Exposing that Other Big Game: Cannibalism

People were appropriately appalled at recent news that Syrian rebel leader, Abu Sakkar, ate part of a government soldier’s innards in a primitive display of human evil possibly unrivaled on film (aside from those clandestine videos taken in slaughterhouses to expose animal cruelty, or the footage wolf hunters themselves spread around the internet to impress their buddies and sicken wolf-advocates).

Cannibalism, an abhorrent, aberrant act practiced by carnivorous humans in one form or another the world over since the earliest of times (according to archaeological finds), has fallen out of fashion today for all but the most warped, serial killer-types.

In a new, almost apologetic article called Face-to-face with Abu Sakkar, Syria’s ‘heart-eating cannibal,’ BBC’s Paul Wood tells of his meeting with the Hannibal Lecter of the Mid-East (safely restrained in a straightjacket and hockey mask, one would hope)……

It sounded like the most far-fetched propaganda claim – a Syrian rebel commander who cut out the heart of a fallen enemy soldier, and ate it before a cheering crowd of his men. The story turned out to be true in its most important aspect – a ritual demonstration of cannibalism – though when I met the commander, Abu Sakkar, in Syria last week, he seemed hazy on the details.

“I really don’t remember,” he says, when I ask if it was the man’s heart, as reported at the time, or liver, or a piece of lung, as a doctor who saw the video said. He goes on: “I didn’t bite into it. I just held it for show.”

[A quasi-denial reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s bogus, “But I didn’t inhale” defense.]

The video says otherwise. It is one of the most gruesome to emerge from Syria’s civil war. In it, Abu Sakkar stands over an enemy corpse, slicing into the flesh.

“It looks like you’re carving him a Valentine’s heart,” says one of his men, raucously. Abu Sakkar picks up a bloody handful of something and declares: “We will eat your hearts and your livers you soldiers of Bashar the dog.”

Then he brings his hand up to his mouth and his lips close around whatever he is holding. At the time the video was released, in May, we rang him and he confirmed to us that he had indeed taken a ritual bite (of a piece of lung, he said).

Now, meeting him face-to-face, he seems a bit more circumspect, though his anger builds when I ask why he carried out this depraved act.

“I didn’t want to do this. I had to,” he tells me. “We have to terrify the enemy, humiliate them, just as they do to us…”

Before the uprising, he was working as a labourer in Baba Amr. He joined the demonstrations when they started in the spring of 2011. Then, he says, a woman and child were shot dead at a protest. His brother went to help. He, too, was shot and killed.

Abu Sakkar seems unsure how to respond to his notoriety. He is, by turns, sheepish, nervous, angry and bitter. He definitely has the look of a man who has seen too many bad things. At the end of our interview he says he is an “angel of death” coming to cash in the souls of the enemy.

It is possible that Abu Sakkar was mentally disturbed all along. Or perhaps the war made him this way. War damages men – and Syria is no different.

As the poet W H Auden wrote: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”
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Where will it all end?   Eating human organs (whether heart, lung or liver) out of hatred, rage, to steal another’s life force or to terrify one’s enemies, definitely amounts to evil in my book.

With very few exceptions, most animal species don’t eat others of their own kind. (Some species of gulls will scavenge on the remains of another washed up on the beach; on the other hand, wolves may kill wolves from other packs, but will not eat them.) But cannibalism is not such a stretch for a species like Homo sapiens which eats or has eaten everything that creepeth, swimeth or otherwise moveth on the Earth—from snails to whales and everyone in between.

Indeed, if ancient humans had video cameras, Abu Sakkar’s stunt would seem like small potatoes.

As recently as the early 1800s, New Zealand’s Maori people practiced warfare-related cannibalism, such as the type Sakkar resurrected. New Zealand was blissfully human-free until only a thousand years ago. The Maori were the first settlers of the islands, arriving by canoe several centuries before Europeans. Known for practicing cannibalism in the heat of “battle rage,” the Maori made it onto the list of the Top Ten cases of human cannibalism:

In October 1809 a European convict ship was attacked by a large group of Maori warriors in revenge for the mistreatment of a chief’s son. The Maori killed most of the 66 people on board and carried dead and alive victims off the boat and back to shore to be eaten. A few lucky survivors who were able to find a hiding spot inside the mast of the boat were horrified as they watched the Maori devour their shipmates through the night until the next morning.

