Getting my Ducks in a Row: Understanding the Appetite for Foie Gras
As a photographer, I enjoy taking pictures of birds. They bring life into a photograph and have a way of conveying freedom because birds either take to sky, spending part of their existence in the vastness of the earth’s troposphere or swim almost unimaginable distances in the oceans. The metaphor of flying captures our hearts . . .
There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
During my childhood, my sister and I would sometimes find abandoned birds, bringing them home to care for them until they were able to fly. These experiences gave me insights to their nature. The birds appeared to enjoy a gentle caress, and they recognized the signs of when they would be fed. We developed a bond, much the same as with a dog or cat.
Understanding our Connection
Some critics accuse those who support animal rights of anthropomorphizing the animals’ experiences, but I would argue that our neglect in seeing the similarities remains the problem. Humans do not stand at the top of the animal kingdom as an isolated entity. All life on earth began with a single common ancestor. Our DNA reflects this shared ancestry, and in the case of birds, we share 50% of the same genes. Our common ancestor was an Amniota, an amphibious creatures that laid eggs on land.
The Bible has perpetuated the idea of human’s domination as absolute–even over the creepy-crawlers:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Many have come to believe that humans are masters of their domain and have every right to exploit any creature, regardless of the suffering that may cause. Unfortunately, that entitlement interferes with logical reasoning, empathy, and compassion.
Birds are intelligent. The African Grey Parrot understand human words, and members of the crow family have shown in experiments that they can think from the perspective of another and have self-awareness. “Their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of great apes, and only slightly lower than in humans.”
What is Cruel?
In clarifying the amount of stress that animals experience in captivity, my argument rests with determining the difference between the environment that animals are genetically designed and for and their circumstances in captivity. If the gap is too great, we can interpret the animal’s treatment as torturous. We cannot ask the ducks how they are doing; but if we alter or remove too many factors in the following list, we can assume these birds’ discomfort would be significant.
Fly and swim in their natural habitat
Eat a variety of food choices
Access fresh air and water
Nurture a brood of chicks
Avoid unpleasant/dangerous conditions
Human Nature and Entitlement’s Righteous Indignation
Thinking about human nature, particularly our perceived entitlements, offers insight into our relationship with animals. When humans become accustomed to a way of living that becomes so much a part of us, we begin to believe that our view is the only right one, which transforms into a strong emotion. We cannot pull ourselves out of that entitlement belief. Several examples:
- We become accustomed to receive external rewards for good behavior and believe we are entitled to those rewards.
- Some folks in my generation who grew up in schools where every December a Christmas trees stood in every classroom, now feel indignant that a holiday tree is no longer permitted. The Christmas tree entitlement strongly outweighs other children’s rights not to have religious symbols in the classroom.
- Folks who believe that guns have a rightful place in every situation: schools, stores and even churches.
Entitlement can trump self-interest. Sometimes people will defend the entitlements of the rich, even if they are not rich themselves or do not have the same privileges. One case that comes to mind is when people or their families do not have healthcare, and they still rile against government healthcare benefit programs.
Entitlement becomes their moral compass, and if that entitlement is threatened, they feel victimized.
Here’s a comment copied from an article on foie gras that demonstrates an example of how one consumer flaunts his entitlements:
In honor of you vegan preachers, I’m going to have a nice medium rare veal chop made from a baby cow caged in a pen, covered with a lobe of force-fed foie gras, and for dessert, I’ll have a nice panna cotta made using real animal gelatin and cream from a cattle factory finished off with a honey creme anglaise made using battery caged eggs and honey we stole from bees, all while sitting on my leather couch.
Commenter ESNY1077–The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical
Foie Gras: the Controversy
Fois gras is a food product made from the liver of ducks or geese that typically have been force-fed with a feeding tube to create a fatty liver. The industry uses male ducks; female chicks are killed by either being tossed alive into a grinder or by gassing or are shipped to other processing plants. In their 100 days of life, the birds go through several stages in the food production cycle. For their last 15-18 days, the birds are force-fed between two to four times a day: workers force a rod down their throat. The ducks stand in metal cages, which restrict their movement. Then they are slaughtered.
Appetite for Ethics
It was beyond my comprehension how anyone, after looking at the evidence, especially the videos, could justify eating a product that creates such misery in these creatures’ lives.
I came across this article, The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical, to look for the answer to my question. Some of the comments praised J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s analysis, claiming that he wrote a well-balanced article. On careful examination, however, I found many flaws in the arguments and reasoning, the first being anecdotal fallacy, which is relying on a personal experience, an isolated example of conditions on the farm. The farm managers expected Lopez-Alt and his team, so they had time to correct any improprieties. Lopez-Alt was neither a trained inspector or biologist. Because Lopez-Alt had “learned to love” foie gras, he may have held prejudicial biases that influenced what he reported or observed.
In order to present a logical argument, the premises and the conclusion must be statements, capable of being true or false. The conclusion must follow from the premises. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt does not put his case into a logical format, so I will make an honest attempt at interpreting his argument:
The physiology of foie is not cruel or tortuous, therefore, the practice of raising ducks or geese for foie gras is ethical. Lopez-Alt makes a further qualification:
Foie gras production should be judged not by the worst farms, but by the best, because those are the ones that I’m going to choose to buy my foie from if at all.
