Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Resources Special: RSPCA Week, 29 April-5 May - Could You Eat Your Pets?: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Resources Special: RSPCA Week, 29 April-5 May - Could You Eat Your Pets?: Resources

Article excerpt

Our relationships with animals raise emotive and ethical issues. James Williams explores the difference between friend and food.

When Suffolk headteacher Kath Cook began a primary school project to educate children about the origins of food, she never thought it would result in death threats.

But shortly after Peasenhall Primary School started up a scheme to raise and slaughter pigs - with the backing of parents - the school was besieged by threats from animal activists.

The pigs are not school pets. They do not have names and the children will not witness them being slaughtered. The strong opposition, however, comes from groups who appear to object to the slaughter of any animal for food.

This is not an isolated case. In 2010, Andrea Charman stepped down from her job as headteacher of Lydd Primary School in Romney Marsh over a similar project involving sheep, although she was later reinstated after overwhelming public support.

Animals - whether we choose to pamper them as human companions or consider them part of our diet - are clearly a highly emotive subject.

Perhaps we should look more closely at the biological reasons for and against eating meat. It is perfectly possible to live a healthy life as a vegetarian or vegan. Some micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, are difficult to obtain from vegetables alone, but dietary supplements can overcome these deficiencies.

As a species we are omnivores, with the mechanical and chemical biological systems to eat and digest meat and derive essential nutrients from it. That some people choose not to is a personal rather than a biological choice. But why do we choose to eat beef and not, say, cats or dogs? Why did so many people react with disgust and loathing to the news that some processed foods contained not beef, but horsemeat?

The recent horsemeat scandal highlighted the complexities of our food chains nationally and internationally. But were there any genuine health dangers? Horsemeat is regularly eaten in France and many other countries. The controversy in the UK was about more than mislabelling and the potential dangers posed by drugs that are not supposed to be in the human food chain. Nor was it only a case of being angry at the less-than-strict tracking and labelling of our meat. It was, rather, a very British response to eating horses, an animal regarded in this country almost as affectionately as domestic pets.

But why such disgust? There are valuable discussions to be had on this issue in the classroom. Why, for example, do we eat cows, "cuddly" lambs, intelligent pigs and even "cute" rabbits? (Ask anyone who has had a pet rabbit if they would consider eating it - even if it had died a natural death - and you would provoke the same appalled reaction.)

So what guides our choice of which animals we eat? If we go back in human history we know that 10,000 years ago our Palaeolithic ancestors ate dogs. Analysis of preserved human faeces found in a cave in southwest Texas showed the residue of stewed dog brains.

Even today, some cultures, such as those of South Korea and China, have no problem with consuming dog, while others are revolted. In Britain, it is because the dog is seen as man's best friend, but other cultures are repelled because their religion considers the animal to be vermin and unclean.

I have eaten alligator in Florida (chewy and a little fishy), rabbit (not a pet), shark, horse, snail and a host of other creatures. I would, however, draw the line at a dog or a cat. The ghastly eating tasks on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here, filmed in Australia, where contestants must munch spiders, ants and obscure native creatures such as witchetty grubs, show us that many things can be eaten safely. It is our own psychology that is the greatest deterrent. …

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