North of Australia, an anthropologist studying the Mianmin, a mountain-dwelling tribe in Papua New Guinea, witnessed them carrying off the dead of a neighboring tribe, the Atbalmins, after a successful lethal raid and asked them, “Why?” The Mianmins told the scientist they considered them “good meat.” The Atbalmins were outsiders, different from the Mianmins, who thought of them as “game.”
Also in New Guinea, during the 1950s and ’60s, How Stuff Works tells us: anthropologists studying the Fore people of Papua New Guinea documented an outbreak of kuru, a degenerative spongiform brain disease. The Fore contracted the disease by consuming the brain of their relatives as part of a funerary ritual. Kuru, which is the human version of mad cow disease, is highly contagious.

The only reason cows ever acquired “mad cow disease” is that “beef” producers began the capitalistic ritual of grinding up animal flesh and mixing it with their feed to produce a high protein gruel, thus creating unwitting cannibalistic cattle (possibly the only thing more bizarre than human cannibalism itself).

Ted Turner (the T.V mogul, oldies colorizer, big-time bison-flesh-peddler and former hubby to fellow activist Jane Fonda) predicted in 2008 that unless we drastically curb global warming, by 2040 “…none of the crops will grow. Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals,”

Turner also said the population is another problem that must be handled. “We’ve got to stabilize the population,” he told PBS interviewer, Charlie Rose, “We’re too many people. That’s why we have global warming. We have global warming, because too many people are using too much stuff. If there were less people, they’d be using less stuff,” he said.

He also launched verbal offensives against the U.S. war on terror, describing war as senseless and suggesting a cutback in military budgets. “Right now the U.S. is spending $500 billion a year on the military, which is more than all [other] 190 countries in the world put together.

The timing of Turner’s prediction might be a bit off the mark as far as complete crop failure, mass starvation and rampant cannibalism, but one thing’s for certain: as long as people continue to feed their taste for the flesh of others—whether hunted venison, free-range bison, grass-fed beef or factory-farmed pig meat—the thought of moving laterally to include their fellow man in their bill of fare will be much easier to swallow.

It certainly stands to reason that starving humans in future decades might eventually turn to the most numerous flesh foods available—other humans—for survival. But the vegan diet cuts out the middle man (so to speak), allowing for more plants and grains to go to feeding human beings themselves, rather than cows, pigs and chickens. The only solution to avoid a nightmarish future that includes the depravity of cannibalism and is to move beyond the evils of animal exploitation.

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No Life of Pie

Film Review and commentary by Jim Robertson

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Spoiler Alert:

If you haven’t seen the movie, Life of Pi, and you plan to, don’t read this post yet. In discussing what I feel is the story’s theme I will end up revealing some of its major plot points, and I don’t want to spoil the experience just to make a point about ethical veganism…

Still here? Ok, assuming you’ve seen the film (or read the book on which it’s based), you’ll recall that there are essentially three parts to the story, ending with what many critics felt was a disappointing and even unnecessary “alternate” account of events to explain how Pi survived such a long ordeal at sea. Personally, I didn’t find the ending a disappointment, perhaps because I may have been one of the few people who got the message the movie was trying to make. After reading dozens of reviews fawning over the special effects (the computer generated middle act was indeed amazing) and decrying the ending, I found only one review that saw it the way I did: the “alternate” story (told by Pi to a pair of Japanese Ministry of Transport officials) was really what happened.

Now, you might be thinking, why does it matter; why ruin a fun thing (especially when it looked so astounding through 3-D glasses, so I hear)? To answer that, I’m going to try to make a long story short and hit its key points (many of which were completely missed by most mainstream film critics, and movie-goers).