Therefore, refining his argument:
The physiology of foie is not cruel or tortuous, therefore, the practice of raising ducks or geese for foie gras is ethical as practiced at LeBelle Farms.
Let’s check the arguments used in the article.
But video or photographic footage of one badly managed farm or even a thousand badly managed farms does not prove that the production of foie gras, as a practice, is necessarily harmful to the health or mental well-being of a duck.
Since the argument only concerns LeBelle Farm, we would have to throw out this argument. And neither does it prove the opposite: that one plant managed ethically does not prove that foie gras as a practiced at other farms is ethical. Also, we don’t have the specific evidence that only one farm has been accused of cruelty.
Straw Man Arguments
In these statements, Lopez-Alt throws out the straw man. “All cities smelled” before plumbing implies justification of unpleasant odors. “Certainly far better lives than the millions of . . . ” Lopez-Alt diverts the reader’s attention to the treatment of other farm animals. The reader becomes distracted from the original premise by justifying and referring to what the author believes are other standard practices. He argues because “nobody will listen” is reason enough to not confront the problem.
Granted, it did smell—a distinct barnyard aroma with a hint of ammonia (the chicken shed we visited afterwards had a much stronger ammonia smell to it), but as anyone who’s worked on an animal farm will tell you, all farms smell, just as before the introduction of modern plumbing, all cities smelled as well.
We’d seen the process from start to finish, and from all outward appearances, the ducks seem to live perfectly comfortable lives—at least as well as you can expect for any farm animal. Certainly far better lives than the millions of cows and pigs and billions of chickens that are raised every year for our consumption.
Personally, I find this kind of protesting abhorrent. If you are going to protest anything, it should be the industrial production of eggs, where chickens are routinely kept in cages so small that they can’t even turn around for an entire year. The problem, of course, is that you tell people to stop eating cheap eggs, and nobody will listen.
Anthropomorphizing in Reverse
Lopez-Alt inadvertently uses anthropomorphism, as he believes he can interpret the ducks’ experiences in each of these examples.
The facts so far: for at least the first 12 weeks of their lives, these ducks are sitting pretty in a stress-free, spacious environment.
A machine whirls, a small bulge forms where the food is deposited, and the duck walks off, giving its head one shake, but otherwise seemingly unaffected.
First off, the key to understanding this is to make a very conscious effort not to anthropomorphize the animals. As waterfowl, they are distinctly not human, and their physiology differs from ours in a few key ways.
As long as the animal shows no sign of stress or discomfort—and the ducks we saw today certainly did not—then what harm is a few extra pounds?
The stunning [in electrified water] makes for a quick, painless death . . .
Fallacy of Unwarranted Assumption
In the fallacy of unwarranted assumption, the argument’s conclusion is based on a premise which is false. In the following quote, he assumes that because the duck does not struggle, the duck has acquiesced to the treatment because “it is the same type stress in the wild.” He creates an equation: ducks natural behavior to eat heavily before migration = force-feeding. Prior to migration, ducks eat voluntarily until it has enough food for a migration; in the force-feeding case, the duck is gorged with many more feedings than that the bird would typically eat; the two comparisons are completely unequal.
But the question I had was, why aren’t they more uncomfortable? Why doesn’t a duck struggle with its large liver or having a tube forced down its throat? . . . Incredible, right? And that, folks, is the reason why ducks don’t struggle when a feeding tube deposits food in its throat. Its body is built for exactly the same type of stress in the wild.
Do the ducks refuse to struggle because if they resist the process that consequent behavior becomes painful, a behavior they may have adapted through conditioning?
Reductio ad Absurdum Argument
This argument attempts to show that a statement is true by declaring a false or absurd result follows from its denial or acceptance.
It’s a food product that is marketed directly at the affluent, and the rich are always an easy target.
In what way are the rich an easy target? Here the use of the faulty generalization, “thought-terminating cliché,” finishes the debate with the “easy target” phrase.
Amber Defense Fund
Amber is a courageous young woman who exposed the force-feeding processes and saved two geese from their confines. Please consider helping Amber with her legal fees. Because she entered a factory without permission, Amber is facing felony burglary charges and could be sentenced up to seven years in prison. Link.
For me, even one case of animal cruelty is cause for investigation by the animal protective institutions. To witness the conditions in the video is heart wrenching. Is that observation scientific–no. I can conclude, however, the practice of foie gras deprives waterfowl of all of their behaviors that are part of their DNA. Twenty-two countries have banned farming animals for foie gras, but France continues to sanction the industry stating,
French law states that “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.”
To use the reasoning for cultural gastronomical heritage could also justify cannibalism! France has used two red-herring fallacies in one statement: first, red-herring appeal to authority by evoking French law, and second, the appeal to tradition, a conclusion justified because the custom is considered part of their heritage.
Stop Force Feeding
Foie Gras, Force Feeding of Geese and Ducks
Foie Gras: Delicacy of Despair
Video: What’s Wrong with Foie Gras?
Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.