On killing and keeping Vlekje and Tenger

PetraWilbrink_wandelenIt has been a year since the closing feast of the project Looking for Mongolia in Amsterdam-North. On midwinter six weeks of goat herding came to an end. That morning I moved my BedMobile to the NoorderparKKamer, we killed five month old Vlekje and returned mother Tenger to her previous owner. Sponsors and hosts of the past half year joined us for a tea ceremony and under the projected images of Tenger and Vlekje we enjoyed the best meal I had in ages. We danced to the performance of the Nobis, celebrating the lives of these two goats and our own. Three months later I wrote this essay on what it meant to me:


Winter has come and gone and from the whirlwind of impressions a few things have settled in my mind: how on that day the events took their own calm course even if it wasn’t according to plan; the attentive presence of everyone involved; and the almost sacred meal in which we shared Vlekje, Tenger and a bit of Amsterdam-Noord through their meat and milk.

We are nature.

Today, as I am sitting in the public library of Rotterdam I have a view of down-town Rotterdam. The spring sun is shining on its cathedral and many post-modern buildings. The soft humming of the escalators increases as city folk move up and down from books to shop and street. So strange how nature and culture collide. The sky and sun, whirling birds and breathing people remind me of how we are part of the natural world. How we are flesh and bone born from this same earth to which we return when we die. No matter how much steel and bricks and escalators seal off the naked earth, when the sun shines through the glass I feel we are only a blink away from the warm slopes of Africa. How much have we actually changed from within? Our lives have changed, that is true. But aren’t we still coming into this world in the same way? No matter how sophisticated we have made our methods, we still breath and eat and kill and move and love like we always did.

Am I so different from the ‘nature peoples’ in this world? Could I forsake my computer and central heating and pre-packaged food to go back to living off the land? In Mongolia I had stayed with survival artists who’s families had lived as nomads for countless generations. But I also met Zaya who was born in Ulaanbaatar. She was a reindeer herder, but as a teenager had lived in the States where she cheered on the high school football team. As she spoke to me in her American ways I pictured the school girl boning a reindeer. On Saturday the twenty first of last December I knew for sure that western society is no more than one of many layers of my identity, as I had just pulled a trigger on Vlekje.

Ethics and other muddy problems on keeping animals.

‘Are you sure you are going to butcher Vlekje? Won’t you regret it the rest of your life?’
‘Won’t you let someone else kill him?’
‘If I found a home for him, would you let him live?’
‘You deserve to die and be buried a hundred meters under ground.’
‘You are an arrogant and miserable piece of human being that lets animals suffer because of some shitty art project.’

The answers:
– Yes, no.
– No, but I had help from an experienced Mongolian.
– No.
– Well I’ll die anyway and then I’d prefer to be eaten by other animals.
– Lets try to be clear about what kind of suffering we are talking.

Why would I not accept an offer to take Vlekje in? Why did I choose to kill him? Because I wanted to eat his meat. After a month of discussing various reasons for his death I came down to this brutally simple answer. I wanted to eat meat, and goddamn, his meat tasted wonderful.

Yes, there were morals involved: as a meat eater I needed to face the consequence of eating animals. Yes there were feelings, I did my utmost best to make the killing as quick and relaxed as possible, but I had to cry anyway. Yes, there was a titbit of art involved: the decision to keep two goats and eat one of them was a consequence of my project about nomads in Mongolia in the Netherlands. I tried to bring a part of Mongolia to Amsterdam-Noord and see what happens. A small clash of course.

On meat.

In Mongolia probably thousands of animals are killed everyday. In the Netherlands a million animals are killed everyday. In Mongolia it is often done by a male family member or a neighbour, usually just outside of the ger. The man will kill the animal in a relaxed atmosphere but with care, then cut out the meat and skin, after which the women will clean and prepare the inner organs.

In the Netherlands animals are almost always put on transport to a slaughter house where they are routinely killed and butchered by professionals. The meat is then packaged into neat Styrofoam and plastic squares and sent off to supermarkets where you can find these squares filled with a rosy organically shaped composition in various hues of pink, red and white, complemented with a neat graphically designed label, that goes so well with the specific shade of Styrofoam in the background. Often it is the colour of the styrofoam that helps you remember to which species the organically shaped object belonged. Because oh yes, that food happens to have been an animal.

On death.

That is of course not true. Many people realise that the rosy shapes were once part of this jumping, blaring and cute soft baby animal. It is not hard to see why it is hard to kill and eat. In Mongolia women are supposed to look away. Some say because they are too sensitive to see the death of an animal. But then again, men are supposed to stay away when a woman is giving birth, because men are to sensitive to deal with the pain and mess of birth. I know Mongolian women who would kill, I know Mongolian men who can’t. But overall, although it is part of everyday life, killing is never done lightly however fast and efficiently it is done. It still is part of life, just as birth and living itself.