The film starts off with an introductory act in which we learn about the early life of the main character, Pi, through a series of flashbacks as told to a visiting writer who wants to write his biography. We are told that Pi spent his childhood trying many of the world’s religions on for size, hoping to get to know God (his atheist father tells him, “You only need to convert to three more religions, Pi, and you’ll spend your life on holiday.”) At one point he jokes that as a Catholic Hindu, “We get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods, instead of just one.”

Of note is the fact that Pi is an ethical vegetarian. He’s also fascinated by a tiger (named Richard Parker, after its captor) stuck in a zoo owned by his father. When Pi is caught trying to befriend the captive tiger, his father decides to teach him a lesson by making him watch Richard Parker kill a goat, thus instilling a morbid fear of tigers in the curious boy.

The movie’s second act begins after it’s revealed that the zoo must close and the father decides to move the animals, and his family, by ocean-going freighter across the Pacific from India to Canada. En-route, the ship is swallowed up in a massive typhoon and Pi—according to the version of the story he is telling the writer, as we witness it—is the only human to make it onto a life raft. Somehow some of the zoo animals  must have escaped their pens in the ship’s hold, and he finds himself adrift with only an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker—the 500 pound Bengal tiger—for company.

It’s during this portion of the movie that viewers are drawn in by its startling special effects; and it’s also when the main character learns that sometimes the world is no life of pie (my interpretation of the title, as a play on the expression “easy as Pie”).

Driven  by hunger, the hyena soon feeds on the zebra and, as it turns on the orangutan, Richard Parker rushes out from under the lifeboat’s only cover (where he has stayed out of sight until now) and quickly dispatches the hyena. This chain of events is essential to the plot since, skipping ahead to the third act, it mirrors Pi’s “alternate” story: substitute the zebra for a deckhand, the orangutan for his mother, the hyena for the cook and Richard Parker for Pi’s alter-ego.

The symbolism here is that after witnessing the cook kill his mother, Pi summons his tiger-inner-self to kill the cook. And eat him. That’s right, to survive his 227 days at sea, Pi had to turn to cannibalism. Incredibly, though it’s critical to the story’s theme, nearly none of the film reviews I read even mentioned cannibalism, since most critics didn’t realize that the second “alternative” version of Pi’s plight was what must have actually happened. I thought it was pretty obvious when an adult Pi asked the writer, “So which story do you prefer?” to which the writer answered: “The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.”And so it goes with God” was Pi’s reply, meaning that, people believe what they want to believe. In order to cope with the sometimes harsh realities of life and death, in this case, resorting to cannibalism for sustenance—and still retain one’s sanity—people often cling to a fantasy world and make up stories which are easier to stomach.

Life of Pi is more than just a happy little special-effects film about a vegetarian boy and a computer-generated, 3-D tiger surviving on computer-generated, 3-D tuna and flying fish. It’s about the kind of anguish any sane person would go through when forced to eat the flesh of another human being. Perhaps the reason I could more easily relate to the story’s deeper meaning (that so many carnivorous critics failed to see) is because, having eaten only plant-based food for the past decade and a half, I feel that same sick revulsion every time I pass the meat isle in the neighborhood grocery store and imagine people actually consuming the flesh so brazenly displayed there.

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All Meat Is the Product of Cruelty and Exploitation

A German serial killer, Fritz Haarmann, known as the “Butcher of Hanover,” cut his victims’ bodies into strips of flesh and sold them as pork. Here in North America, third-generation Canadian pig farmer and serial killer of 49 women, Robert Pickton, ground the bodies of his victims into sausage and sold it in packages or gave it out to friends.

While it’s appalling that folks who acquired meat from Pickton may have ingested human flesh, it is equally unsettling that they didn’t notice. To the taste buds it seems meat is meat. This tragedy was just one of many recent incidents that should make people rethink their carnivorous ways.

