Summer 2012 : Fight
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Summer 2012 : Fight
Oregon Humanities: Summer 2012
Sometime between 1:30 and 8:00 a.m. on January 9, 2012, five adults, two nursing mothers, and thirteen juveniles vanished from their cages in a Portland backyard. Ten day-old babies were left behind and subsequently died.
We’re talking rabbits here. Compact, cute, furry, doe-eyed, floppy-eared, white, brown, and black, little hopping animals that were being bred and raised for meat. Meat that would feed the rabbits’ owners and a few of their friends.
These are the facts.
I am a journalist by trade and have been for twelve years, but to feign impartiality in this story from this point on will be nearly impossible. I also own and operate a company that teaches people how to slaughter and butcher whole animals for personal consumption. As it so happens, on the morning of January 9 I was scheduled to co-teach a class on how to raise and slaughter rabbits for meat. The eleven rabbits we used for that class also came from the backyard of the vanished rabbits. However, they’d been transported from their backyard to the location of the class the night before their brethren vanished. Remember these facts, because it gets much more complicated than this.
These eleven rabbits did not vanish in the same way that their brethren did. They did, however, die. On the afternoon of January 9, ten students and one instructor spent the afternoon slaughtering and prepping the eleven rabbits for their dinner tables.
Here is how they died: Within the span of one second, we broke their necks. Within the span of another second, their eyes closed, their nervous system shut down, their brains went dark. That was it. They were alive one minute. Gone the next. Vanished.
Some people call this slaughter. Some call it dispatching. Some call it killing. Some call it murder. Some call it torture. Some call it vulgar. Some call it food.
Here is how the ten day-old baby rabbits without the warmth or sustenance of their nursing mothers died: They froze to death, they slowly starved to death, or they did both. Some held on for a while with the help of a man-made nest of blankets and attempts to bottle feed. Some didn’t. By the end of the day of January 9—within the span of six to twelve hours—all ten of them had died. Vanished.
Some people call this slaughter. Some call it killing. Some call it suffering. Some call it justice. Some call it saving sentient beings from the evil hands of a slave-driving murderer.
It all depends, of course, on who you ask.
But if you decide to ask, make sure you’re prepared for the response.
My co-instructor for the class on January 9 was also the co-owner of the vanished rabbits. His name is Levi. Together with his friend Chris, Levi breeds and raises a small number of rabbits to feed their friends and families. During their life, the bunnies live in cages that are much larger than the legal definition of humane lodging for domesticated animals, large enough for them to easily move and hop around in. Hay, kitchen scraps, and compact pellets of grass provide their daily sustenance. Levi and Chris use the rabbits’ manure to fertilize their gardens. They also socialize the rabbits, who get used to being held and pet by humans. But they are not pets. They do not come inside the house or sleep in their owner’s bed. But they do name their breeder rabbits. One of them—a breeder—was named Roger.
Some people would call their method of raising rabbits for food humane. Some people call it inhumane. Some people call it senseless. Some people call it slavery. Some people see it as the most sensible way of producing protein for sustenance outside of factory farming.
So on the morning of January 9, when Chris discovered ten day-old babies struggling to stay alive, he tended to the most important detail: keeping those babies alive and trying to ease their suffering. He was lucky to find a local rabbit advocacy group that had a couple of nursing mothers. In the course of talking to them, Chris and the advocates realized that his bunnies had been anonymously donated to the organization. The organization had immediately fostered the rabbits out to various homes.
When the organization realized these rabbits were headed for the dinner table, they announced they did not want to give the rabbits back. An animal rights lawyer got involved. He told Levi and Chris that the foster parents of these rabbits had grown attached to their new pets. The organization offered $1,500 for the rabbits. Levi and Chris typically charge between $15 and $20 for a live rabbit, which reimburses them for the cost of raising them. To adopt a rabbit as a pet from the Humane Society costs $35. Levi and Chris told them, “These rabbits were stolen. We would like for you to return them. If you would then like to knock on our door and buy them from us at cost, we would be happy to see you.”