Death as part of life brings me to the most important realisation I had these past months. There are two main things that I find problematic about killing animals. The first problem is that a human chooses the time of death of the animal. The second is that a human controls the life of another animal.

On killing.

When you kill an animal he or she cannot full fill their life on his or her own terms. What does that do to a soul? Or for the atheists: who are we as humans to decide about the life of another animal? Just higher up in the pyramid? In nature creatures kill each other all the time, although some only kill plants. But we are not any animal. We have consciousness and choice and alternatives.

In Mongolia you have almost only agriculture on hoofs. For the most part the soil is not rich enough for intensive agriculture. But even then, veggies alone will not get you through the winter. The Mongolian Buddhists are some of the very few who are excused for eating animals. There is a vegetarian movement amongst city dwellers, but to survive a Mongolian winter in the blizzards eating meat is not a luxury. Therefore you ask for blessing, kill your animal and feed your family.

In the Netherlands we have the soft current from the ocean that keeps our winters mild. We have the rich clay soil that was brought from the mountains by many rivers that flow through our delta. We have one of the largest seaports in the world and great transportation through air, on rivers, roads and rail. We have central heating and we work mainly indoors. We, healthy Dutchies, do not need to eat animals. We eat animals because it is readily available, because we always did (or so we think), and because we like it.

On life.

The seagulls have left the square in front of the library. The sun is setting and the buildings are slowly turning grey under a growing curtain of clouds. The buildings have lost their magic. Brown bricks, grey tiles and dark glass. The sunshine and birds and sky hinted of trees and streams and free animals walking where their hunger would take them. But there are no free animals here now that I can see. Outside of Rotterdam there are neatly fenced farms with animals. To me Rotterdam itself is a farm with animals. Today I am one of them.

I have heard of the argument that thousands of years ago humans made a pact with other free species. The humans on the farm would keep them from harm and hunger, and the farm animals would give their strength, milk and meat in return. A fair deal for all, as long as we treated each other well.

Some people think this is bullocks. We have selectively bred animals into sub species that are easy to keep and produce more of what we need. There are a few people who can communicate with animals, but I doubt there would be a fruitful conversation about their free will. And what about Stockholm syndrome?

Apart from the free will of domesticated animals there is of course their well being. I can keep a long and predictable story about the bio-industry or just cut to the chase: most people feel uneasy about the lives of our foster animals on farms. And rightly so.

Some see solutions in organic farms where the pigs can roll around in the dirt, some in more efficiently organised high-tech installations. Some would like to have all animals living in pet zoos. Most discussions are about creating an environment that allows them to express their natural behaviour as much as possible. But we bred the animals to be a certain way! How could we create a completely natural life? Would they survive in the wild? Which wild anyway?

The protests were huge in the Netherlands when artificially introduced ‘wild’ horses were not fed by wildlife protection. They lived in the Oostvaardersplassen, a real nature reserve that created itself on derelict building lands in Flevoland, a province in the Netherlands that was taken from the sea by humans with boats and trucks and lots of hoses.

That winter the habitat did not provide enough food for all the horses to survive. The people in charge decided not to interfere. A part of the public could not deal with the animals dying. But could they not deal with wild animals dying, or weren’t the animals wild in the first place and was it therefor negligence of the farmer?

Can large animals die of natural causes in a country where nature is maintained according to drawn up plans? Lets face it: the only nature in the Netherlands is our sky and the flood area of the Waddenzee. And there still humans fare their boats and fish for mussels.

On freedom.

This ideal of the natural is closely related to the idea of freedom I think. As a romantic soul I would like animals to live a life without human interference. A truly free life. Untouched. Follow your instincts. Be killed by boars if that’s what life throws at you. Because isn’t that how I would like to live? Do I not play with the idea to leave the human farm and live a life that is true and freed of society? Well, am I naïve enough to think that I would escape society even if I would move to the taiga in Mongolia? Would I be free in the close knit community of the reindeer herders? Or be rid of governments, companies and money? Nope. The reindeer riders are proud and largely self-sufficient, but also plagued by dwindling numbers, border patrol, the bar on hunting, the lure of tourist money and the struggle with modernity. And that is on top of the ‘normal dangers’ of wolves, gruelling frost, accidents, alcohol, lack of health care and natural disasters.

If I want to escape society I would have to escape human company. But I am not a seclusive and I doubt that natural is the same as free. I see benefits in our farm. Our health care, food distribution, government. I don’t mind being part of the web of life, but I do mind being an animal on a typical Dutch farm. I do not like to be kept within fences or keep others that way.

