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,
(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
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.
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
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.