Chris and Levi waited to hear back. The advocates waited for them to change their minds. The lawyer acted as go-between.
In 2009, after ten years of working as a magazine editor in New York and then Portland, I was laid off for the first time in my life. Like so many victims of the recession, I pouted for a while and then decided to completely reinvent myself. This time as a butcher. I asked chefs and butchers if they’d be willing to teach me. None had the time or the interest.
Through a friend of a friend, I found the Chapolards, a French family of four brothers who, with two of their wives, own and operate a farm in southwestern France where they handle every aspect of getting pork to dinner tables. They raise the grain to feed their pigs. They own a cooperative slaughterhouse with several other small farmers. They do their own cutting and curing, and sell all the meat at outdoor markets.
I bought a plane ticket. I spoke no French. The Chapolards spoke little English. They handed me knives and pointed to pork legs and bellies and heads and shoulders and trusted I would find my way.
I returned to Oregon wanting to learn more. I told all those chefs and butchers who wouldn’t teach me before that I’d find students to pay them to teach the art of butchery. The Portland Meat Collective, or PMC, was born. I had no idea that classes would sell out.
The basic idea behind the Portland Meat Collective was this: I wanted omnivores, carnivores, pescatarians, fruititarians, vegetarians, breathatarians, and vegans alike to have the chance to truly engage with their food, with one another—and then decide where they stood on the meat/no meat spectrum.
For the classes, students purchase whole animals—sometimes live, sometimes dead, depending on the class—from small farms in Oregon and Washington. Students work with instructors to break down several sides of pork. They might learn how to slaughter a pig quickly and humanely. They might learn how to raise chickens for eggs, and how to kill them for meat when they don’t lay eggs. And they learn the difference between a factory-farm animal and a truly free-range heritage one.
Doctors, bike messengers, students, budding meat-cutters, concrete masons, cable guys, carpenters, hunters, self-proclaimed vegans, single moms, lawyers, and everyone in between attend the classes. Before each class I place dozens of books in the middle of the table. The books range from butchery manuals to cookbooks to exhaustive treatises on animal welfare. At the end of class, aprons dirtied, meat wrapped and split up between them, students discuss the politics of meat and their qualms about killing their own food. I did not anticipate how much a part of these classes those conversations would become.
Media often question whether the Portland Meat Collective is just a bunch of privileged hipsters worshipping at the feet of the bacon gods. I usually tell them this: I am not obsessed with bacon. I do not growl and flex my muscles after breaking down a whole pig. I do not have a tattoo of a pig head on my bicep nor do I have a boning knife tattooed on my calf. I abhor the term “meathead.” And for the most part, so do my students.
I tell them that after taking my classes, in which students learn how to kill and process their own animals, many report that they eat less meat. They also tell me that they can’t bring themselves to buy most of the meat they see in grocery stores anymore. I tell them that that is what happened to me too.
I tell them I believe in the power of utterly honest and messy engagement with the world in the face of a society that mostly provides us opportunities for disengagement.
I tell them I was raised as a hunter and fisher. That my dad handed me a “Fish Wacker” when I was seven and told me to hit the fish in the head with it after I hooked it and slowly reeled it into the boat—to ease its suffering, he said. I tell them I turned vegetarian for ten years and then ate meat without thinking about why or from whence it came for another ten years. The Portland Meat Collective is where I stand now, I say. It feels honest and blatant, respectful and messy.
I tell them that there is something about all of this that really, really pisses some people off.
When the rabbits vanished, Levi, Chris, and I chose to publicize it, to try and get the rabbits back and in hopes of finding the person or people who took the rabbits.
Stories appeared in the Oregonian, the Huffington Post, even as far away as the Washington Post. I posted it on my company’s website. And then, online comments—our modern form of not-so-Platonic debate—began to emerge from every side of the meat/no meat debate. The PMC and the rabbits became the center of a very heated conversation. It felt a lot more like a fight, though.
Sometimes I woke up to e-mails like this:
“Things you should do today:
1. Get cancer.
2. Rot. Slowly and painfully.
“You are going to hell.”
I received many comments on my website—all of which I published unless they were so violent or so racist that I couldn’t stand to give them a voice. The majority went along these lines:
“I want you to know that I think you are horrible people for doing this. You have forgotten your souls. You have buried your empathy. You have lost what it means to be human and have compassion in this world.”
A lot of comments from every side relied on a particular brand of circular logic:
“people enjoy eating meat. animals are made of meat. therefore we must eat the animals. and as someone pointed out, small woodland creatures such as rabbits, rats, mice, etc. are just the chicken nuggets of the animal world anyway. and yes, i’ll eat damn near any animal as long as you cook his ass up right.”
Every once in a while, someone openly grappled with their contradictory feelings.
“I just felt motivated to apologize to your group on behalf of animal rights folks. While my husband and I are vegetarians and concerned about animal welfare, we were also saddened that someone(s) hurt your group as they did.”
These were few and far between.
While I found myself in the thick of this online fight, conducting media interviews and fielding death threats by phone, the rabbit advocacy group eventually returned—via their lawyer—all but one rabbit to Levi and Chris. The one rabbit that was not returned was Roger. I am a writer, and I’ll do anything to get a good story. But I want you to know I did not make this part up.
Roger, a male breeder rabbit, had been fostered to a woman who decided to hire her own lawyer. On January 12, 2012, just three days after the rabbits had gone missing, Levi received a letter from this lawyer stating that the woman had grown attached to Roger and would like to offer $200 or the cost of replacing Roger, whichever was greater. In describing her client’s feelings for Roger, which had developed over the course of three days, the lawyer also quoted Anatole France, a French poet, journalist, and novelist: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
Levi and Chris responded in the same manner: Return the rabbits, please. Then come talk to us and we’ll sell them to you at cost.
The woman did return Roger eventually. The handoff occurred in her lawyer’s office. She did not show up for the event. It was just Levi, the lawyer, and Roger sitting alone together in a conference room.
“Well, this is awkward,” Levi said to the lawyer.
A few weeks later, Chris and Levi decided to sell the juvenile rabbits back to the rabbit advocacy group. I do not know the details of the sale, but Chris’s plan was to donate any profits to a Haitian charity that Levi, a critical care nurse by day, works with a few times a year.
Levi then received another letter from the lawyer representing Roger Rabbit’s foster mother. Instead of simply knocking on Levi’s door and offering $20 for Roger, the client offered to donate $1,000 to Levi’s charity. Levi accepted the offer. Roger was returned to his foster mother. The lawyer handled the swap. Her client remained anonymous.
Everyone was happy. Especially the Haitians, who will benefit from a new program, seeded by the $1,000 donation, that teaches them how to raise rabbits—the cheapest and easiest animal protein one could raise in the world—for food.
After it all—after the rabbits were stolen and then returned to Levi and Chris and then sold back to their foster owners, after enduring a court case that resulted in a stalking order, after multiple newspaper and television stories, after the comments died down, after the death threats on the phone ceased, after a group of activists showed up in front of Chris’s house with bullhorns, after I gave up on the hope that my website would become a place for respectful dialogue and closed it for comments, after the Portland Meat Collective went back to teaching classes, after the detectives and police and lawyers stopped calling, after Levi and Chris went back to raising rabbits for food (albeit, now in a different location outside of Portland), after the conspiracy theorists stopped accusing us of making the entire story up, after money and rabbits were exchanged and the lawyers shut their briefcases—after all that, it’s my hunch that few if any minds were changed.
I get the sense that people on all sides of the fight continued to do whatever it is they do. People who didn’t eat meat continued to not eat it. People who hate killing spiders continued to not kill spiders. People with bacon fetishes continued to wax poetic over pork belly. Elk hunters continued to hunt elk. Fishermen continued to fish. Fish continued to eat bugs. Factory farms continued to cram thousands of cattle into confined spaces. My classes continued to sell out. Vegan activists continued to liberate bunnies. Those who think of me as a sociopath continue to think of me that way.
I still marvel at how few questions were asked in the course of the debate and how many dogmatic prescriptions were offered in their place. At the same time, it became clear that even a good debate—and this was in no way a good debate—doesn’t necessarily sway us toward one side or the other. For the most part, we think we know what side we stand on already.
But no matter how clear we believe our sides to be, there’s still the messy middle staring back at us. And what lies in the middle is what we are so rarely willing to truly comprehend. It’s too painful, too hard to grasp, too complicated, too contradictory. Too gray. Too scary.
I’m not talking about the middle as compromise. I’m not talking about some bliss-bunny notion of peace. I’m not talking about the misguided notion of true and fair mediation. Nor am I talking about justice prevailing or any other fantasy such as that.
The messy middle is a place where rabbits are simultaneously stolen and killed and cared for and abused and eaten and loved and fought over and thanked and bought and sold and owned and freed. We can send all our opinions hurtling through the spheres of Facebook and the Huffington Post. But that liminal space of eternal disorder, discontinuity, and contradiction—of simultaneous adherence to and divergence from our beliefs—is still there for us to contend with. It’s there most of the time, waiting for us to stare back into its stormy eyes. “I see you,” it wants us to say. “You’re right there.”
Somewhere in that messy middle, the person who steals twenty rabbits and subsequently causes the death of ten day-old babies walks down the same road as the ten students and two instructors who together kill eleven rabbits for food. All of us held the rabbits in our hands at some point. Felt their pulse. Contemplated their life, their death. All of us tried to find meaning and make a stand within our very different acts. All of us thought we were doing the right thing.
In the face of that particular contradiction, what’s the point of deluding ourselves into thinking that we can choose any semblance of a clear and certain side?
What would our world look like if we insisted instead on true, honest, hard-to-swallow engagement with the unclear, uncertain, complicated notions of life and death and violence and love staring us right in the face, no matter what side we cling to?
What would happen if we opened up the recesses of that inevitably abstract messy middle, admitted all our various culpabilities, and dwelled together within? How many glorious questions there might be. How few answers.
I asked a friend what she thought a world like this might look like.
“Like hell,” she said. “It would look like hell.”
“You mean fire and brimstone?” I asked.
She shook her head. “There may well be no truer intellectual stance than to be in a constant state of asking,” she said. “The thing is, there may also be no state more hellish.”
I couldn’t disagree with her. It’s much easier to draw lines in the sand and stand firmly on one side or the other.
And yet, ever since the rabbits vanished, if I take any stance, it’s the hellish one, the one that leads to that constant state of asking. Call me a new denizen of the messy middle, a place where there are no clear answers, no clear sides—but at least here, no one wastes much time insisting there should be.
Maybe my detractors were right. Maybe I am going to hell. Maybe I’m already there. Maybe I’m even starting to get used to it.
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Oregon Humanities magazine examines topics of broad public interest from a variety of perspectives and approaches. Recent issues of this publication have focused on stuff, nostalgia, and civility. Through good and thoughtful writing, Oregon Humanities magazine enriches our understanding of important subjects and stimulates conversation and reflection among readers, their friends, families, colleagues, and neighbors.
For more than a decade Camas Davis has been a magazine editor and writer for national magazines such as National Geographic Adventure and Saveur, and local publications such as Portland Monthly, Edible Portland, and Mix. In 2009, she traveled to France to study butchery. Upon her return, she founded the Portland Meat Collective, a traveling butchery school.
Eric Gold is a freelance writer in Portland.
J. David Santen Jr. has written about books, business, the environment, and communities for the Oregonian, the Portland Business Journal, and other publications. He lives in Portland.
Jill Owens works in marketing for Powell’s Books, where interviewing authors is the most interesting part of her job. She’s originally from the South but has lived in Oregon for eleven years and is here to stay.
Photographer Jim Lommasson received the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice & the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms. Previous publications include Oaks Park Pentimento. His photographs have been widely exhibited in museums and galleries.
John Frohnmayer is chair of the Oregon Humanities board of directors.
Margot Minardi is an assistant professor of history and humanities at Reed College, and the author of Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts (2010). She is currently working on a history of the nineteenth-century American peace movement.