick they could rip open the hull of a schooner if you weren’t careful, and schools of menhaden, gizzard shad, and rockfish that could fill the nets of a small trawler in minutes. The familiar tenor of the subject is given heightened drama and a bigger emotional punch by setting it against the international intrigue on the one hand, and everyday families that could be just like yours on the other. I think this is one reason why this chapter is so effective; the connections from local to regional to global are very tangible and increase the sense of scale and drama with each step back.