[As printed in the Taranaki Daily Times, 16 August]
In his story on the growing rural urban divide, Matt Rilkoff explored just one side of the story (Rural-urban worlds apart, Taranaki Daily Times, 16 August). While it is true that urban populations are now out of touch with where their food comes from, he missed out another part of the equation: rural communities are themselves in danger of losing touch with new social realities, causing inevitable confusion.
The macabre ‘‘possum dress-ups’’ fundraising event was reported internationally, with accompanying photos, and did not display rural life in a good light – the consequent backlash was an honest reaction by many to images that were truly objectionable.
Besides the lack of any respect shown to the dead animals, what was also disturbing afterwards was the apparent lack of self-awareness by the school management once it hit the headlines. There seemed to be no realisation that there might have been any misjudgment. Some basic self-reflection skills seemed to be missing on this occasion, skills which should be essential in any educational environment.
Physical isolation should not mean cultural isolation, and schools should not encourage insularity – while needing to reflect the needs of the immediate community, the school also has a duty to prepare their youngsters for the world.
Science catches up with common sense
And the world is moving on. Social values do not remain static, and the way we regard animals is evolving as fast as any new technology.
Modern science is reporting almost daily examples that show animals have more to teach us alive than dead. All animals have behavioural and psychological needs as much as physical needs. They are intelligent, have emotions and have complex social behaviours. In fact, scientists are discovering that we really don’t know much about our fellow beings on this earth.
Animals feel pain and suffer, and violence to animals is not different to any other kind of violence. Increasingly studies are pointing to the connection between animal abuse and other violent acts.
It is easy to accuse city folk of anthropomorphism, to say we give human traits to our pets, but this is a cheap shot. Animals are individuals with their own personalities and, as anyone with a companion animal will tell you, this is just common sense. Scientists are just now catching up with our common sense.
In the ‘‘rural-urban divide’’ it is farmers who are growing out of touch with common sense. They are also growing out of touch with their customers.
Farmers are out of touch
The majority of the population live in urban environments, and it is up to producers to reach out. Concern for animal welfare is only going to increase, much like the environmental issues that now dominate public discourse.
I strongly encourage farmers to tell their own stories, to talk about the good work being done, and give examples. Farmers themselves need to explain the ‘‘realities of rural production’’.
If there is a disconnect between city and country then it is because these stories are not being told. And there is in fact a good reason why farmers may not want them told: the reality is often not clean and green, or kind and respectful, and in fact the more city folk realise what is actually happening down on the farm the bigger the chance of backlash.
It is not so easy to be both ‘‘caring and practical’’ when it comes to animals – there can be a conflict between the two, and when the bills need to be paid, ‘‘caring’’ can get in the way.
Is the wider public ready to watch images of bobby calves being pulled from their mothers and sent to slaughter at five days old so we can drink their mothers’ milk? Or to vie
w one-day-old male chicks getting chopped up in macerators, because they are deemed waste products in the egg industry?
There are dark corners within New Zealand farming, and the worst example is the growth of factory farming. These are legal acts of cruelty, practices such as the use of cages for layer hens; the selective breeding of chickens raised for meat, turning them into genetic freaks; and the continued barren confinement of pigs.
Attitudes may have moved on, but we still live with the production systems designed in previous decades. In factory farming animals are manipulated physically, sexually, and genetically, for our economic purposes.
A new relationship
This week in his release of the Government’s animal welfare strategy document, Minister for Primary Industries David Carter said, “Animal welfare matters. It matters because how we treat animals says something important about us as a society.” Animal welfare is something integral to ourselves as New Zealanders.
We are a first-world nation thanks to animal agriculture, there’s no denying that. Britain became a powerful empire on the back of the slave trade too. But at certain times in our history there are opportunities to redefine ourselves, and I look forward to the day when New Zealand redefines its relationship with animals.
Eliot Pryor, SAFE Campaign director