Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Death by Birth

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Death by Birth

Article excerpt

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down.  John Keats "Ode to a Nightingale" 

RED MEAT takes years off of cow's life (1)

American political scientist Timothy Pachirat's recent book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (2011), begins with death.

   In 2004, six cattle escaped from the holding pen of an    industrialized slaughterhouse in Omaha, Nebraska. According to the    Omaha World Herald, which featured the story on its front page,    four of the six cattle made an immediate run for the parking lot of    nearby Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, where they were    recaptured and transported back to be slaughtered.     A fifth animal trotted down a main boulevard to the railroad yards    that used to service Omaha's once-booming stockyards. The sixth, a    cream-colored cow, accompanied the fifth animal partway before    turning into an alleyway leading to another slaughterhouse. (1) 

As you can probably guess, for the sixth cow--as for the five others--things end badly. In the alleyway leading to the second slaughterhouse, police shoot it multiple times with a shotgun, and then it dies. I borrow this story, and so also begin with death, because it is the most economic way I can think of to announce my opening point: being killed is a defining predicament of animals labouring in the commercial agricultural industry. Pachirat's rendering of the story makes this point so efficiently and pointedly, and in a manner not a little reminiscent of Kafka, (2) in part simply because, while the cows attempt to escape their institutional fate of being killed, their efforts are in every case futile. The details of the futility underscore the point. For instance, the irony of the fact that four of the cows effectively seek, but fail to find, sanctuary in the parking lot of a church dedicated to the Catholic patron saint of animals, and the images of the other two cows wandering through an urban space, the construction and architecture of which suggests that although they may have left one slaughterhouse, the building apparently has no outside.

Companion animals, feral animals, and wild animals die in a variety of ways. Some are killed by humans, some are killed by other animals, some die of old age, disease, accident, and so on. The deaths of agricultural animals, however, almost always take the form of being killed. For such animal labourers as beef cattle, domesticated pigs, and turkeys, as well as dairy cows, breeding sows (female pigs), and egg-laying hens, the horizon of life is not the multifarious forms of death that snare all mortal creatures. It is a specific form of dying. This unique situation is accentuated by the fact that nearly all such animals die in mechanized facilities in which massacre and bureaucracy converge, facilities that have been called "machines for dying in," (3) facilities designed solely for the purpose of killing animals and, afterwards, disarticulating their bodies into portions to be packaged and sold as, for the most part, food for human beings.

To be sure, the sixth cow is killed at but not in such a facility and indeed is part of a gang of cows that defer being killed through an escape, albeit a temporary one. (4) There are, moreover, a number of cases of animals that successfully elude the institutionalized process of being killed that is devised especially for them. In May 2011, for instance, a six-year-old dairy cow called Yvonne, and slated to be transported to the slaughterhouse, escaped from a farm near the town of Muhldorf in Bavaria, Germany, and spent three months on the run before she was recaptured and bought by an animal sanctuary. Indeed, one could even go so far as to say that Yvonne's adventure occasioned, as such stories routinely do, something like the "wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm" that Immanuel Kant affirmed as the proper affective response of contemporary spectators of the French Revolution ("An Old Question Raised Again" 143-48). …

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