On a related note, according to an article by Cindi Avila with NBC News, Whole Foods admitted to accidentally reversing labels on two salads sold at its stores, a curried chicken salad and a vegan version called curried “chick’n” salad, last Tuesday and Wednesday at some 15 of its locations in the Northeast (including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York). “The switched labels means it is highly likely someone who made a conscious choice not to eat animal products wound up doing so, through no fault of their own.”

To the ethical vegetarians who inadvertently ingested chicken flesh, the stomach-churning physical response of revulsion was on par with those of the pork-eaters who learned they’d cannibalized. Now, you might be asking yourself, “How can anyone compare eating chicken or pork to cannibalizing human flesh?”

The NBC article makes the clarifying point, “It may be hard for meat-eaters to understand, but this is a way of life that simply doesn’t involve compromise or mistakes. That’s especially the case for those of us who are vegetarian or vegan because of animal-welfare reasons or those who choose this for religious reasons.”

Pigs, like humans, cows and chickens, are capable of experiencing joy, affection, and pleasure. However, on hog farms, they are treated like unfeeling machines, confined in tiny stalls and fed growth-accelerating drugs that often cause lameness. Their teeth are cut with pliers, and their tails are cut off-without anesthetic. At the slaughterhouse, they are hung upside down and bled to death-often while they are fully conscious. Whether flesh comes from the victim of a serial killer or from a pig, a cow, or a chicken, it is the product of cruelty toward a thinking, feeling being who experiences pain and fear and wants to live free of exploitation.

In light of all this, why are people still eating meat? One common answer goes something like this: “I’m a human—superior to other beings—I’m entitled.” But a sense of entitlement is one of the trademark rationalizations that serial killers use to justify their wrongdoings, and grandiosity is also symptomatic of psychopathy, according to Canadian psychologist and author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. Other symptoms outlined on Dr. Hare’s “psychopathy checklist,” such as shallow emotions and a lack of empathy or remorse, aid the killer—or meat-eater—in disregarding the suffering of his or her victims.

Psychopathic serial killers objectify their victims and consider their victims’ self-interests insignificant. The same rationale is called into play when one thinks of pigs only as “pork,” cows as “beef,” or chickens as “poultry,” without thought of the individuals or their suffering.

Both Canada and the U.S. have had recent cases of mad cow disease. As a result, we saw news footage of downer cows, too sick to walk, being dragged by chains into slaughterhouses. Press coverage of avian flu outbreaks reveal the intensely overcrowded conditions of chickens on factory farms-tens of thousands of animals cooped up in their own filth, each with less space than a standard sheet of typing paper. Besides being warned of health risks, consumers are finally learning about some of the cruelties endured by the animals they know only as “roasts” or “drumsticks.”

It is never too late to examine our actions and re-evaluate our food choices accordingly. By respecting the interests of all sentient beings, we are not akin to the conscienceless killers that plague our society. The only way to ensure that you are not supporting grotesque violence and cruelty against animals, or benefiting from their suffering, is to adopt a plant-based diet.

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Remember, Tuesday Is Soylent Green Day

As with Christmas, Thanksgiving has become a rather hedonistic holiday these days. You’d have to pin your ears back, with empty cornucopias held tightly against them, to hear even a faint reference to the giving of thanks through the din of loud chatter about seemingly more important things like football, where to get the best deals on Black Friday, or how to deep fry a turkey. But any thanks you heard would be to “the lord above,” rather than to the victims of the decadent feast.

Completely lost in the hype of “tradition” and “Turkey-day” is any mention of giving even a passing “thank you” to the birds who suffered more indignities than space would allow me to mention here. Indignities that include the fact that turkeys on factory farms receive less than three square feet of personal space. And after they hatch, their beaks are cut off—a standard practice for chickens as well. No anesthesia or painkiller is used for either species. This process, which is known as “debeaking”, has been compared to having the ends of your fingers sliced off. It deprives birds of one of their most important sources of sensory input.

A debeaked bird cannot eat properly or explore his or her environment fully, nor can they preen themselves or their flockmates.  They may also experience acute and chronic pain in their beak, head, and face. In addition to being debeaked, turkeys also have the ends of their toes and their snoods cut off, often with nothing more than a pair of scissors (and as with debeaking, performed without anesthesia).

