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19 May 2021

The vegetarian in the abattoir

Henry Mance uncovers the inconvenient truths about our treatment of animals.

By Sophie McBain

When the Financial Times’s chief features writer Henry Mance turned up at Forge Farm Meats, an abattoir about an hour outside of London, and asked for a job, he was expecting to make use of the cover story he had prepared. Instead, he didn’t even have to give his surname. He was led right away to a device called a puller, used to tear the hide and wool from a sheep carcass. He had 20 seconds to skin each sheep before he’d hold up the production line. Sometimes, if he slightly misjudged the force required to pull off any remaining wool by hand, blood would spray from the sheep’s neck stump into his face. An abattoir does not look like the food-processing plants we are used to seeing on TV – those neat conveyor belts, the transfixingly nimble machinery and the workers in white coats and hairnets. Everything is splattered with blood, skin and guts. Shortly after arriving, Mance saw another worker accidentally cut the skin off his own knuckle, “as if opening a boiled egg”.

In most parts of the UK, around 90 per cent of abattoir workers are migrants; this is not the kind of job you do if you have options. It’s also not the kind of work you like to think about when picking up a pair of neatly packaged, barbecue-ready lamb chops in the supermarket. Which is a big part of the problem: our taste for meat is often dependent on a wilful ignorance of the brutal reality of modern agriculture and the unnecessary suffering of billions of farm animals. In the UK alone we kill one billion chickens and 11 million pigs a year.

During Mance’s stint at Forge Farm Meats, a shipment of several hundred pigs arrived. This was worse than slaughtering sheep, because pigs can smell blood and will communicate with one another. They panic and squeal before they are stunned and killed.

Later, Mance worked at a pig farm with an RSPCA gold rating, meaning it adhered to the industry’s best welfare practices. One of his jobs was to retrieve “overlays”, the piglets that are killed when their mothers, bred to be three times bigger than sows in the Middle Ages, accidentally lie on top of them. Alive, piglets are “roughly the size of human babies, with a similar skin tone and warmth”, Mance writes, but the dead ones he fishes out of the straw have turned “grey and taut”.

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Our attitude towards meat reveals the limits and contradictions of our professed love for animals, Mance argues in How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World, his first book. On the one hand, the proliferation on social media of cute animal videos and the bond we form with our pets suggest that we love animals, or at least some animals, and recognise their sentience and individual worth. On the other hand, we are often cruel to them – supporting inhumane agriculture, keeping them caged in zoos, depriving them of their natural habitats. Even our affection for our pets represents a twisted, unequal kind of love, one that has fuelled an industry of monstrously inhumane puppy farms and designer breeds that are so unhealthy many dogs live in pain or suffer breathing difficulties and other major health problems. We are often blind, sometimes wilfully, to the consequences of our actions, and of our love.

I was reminded while reading How to Love Animals of the time, not long after I moved to New York, I saw in the lobby of my building a grand old lady in a big fur coat carrying a black cat in her arms like a baby. As I walked past, the cat hissed, leapt up in the air like it had been electrocuted and disappeared under a chair. “Oh, don’t mind him,” the woman said, “he’s been so skittish since I took him to see Santa this morning!” The cat’s visit to Santa was clearly for his owner’s benefit; in fact, it sounds like a form of feline torture – though she probably didn’t see it that way. As Mance observes, we’re not good at recognising how selfishly we approach our relationships with our pets. Our instincts are unreliable: most pork-eaters would consider it morally repulsive to eat a dog, yet pigs are no less intelligent, social or sensitive creatures.

