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Rat-ling The Cage: The Ethical Dilemmas Of Our Food Systems

Yet another ratty story has emerged of a rat foot allegedly found in a loaf of garlic bread in a supermarket in Aotearoa New Zealand (hereafter Aotearoa). I know this may sound somewhat glib, but is anyone thinking of the rats? They are getting bad press here in Aotearoa – and through no fault of their own.

Another appalling allegation is that this foot was fed to a 10-month-old baby. I do appreciate how traumatising this must have been for the mother.

Then again, the rat foot looks alarmingly tragic with an exposed bit of joint and cartilage ripped from the foot. There is even a bit of remaining grey hair. Poor rat.

Rats also came under scrutiny at Countdown in Dunedin recently where they had to close for weeks while the situation was dealt with (in other words the rats were exterminated).

Exactly how rats are killed is a bit elusive but involves poison bait and traps. None of these methods sounds pleasant for the rats. Poison is particularly cruel. It prevents the rat’s blood clotting so that the body can’t produce vitamin K. Once rats run out of vitamin K they die.

Many people couldn’t care less about the suffering of rats. They are considered ‘pests’ and as such their suffering is inconsequential. Yet they are still sentient animals – and in my view this trumps their ‘pest’ status. Rats, despite being typically intelligent and curious, are often give the least amount of care and thought toward their wellbeing of any species.

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I believe we should consider the suffering of all animals, including rats. Rats have feelings too. A book entitled ‘Mama’s Last Hug’ by Frans de Waal makes this case. Rats faces express joy when they are tickled.

Yet rats are widely hated because of their association with spreading disease among humans and we forget their sentience. I don’t want rats in my food either – but neither do I condone their suffering.

We label rats ‘pests’ in Aotearoa alongside possums, stoats, ‘feral’ cats, goats, rabbits and some bird species. These animals are demonised and given little consideration.

Possums are right up there with despised animals in Aotearoa. Cruelty toward possums is considered a national pastime, with these animals the focus of school possum hunts. At one school possum hunt baby possums were taken from their dead mother’s pouch and drowned by children.

Other animals receive more empathy. Take sparrows for example. These lovely chirpy little birds with their tilting heads and hopping movements often generate a feeling of warmth from us. Consumers in Aotearoa were reportedly outraged by poisoned sparrows struggling for life and looking “very unwell” outside an Auckland bakery. It's called the 'bambi effect'. The cuteness of some species of animals causes people to object to their killing.

Sparrow at a café in the South Island Aotearoa (photo credit: Lynley Tulloch)

Not a whisper of concern for the rats though. And many people objecting will go into the bakery and have a chicken sandwich.

Turns out that in the interests of health and safety these little chirpy sparrows are routinely killed in businesses that handle human food. I find that fact hard to handle actually - and not just because of the bambi effect. I don't believe in mass poisoning of any animals - it is cruel.

Poisoning of birds involves poisons called avicides. The sparrows go into various stages of paralysis. The poison used is called alphacholoralose. Birds will flap around and convulse as their body temperature lowers. The distributors and manufacturers of this poison say that the birds will just peacefully go into a coma and die, but I remain unconvinced. Lest these birds survive the poisoning they can be collected and ‘humanely disposed’ of.

Discussion of this in the media focused on the 'there is no alternative' discourse. Accordingly, if you object to this treatment, think about whether you would like bird faeces on your sandwich - because that is the only alternative.

I find it somewhat alarming that humans, despite having co-habited (I use that term loosely) with other species for thousands of years, have not moved beyond subjecting them to torture. And that they see this torture as 'the only alternative'.

I do understand the human health implications of rats and sparrows in our food system. I do appreciate there is no easy answer. But I do have an issue with our food system which is at the root of all this pain and killing.

It is our food system that needs altering, and not the poor animals who find themselves caught up in it. 

Our current food system is based on the production of mass food, much of which is unnecessary and harmful to our health and the environment. We use pesticides and herbicides on a global scale to keep the lines of production moving.

Our identities as humans have now become that of the ‘consumer’ who expects certain standards to be upheld – with marginal consideration to the effect on the animals caught up in it.

It’s not just rats and sparrows. There are also chickens, pigs, cows, goats and sheep subject to our systems of torture. In Aotearoa we use vast tracts of what once was native bushland to raise these animals.

We then electrocute the chickens to death; separate calf from cow and take the milk meant for the calf’; stun cows with a bolt gun (including pregnant cows) and slit their throats; confine pigs and chickens to tiny pens and cages with no chance of ever seeing sunlight; eat the chickens eggs; and transport terrified animals in smelly hot trucks to their deaths.

We do this daily. We do it year after year. We keep doing it.

We eat the legs of lambs before they have finished their youthly springing. We take kids of mother goats and kill them by bashing their skulls.

And then we only consider our rights as humans and consumers.

So back to the rat and its poor foot. I have empathy for the rat. And I hope that as a society we can all feel empathy for the rat. I hope we can begin to reconsider the root of all this pain and killing and suffering.

I hope we can change our interactions with non-human species in a way that is based on kindness and compassion and not hatred, dominance and fear.

Ethical consumption where one tries to minimise harm and suffering is one way to personally make a stand. Veganism is one such option. I am an ethical vegan. This involves the non-consumption of any products that are based on animal exploitation.

Veganism is definitely not fool-proof as many animals will suffer in our current food production system regardless of whether the food is vegan or not. The rat is one such example. The sparrows another.

Yet, all things being equal, veganism will undoubtedly reduce animal suffering significantly if the ethics behind it were used to guide our global food production system.

While that is still a ‘vegan pie in the sky’ dream, I remain committed to it on a personal level.

On a societal level we need to do so much better in our attitude toward animals that share this planet with us.

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