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Got Your Goat?

It was refreshing to hear that there was a large turnout at Schenectady’s public hearing about proposed legislation to ban home slaughter of livestock for food. It was even more refreshing to hear that most people who spoke were opposed to the ban, even though those speaking up were not those most likely to be most affected—the city’s Guyanese population.

The twists and turns and emotions involved in the proposed ban are a good example of what happens when government officials (not to mention the people who complain to them) don’t get beyond their gut reactions, and when people trying to avoid a difficult conversation by discovering a new justification for a proposed action other than the one actually at issue. If the people of Schenectady aren’t listened to on this (the vote is still to come, but I imagine this hearing will have an effect on it), it could be one more instance of a culturally dominant group imposing something that they think of as bedrock values (which do exist and are sometimes worth imposing) but is really just cultural discomfort.

Let’s trace the story: Some innocent kids witness their neighbors killing a goat, ironically shortly after a visit to a petting zoo. It’s a noisy, messy, and thoroughly unpleasant process, and the kids are understandably upset. The parents say something to the effect of “Oh my god, they’re killing animals next door? There should be a law.” And a concerned Mayor Stratton, who wants very much to be responsive to his constituents, proposes such a law, citing health concerns.

Reached Monday, Stratton said the ban was “common sense” and about both health and “psychological” concerns. “Things that are common practice in the old days and out in the country” make less sense “where you measure distance to your neighbors in inches or feet, not yards or miles,” said Stratton.

But I haven’t yet heard an argument that when peeled down really gets beyond the fact that urban and suburbanite white folks aren’t used to being around their meat when it’s killed. Not to mention most of them also aren’t used to thinking of goats as a meat animal.

If we needed any confirmation of this, Stratton said last Thursday (Jan. 6) that he would exempt the dressing of kills made by hunters from the ban, which was originally worded to include “butchering, curing and dressing.” Stratton told the Times Union he didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s legal right to hunt. Which trumps your equally legal right to eat food?

I have yet to see an argument that there are sanitary concerns that arise from actually killing an animal for food on your property that are significantly worse than, or categorically different from: dressing a kill from a hunt; preparing a whole animal bought from a butcher; or even serving rare meat. Unless everyone’s home kitchens and served meals are going to be inspected like restaurants, then singling out home butchers for health reasons seems quite beside the point. In fact, unfair.

(If there are particular issues with, say, animal cruelty or the dumping of carcasses, those can and should be handled with increased education about and enforcement of existing laws.)

Further evidence that there are some cultural gaps contributing to the discomfort appear when the question of religious practice is brought into it, as both the media coverage and city officials have done. Just the mention of “animal sacrifice” sends many people into conniptions.

>From the first Times Union story about the proposal: “City officials said they are unsure if the animals are being killed for meat or as part of a religious ritual.” As if those are two separate things. People I’ve known who’ve studied a little about Voudoun and Santeria say that that split is generally an artificial one. Animals that are “sacrificed” are almost always intended to be eaten. The difference between animal sacrifice and saying grace is merely whether you say the prayers before the animal is killed or before it is eaten, say these folks. In other words, a technicality. I don’t know how much of the home butchering in Schenectady has a religious element to it, but the only difference it would make if it did would be to add a constitutional protection to the act. Again, let’s focus on what’s actually bothering people.

The issue appears to be rolled up in culture clash and that wonderful phrase “quality of life.” Let’s talk about it as such. People living nearby each other in urban situations do have a responsibility to be respectful of their neighbors and their right to generally enjoy their lives without undue infringement.

Not that it’s easy. Noise, for example, especially overloud music, is a persistent problem in dense urban areas. But despite the difficulties with it, most people would never think of banning music, or stereos, in order to deal with the problem. We set some sort of threshold—a decibel level, or a standard like “music should not be audible from another’s living space.” Depending on the clarity of the standard, how well it’s known, and how well it’s enforced, it can work out fairly well. Outside of the legal realm, when you have two neighbors who are both mature and interested in being good neighbors but have different standards about volume, a combination of occasional requests to turn it down that are honored, and occasional notices given that a big party is going to be held go a long way.

So with the home butchering question, what’s the actual problem? Kids witnessing an unpleasant scene.

If this really needs legislation, perhaps it should be on the order of requiring that home butchering be done behind a screen, or in some other way shielding the act from neighbors’ view. An education campaign might encourage those who are about to do some butchering to let their immediate neighbors know, so that kids can be either kept inside, or given the proper preparation to put the experience in context.

After all, though I don’t want to downplay the shock of the scene too much—it’s really not something I’d like to stumble over unawares either—seeing animals killed for meat rarely traumatizes farm kids or kids in the homes where it is done regularly. It’s those who are removed from the source of the meat that they eat, who are taken by surprise by what they’ve witnessed, and who are given to believe from the adults around them that what they’ve seen really was horrible, who are going to end up in a bad state. And that experience, however real, is not a good basis for public policy.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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