Currently I probably understand as much from the powers that be as farm animals understand their farmer. In turn I do not even understand farm animals and I doubt that many humans do. I cannot see if the wild horses are better off than organically grown pigs. I can see a few other things: 40000 chickens in an open barn is not even close to a natural situation. But neither is a pet zoo. And worse: one goat on a piece of grass or any herd animal alone, however gentle their owners are.

I do believe that we, or rather researchers and animal keepers, are getting closer and closer at understanding the needs of our foster animals. But do we understand it close enough? And what standards do we need to keep? Should every foster animal have a pampered life, or is a little hardship acceptable? Just as in nature?

Six weeks caring for Tenger and Vlekje was enough to make a personal decision. However much Tenger and Vlekje ate to their heart’s content, however much I build up a relationship with the both of them, however much they roamed the fields of Amsterdam as perhaps their ancestors did, the discrepancy of consciousness between us is too much for me to bridge. As I do not understand animals well enough, or am able to have a decent conversation with them to clear up any misunderstandings, I prefer not to be responsible for their lives. I know that I thank animals for my leather shoes, my healthcare and jelly candy. I can miss the last, but find it hard to say goodbye to the others.

As I left the library the sky was turning pink. I passed shopping streets, office towers, harbours and apartment blocks and saw the lights slowly switching on, one by one. Every person in its own habitat according to the rhythm of its life, neatly nested into the structure of society. I kept right on the cycling path just like I had learned. A last few birds chose their route in accord with the group, and unfortunately I could not turn to them to solve my ethical issues. The fact is that I did as lots of animals do: I ate another creature. Because I wanted to. I might stop eating animals all together, but I have to accept that we collaborate with, use, abuse and kill other creatures just the same. The only radical way to stop this is to leave this world and I see no real benefit in doing that.

On giving life.

Today it is almost Midwinter and as I reread my words I see some questions unanswered at the end. Questions tied in with human inconsistency.
Why do some animal activists own dogs? Why do people own puppies when you could adopt? Why will people not accept that to care for animals is to be responsible for their deaths as well? And why is the death of a loved pet accepted but of a farm animal not?

I belief that to be responsible for any living creature is to accept a hand in death. Whether it is the meat you feed to your dog, or that you have to put him down after an accident, caring for an animal reaches all the way to death. Most people in the Netherlands would agree that euthanasia can be a loving act. Because what they will assert is that it is the quality of life that counts, not the fact that they died. Which makes me wonder: if Vlekje had a good and playful life up to the very last moment, why is that moment of pain in the end, if indeed there was, more important than these five months of life?

That of course opens up all kinds themes like power imbalance, violence, longevity, view on the afterlife and sentimentality. There are only personal answers I feel. We are all humans and almost all people love puppies, me too. I accept that I am inconsistent and try to reconcile my personal preferences with the level of ethical development I am at. And in this whole muddy discussion this is what it boils down to for me:

I value life more than I value death.

Or to be precise: I value quality of life over dying. Or differently put: I prefer not to breed an animal that cannot emancipate from the farm. But I have to accept that it is done in my name anyway, as I ware these shoes and take modern medicines. I have to accept my part in the life and death of countless creatures I will never know. But I did know Vlekje and Tenger. Did I really have to kill Vlekje for meat? No. We could have served a vegetarian meal. I could have refrained from keeping them at all. But I am grateful for a first hand insight in what it might mean to live on a farm.
So now I have to straddle awareness, welfare, healthcare, feelings and culinary taste all at once. I don’t know much, I have no set guidelines. My views and decisions are fluid like a flock of birds, constantly dancing to inner logic and outer influence.

The only thing I am sure of is that I am no innocent soul. I killed another creature. Willingly.

Of course indirectly we are all involved in using others, and that extends beyond meat to poor working conditions and abusing the earth itself. We may not know most of it. Are we guilty then? Or does awareness create guilt? And what positive change could guilt generate? We cannot change everything at once. We are only human. Does that excuse us? I am not sure. But I don’t want to swap the farm system for the prison of rigid morals. We have the potential for growing awareness. And with awareness we’ll find new ways. Birds may be influenced by factors beyond their comprehension, humans can choose to do otherwise.

That is what I am: a human being, and just like you I am learning to make sense of the messy reality of everyday life, my nature and my place in the farm. And as we are growing we can influence the direction of our flock with tiny movements. Someday perhaps, we are able to leave the farm system and fly together on our evolving compass. And for that lesson about intertwined lives, I am Vlekje and Tenger immensely grateful.

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