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From the Prologue: THE CAT

A few years ago, the Home Box Office network aired a program entitled “To Love or Kill: Man vs. Animals.” It told a fascinating and, at the same time, a disturbing story about how different cultures treat the same animals differently. One especially chilling segment took viewers out to dinner in a small Chinese village. You know how, in some American restaurants, patrons get to choose from among live lobsters or live fish?

And how, after they make their selection, the animal is killed, and the chef cooks a meal of their choice? At this Chinese restaurant, things are the same except the menu is different. At this restaurant, patrons get to select from among live cats and dogs.

The video takes its time. First we see the hungry patrons inspect the cats and dogs, jammed cheek by jowl into wooden cages; next we see them talk it over; then we see them make their selection; finally we see the cook, using long metal tongs, yank a white fluffy cat from her cage and hurry into the kitchen. What follows does not make for pleasant reading, so feel free to skip the next paragraph.

While the cat claws and screeches, the cook hits her several times with an iron bar. Clawing and screeching more now, she is abruptly submerged in a tub of scalding water for about ten seconds. Once removed, and while still alive, the cook skins her, from head to tail, in one swift pull. He then throws the traumatized animal into a large stone vat where (as the camera zooms in) we watch her gulp slowly, with increasing difficulty, her eyes glazed, until — her last breath taken — she drowns. The whole episode, from selection to final breath, takes several minutes. When the meal is served, the diners eat heartily, offering thanks and praise to the cook.
I have never been more stunned in my life. I was literally speechless. Like most Americans, I already knew that some people in China, Korea, and other countries eat cat and eat dog. The video didn’t teach me any new fact about dietary customs. What was new for me, what pushed me back in my chair, was seeing how this is done, seeing the process. Watching the awful shock and suffering of the cat was devastating. I felt a mix of disbelief and anger welling-up in my chest. I wanted to scream, “Stop it! What are you doing? Stop it!”

But what made matters worse, at least for me, was how the people behaved. For them, everything was just so ordinary, just so ho-hum, just so matter-of-fact. The diners said, “We’ll have this cat for our dinner” the way we say, “We’ll have this roll with our coffee.” And the cook? The cook could not have cared less about the cat’s ordeal. The poor animal might just as well have been a block of wood as far as he was concerned. I have never seen people behave so nonchalantly, so comfortably, so indifferently in the face of an animal’s suffering and death. I don’t think many Americans could watch this episode and not ask themselves, as I asked myself, “What is this world coming to?”

VARIATIONS

In the years since I first saw “To Love or Kill,” I have imagined different variations of the episode I have just described. First variation: Everything is the same as in the original video except the dogs and cats are housed in large cages rather than jammed together. I ask myself, “Would making their cages larger make a difference in my thinking? Would I say, ‘Well, since the cat lived in a larger cage, I no longer object to what happened to her?” My answer is always the same. I would still object to what happened to her.

Second variation: In addition to living in a larger cage, the cook handles the cat gently and ends her life by giving her a shot of sodium pentobarbital, from which, to all appearances, she dies peacefully. Aside from these changes, everything else in the video remains the same. I ask myself the same kinds of question. “Would these changes make a difference in my thinking? Would I say, ‘Well, since the cat lived in a larger cage, was treated gently, and died peacefully, I no longer object to what happened to her?” My answer is always the same. I would still object to what happened to her.

Does this mean that I think these imaginary variations are just as bad as the original? No. Larger cages are better than smaller cages. Gentle treatment is better than violent treatment. Nevertheless, when that fluffy white cat is killed and skinned for dinner, even if she had lived in a larger cage and was killed without undue suffering, I would still want to shout (or at least plead), “Stop it! What are you doing? Stop it!” I cannot help thinking that the vast majority of people throughout the world, including many Chinese and Koreans, would agree with me.

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