According to Liberation BC, both chickens and turkeys on modern factory farms have been genetically engineered and pumped with antibiotics; as a result they grow much faster than ever before. For example, in the 1960′s, it took a turkey 32 weeks to reach slaughter size, but now it takes only 13-16 weeks. In the 1950’s, it took a chicken 84 days to reach five pounds. Today, it takes 45 days, meaning that they are not even old enough to cluck yet when they die.

And PETA adds, their unnaturally large size also causes many turkeys to die from organ failure or heart attacks before they are even 6 months old. According to an investigative report in the Wall Street Journal on the miserable conditions on turkey farms, “It’s common in a rearing house to find a dead bird surrounded by four others whose hearts failed after they watched the first one ‘fall back and go into convulsions, with its wings flapping wildly.

Factory farm operators walk through the shed to kill the slow-growing turkeys (so that they don’t eat any more food), such as those who fall ill because of the filthy conditions or become crippled under their own weight.

In Canada, turkeys and chickens can legally be transported for up to 36 hours without food, water, or rest, and there are no limits as to the length of the journey. They are transported in open-air crates, resulting in high mortality as the birds are exposed to all sorts of weather.  Each bird is worth so little, however, that it is cheaper overall for the industry to use open-air crates.  Every year in Canada, 2 million broiler chickens and 20,000 turkeys are already dead when they arrive at slaughterhouses.  An additional 8 million broiler chickens and 200,000 turkeys arrive so diseased or injured that they are considered “unfit for human consumption”.

The surviving birds are handled roughly at the slaughterhouse, where they are unloaded by forklift and dropped onto a conveyor belt. With thousands of birds to be processed every hour, there is no reason for employees to stop and pick up the individual birds who miss the belt and fall to the ground.

When it comes time to slaughter the birds, they are hung by their feet on a moving rail and dragged through the stunning tank, an electrified water bath meant to stun and immobilize them. These are often set lower than is necessary to truly render the birds unconscious out of concerns that high voltage might damage the carcass and therefore diminish its value.

They are then carried past the tank to have their throats cut either by a mechanical blade or a plant employee. Often, struggling birds are cut improperly. As a result they are moved, fully conscious, to the scalding tank, where they are boiled alive.  Estimates place the number of affected birds at about one in twenty; at any rate, this occurrence is so common that the industry has a term for it: “redskins.”   …

Clearly, nobody gives much in the way of thanks to the “most important guest” at the table (as a recent Safeway ad described the turkey carcasses they were selling). You’d be damned lucky to overhear even a cursory mention of the miserable existence their edible “guest” underwent prior to the killing and plucking process. There is scarcely a sign that the hundreds of millions of Americans who gorge on the bodies of 45 million turkeys each year give a whit about whether these amazing and impressive birds had—prior to “harvest”—a life that allowed even a modicum of the freedom they would have experienced before the grossly over-populated human world made them their food-slaves.

Appropriately, I watched the timeless 1970s movie Soylent Green last night. Set in 2022, the film opens with a slide show of earlier eras, back when the Earth was covered with forests and open fields, and there were only a few scattered settlements of people who travelled in horse-drawn wagons.

As the images pass quickly by, we see the first automobiles (tail pipes spewing toxic carbon gases), followed by a massive blacktop parking lot jam packed with Model Ts. The pictures begin to flash almost more rapidly than we can focus, but we catch glimpses of factories with smokestacks billowing and crowds of people barely able to

move without trampling one another. (Come to think of it, what we are witnessing looks a lot like the inside of an average modern-day poultry barn, where Thanksgiving turkeys are forced to live out their lives in intense confinement.)

The first scene of action takes place in a cramped little New York City apartment, the dwelling of the film’s two main characters, Thorn, a semi-corrupt detective, and his elderly room-mate and research partner, Sol, who is constantly going on about the good old days—a world that Thorn can’t possibly envision or relate to.

