What's in a name?

I don’t think I’m a cruel man. I’ve never pulled the legs off spiders. Nor bullied anyone – intentionally. I may have given my younger sister a hard time, challenging her to games of rugby when I was nine and she was six but I know she found it character-building and secretly loved it. Despite the injuries.

But the more people I introduce to the various animals that we rear for food, the more often I’m asked how could I be so cruel. This hurts.

Because Oxford, Sandy and Blackie, the pigs we rear that are handled after the name of their breed, have a wonderful life while they’re with us. They’ve got an acre or two to run around in; some of it’s flat and full of tasty weeds, other parts are hilly and sandy and there are lots of trees to snuffle and root around. On top of this, they’ve got a lovely stone, dry stable with regularly-changed hay for them to snuggle up in, water in a Belfast sink that’s automatically replenished every 24 hours and the pleasure of my company at least once a day, bearing gifts of yummy grainy food plus exotic unwanted fruit and veg from the wholesale market.

It’s difficult to imagine how they could lead a more comfortable life short of inviting them into the house to lie in front of the fire or on the foot of the bed. Not that I haven’t considered bringing them in while my wife’s away to see how they’d respond. It could be a great laugh but the damage to the furniture might not be covered on the insurance.

Compare their existence to that of the commonly-produced over-crowded, kept-on-concrete, overfed and unloved, intensively-reared pigs and you’ll see it as different as that of our benign democracy is to an underdeveloped, third world dictatorship. It’s a different world.

So what’s this about me being cruel? I must stress that when anybody accuses me of cruelty in raising animals for food, it’s usually been part of a sentence that includes the phrase: “and you’ve named them!”.

So that’s it. It’s ok to eat a nameless animal but not one that you’ve given some sort of nomenclature. Well I’ve eaten potatoes that I’ve named. Not Robert or Peter but “That Third Clump In The Second Row”. Everything’s got a name and even if I called the animals Pig1, Pig 2 and Pig 3, they’d still have names.

So where’s the rationale?

We’re a funny lot us humans. We’re quite happy to proclaim that we’re the most intelligent creatures on the planet and stand at the top of the food chain while at the same time raising animals for food in the most appalling ways. But start raising them in a way approaching sensitivity and intelligence and we suddenly become squeamish.

Maybe it’s about time we took responsibility for our actions and made sure that we only eat animals that have been reared humanely or not at all. But if we do, unless we’re all to become vegetarians, it means that ultimately, we have to accept that we’ll be eating Oxford, Sandy or Blackie or Julian.

Originally posted April 2010

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