[see also: Roy Dennis’s Restoring the Wild chronicles 60 years of rewilding Britain]

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Mance was vegetarian before his book research took him inside abattoirs and farms and on hunting and fishing trips. He’s now vegan: the dairy industry, he discovered, is as cruel as beef farming. Dairy cows are separated from their calves after 24 hours, and often bellow for days for their young. Some of these calves are killed immediately; others are slaughtered later for meat. The cows are milked so much that many suffer from an excruciating, sometimes fatal condition called mastitis, in which the udder becomes inflamed. And what about eggs? Well, even free-range hens are bred to be so heavy that 86 per cent have fractured keel bones, and they are so stressed they often attack and smother one another. Virtually all male chicks are culled almost immediately after birth, and laying hens are culled after 17 months. The natural lifespan of chickens is around seven years. This is not just an animal welfare issue: modern ­intensive animal farming has contributed to increasing antibiotic resistance, to outbreaks of new zoonotic diseases, to deforestation and climate change.

And what about fish? We tend to feel less affinity with cold-eyed, impassive sea creatures, but scientists are learning that fish too can feel pain and show signs of higher intelligence and self awareness: cleaner wrasse, for example, can recognise themselves in the mirror. And yet when they are trawled up from the depths of the sea many are crushed on the way up, or else suffocate for hours on deck.

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I must confess to feeling some resentment towards Mance at this point, because these are inconvenient truths. I did “veganuary” this year, and then stayed vegan for the rest of lockdown because there were few temptations anyway, with no hope of meeting friends or dining out. I had started to relax my veganism on weekends, which required ignoring my conscience. This isn’t particularly difficult (if it was, we would all stop buying pointless stuff on Amazon), but reading How to Love Animals makes overriding one’s ethical convictions a bit harder. Mance is persuasive. It helps that he isn’t hectoring or fanatical; the book is wry and on occasion laugh-out-loud funny. Like all the best reporters, Mance possesses an open mind and a strong moral compass, he’s thorough and game for anything (though one senses he was relieved to be terrible at shooting and fishing) and he’s good at drawing people out.

Unlike some of the most radical animal rights activists, Mance does not oppose using animal tissue to save human lives, and he thinks it’s “simplistic” to argue that killing animals is intrinsically wrong. Conservationists, for instance, are concerned with animal welfare, but may think culls are required to rebalance an ecosystem. Mance acknowledges there are no simple ethical answers. Nature can be harsh and cruel, so to what extent should humans feel obliged to intervene to prevent the suffering of wild animals? He speaks to the philosopher David Pearce, who believes we should learn to gene edit animals to turn carnivores into herbivores. This sounds insane, but Pearce thinks you should put forward “crazy ideas” to make it easier for others to voice theirs.

We are already tinkering with wildlife in momentous ways, such as by releasing genetically altered, sterile mosquitos to kill off populations of the insect. Scientists are working on creating robotic bees, and on “de-extinction” projects that would breed genetically modified animals to replace lost species – elephants that can live in the colder climates once populated with woolly mammoths, for example. But Mance believes we shouldn’t hold out for tech to save us. Instead we need to practise more restraint: giving up meat and dairy, eating sustainably sourced fish, reducing our consumption and carbon footprint, campaigning for the creation of national parks and the closure of zoos. “We don’t need new technologies, we need to change ourselves,” he writes.

The uplifting message of Mance’s book is that the individual decisions we make can have an impact, that individual action is often a precursor to collective change. Some might react defensively to his argument: he cites one study that showed people who had read a passage about vegetarianism were more likely to harden their position and deny animals’ mental capabilities as a way of justifying their meat-eating. Most new vegans will have experienced a thorough grilling from friends and family members who are hyper-alert to any perceived hypocrisy.

I am not fully vegan yet, but after reading this thoughtful and galvanising book, I’ve realised that it’s better to keep trying to live in a way that shows compassion and respect for animals, and to sometimes fail, than to give up altogether. I truly believe that in years to come we’ll look back in horror at our barbarism, at how callous we were to creatures with minds not so different from our own. 

How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World 
Henry Mance
Jonathan Cape, 400pp, £20

[see also: Watching Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, I wonder why we like to imagine animals are our friends]

This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy