Let Them Eat Kittens

We have met the enemy, and he is fuzzy.

I am a morally-confused, inconsistent hypocrite. I consider myself a steadfast animal-lover as well as a lover of meat, equally likely to go out of my way to pet strangers’ dogs on the street as to seek out New York’s best hamburger. And when you drill down into the details, the contradictions multiply. I’ll eat fish, poultry, pork, and lamb, but–owing to a traumatic childhood incident involving a neighbor’s hutch of what I assumed were pet bunnies–cannot bring myself to eat rabbit. (Nor would I ever eat dog; in Vietnam, I steadfastly waited outside a restaurant while my traveling companions dined on canine.) And while I’ll eat a pig or a lamb, I could never kill one myself–though I’m pretty sure I could dispatch a chicken or a trout without losing a minute of sleep. As you can see, I’m a moral mess.

But when it comes to animals, being a morally-confused, inconsistent hypocrite puts me in good company. Most of us are exactly that. That is the fundamental thesis of Hal Herzog‘s fabulous new book: Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Herzog, a psychologist at Western Carolina University, is a scholar in the relatively new field of anthrozoology, which concerns itself with the complex and often fraught relationships between humans and other animals.

Just a few pages into the book, Herzog discusses a frantic phone call he received from a friend. This friend had heard, through the grapevine, that Herzog was adopting kittens from animal shelters and feeding them to his son’s pet boa constrictor. Herzog was appalled–he would never do any such thing, he told his friend, an avowed animal rights advocate.

But then, he started thinking about it. “Is having a pet that gets its daily ration of meat from a can morally preferable to living with a snake? And are there circumstances in which feeding kittens to boa constrictors might actually be morally acceptable?”

Among the factors he considered:

  • Cats eat meat. According to Herzog’s calculations, America’s kitties eat some 12 million pounds of flesh every day.
  • Beyond the meat that they eat, cats are also “recreational killers,” attacking birds and rodents that have the misfortune of living near households with furry felines.
  • A pet snake requires (again, according to Herzog’s own calculations) just five pounds of meat per year, compared to an average cat’s fifty. (“Objectively,” he writes, “the moral burden of enjoying the company of a cat is ten times higher than living with a pet snake.”)
  • There are far fewer pet snakes in the U.S. than pet cats.
  • Two million cats a year are put down in American animal shelters.

It all prompts Herzog to wonder:

Wouldn’t it make more sense to make the carcasses available to snake fanciers? After all, these cats are going to die anyway and fewer mice and rats would be sacrificed to satisfy the dietary needs of the pythons and king snakes living in American homes. Seems like a win-win right?

Yikes . . . I had inadvertently painted myself into a logical corner in which feeding the bodies of kittens to the boa constrictors was not only permissible but morally preferable to feeding them rodents. But while the logical part of my brain may have concluded that there was not much difference between raising snakes on a diet of rats or a diet of kittens, the emotional part of me was not buying the argument at all. I found the idea of feeding the bodies of cats to snakes revolting, and had no intention of hitting up the animal shelter for kitten carcasses.

Of course researchers of morality already know that, in essence, we’re all hypocrites, behaving according to an ever-changing set of principles–and abandoning principles altogether when something pulls at our heartstrings. That’s not necessarily a problem–I don’t think I’d want to live my life according to strict moral absolutes that leave no room for emotion. But the particulars of our inconsistent attitudes toward the animal world are fascinating and reveal a lot about human nature. For more, I urge you to pick up Herzog’s book.

Image: Flickr/nperlapro

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13 Responses to Let Them Eat Kittens

  1. Rick York says:

    We once had neighbors who were vegans. Unfortunately, they extended their beliefs to their animals, two dogs and a cat. The poor critters had constant tummy troubles and were incredible gas factories. They took their pets everywhere with them.

    I tried to avoid, at all costs, riding in their car.

  2. Jim Birch says:

    Even though we firmly associate dogs with meat they are actually omnivores in nature and actually can live pretty well without meat (even though they like it.)

    Attempting to keep a cat on a vegetarian diet is a form of animal cruelty. Cats are carnivores.

  3. Janice Rosen says:

    That is just cruelty, in my opinion. The dogs and cat did not choose to follow a vegan lifestyle. And, if they had a car, they weren’t being very vegan about that, now were they? Unless they were buying tires not processed with animal byproducts, which are extremely rare.

    I shudder at the thought of feeding kittens to snakes, but if they are already dead, then I don’t think I have the right to make that call. I did have a pet rat, at one point, so I suppose I shouldn’t differentiate.

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  5. Amanda says:

    I’m with you– I feel like I shouldn’t mind people feeding kittens to snakes, but it really, really bothers me. I will never be rational when it comes to cats. I love kitty-kind too much.

  6. I too read through Herzog’s book late last year, and then was fortunate enough to speak with him later. I love that he presents ideas like the one you outlined above, and does so in an organized fashion (it’s really, really hard to write about humanity’s peculiar views on animals). With the kitten thing, I agree with him 100%. Jonathan Safran Foer argued something similar in “Eating Animals;” he suggested basically, “why don’t we feed our homeless with the euthanized pets?” (With a change in the way they are killed, he says). It’s hard to hear, harder to consider, but really, it doesn’t make sense that so many carcasses go to waste.

  7. Berto says:

    Great article. I think anyone who reads the title will be magically drawn to read it… I know I was :)

  8. Mr. Breeze says:

    Iz a kitteh n I noe wantz be nommed by dem snakies.

    You do make some valid points, especially about feeding euthanized cats to the homeless. I suspect this idea would be received quite well in the Korean community.

  9. Constance says:

    I’m quite pealsed with the information in this one. TY!

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  11. Hanna says:

    I’m commenting because I have only recently become aware of the reality that people use kittens and sometimes puppies as food for their snakes. Depending on the circumstances I have certain opinions of this.

    Number one, if a cat is feral, or stray is it legal to kill it? If so then there is no reason it’s carcass would not be used as food.

    The other sort of cat is a purely domestic one, one raised in a home but needing to be adopted. Or perhaps raised in a shelter. Still those cats are of an entirely different kind. Unlike a feral cat which is not raised in human care, these kittens are. They are nurtured from neat birth to be affectionate to humans so that they may be pets. If that is the case, that sort of animal cannot be used as food. To so so is cruel and unethical. My reason being the nature in which cats are bred. They are bred to be social creatures, to be loved by humans. Even the animals we eat, are generally raised with an impersonal and distanced hand so they do not become attached. For if they did, it would be cruel to kill them so.

    And to those out there who would feed kittens live to snakes or what have you… that is by far the most inhumane and cruel sort of behavior there is in relation to animal kind. Again kittens are bred to expect love from humans and to then take that creature that is expecting love and to subject it to the terror of being preyed upon and ultimately eaten, it is beyond words how horrible that would be.

  12. Jennifer says:

    This article was interesting. I am not vegan. I was raised in a farm. I do love animals an do not condone suffering for them no matter their purpose.
    I think it bothers our conscience if they are used out side what we believe there purpose to be. Dogs protection and pet, cat mouser and pet, pig is food, horse for labor. It is what ever view point we grow up with.
    If I hear a rat is fed to a snake it doesn’t bother me because to me they are dirty vermin with no purpose. If a kitten is fed to a snake it bothers me because its purpose to me us to be a loving pet a and to keep a home vermin free.