They are among the lucky few; most people sleep on the stairways or in the hallways or anywhere they can find shelter from the oppressive heat caused by an out of control greenhouse effect. We overhear a program on their worn out old TV which is an interview with the governor of New York, touting a new food product called “Soylent Green,” ostensibly made from the ocean’s plankton. (Everyone in that day and age knows that the land is used up, but they’re told the oceans can still provide for them).

Food in this depressing, human-ravaged world comes in the form of color-coded wafers, distributed under strict government supervision. Hordes of people stand in line for their ration of Soylent yellow or blue made from soy, or other high protein plants grown behind the fortress-walls of heavily guarded farms.

Signs remind the throng that “Tuesday is Soylent Green day.”

The multitudes are exceptionally unruly on Tuesday. Brimming with anticipation, they can’t wait to obtain a ration of the special new product. When they get out of hand, “scoops” (garbage trucks fitted with backhoe-like buckets on the front) are called in to scoop them up and haul them off…

Spoiler Alert:

To make a long story short, by the end of the film, Thorn learns that the oceans are dead and the actual ingredients of Soylent Green are something a bit harder to stomach than plankton. In the final scene, a mortally-wounded Thorn is carried away on a stretcher as he desperately tries to tell skeptical onlookers, “Soylent Green is People!” “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing, they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food!”

Could it ever happen? Could the human race ever stoop so low? If the scenario seems too hard to swallow­, consider this: the conditions animals are forced to endure on today’s factory farms would have seemed unimaginable to people living a hundred years ago.

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Nature, Nurture or a Blow to the Head?

Johnny Depp has been quoted as saying, “You can close your eyes to the things you don’t want to see, but you can’t close your heart to the things you don’t want to feel.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be true for everyone. Some people can be taught to close their hearts as well, as this quote from a former animal-lover-turned-trophy-hunter illustrates: 

“You see, I didn’t grow up hunting and because I loved animals, I never wanted to hunt them. Any stray cat or dog simply became my new best friend. Any wounded animals became my patients, and if any of our animals looked cold in the winter, I would always ask my mom if we had any old coats or shirts that I could lay outside for them to curl up on. ….Dating Scot was a good thing back then, he taught me about hunting, trapping and conservation. He gave me all of the correct information I needed to understand how it was done…”  

Conservation by killing? Now that’s a funny way to express a “love” for animals. Heaven help any stray cat, dog or wounded creature she comes across now that she’s armed with a new understanding of “conservation” tactics. Not to underestimate her hunter boyfriend’s powers of persuasion (read: manipulation, domination and control) but there must also be some sort of shut-off mechanism involved to aid people who care about animals but want to fit into a society that decidedly does not—a society that in fact was built on, and continues to thrive on, animal exploitation. 

It’s a story that has played out over and over and over again throughout human history. Certainly the 4H club has “taught” a lot of caring young kids not to be “sentimental” about the pigs, cows, chickens and rabbits they lovingly raised when it comes time to send them to slaughter. 

Pigs are one of the smartest animals to grace the earth and have nearly hairless bodies, features that should help people relate to them (especially in this age of shaved heads and waxed backs), yet they are objectified more than almost any other living being. They’re even sold and roasted with their head still attached. How many young people in cannibalistic societies over the ages were put off at their first sight of a human on a spit? Chances are they could empathize with the person being slow-roasted over a bed of coals, but they were taught to objectify the victim as an “other” and therefore not worthy of their sympathy. 

Some psychopaths were simply born without a conscience; some may have lost the use of that part of their brain after a severe blow to the head. But many actually learn to shut off their emotions, their natural reactions, to adapt to a violent or abusive household—or simply to get ahead in the world. A number of psychopathic serial killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, grew up around pets, but eventually used them as victims to practice empathy-blocking techniques and hone their skills as callous killers. 

Thankfully, humanity has moved beyond cannibalism (aside from the five freak cases that cropped up during the last six days of May, of course). But as long as society condones killing and eating animals, people remain only a half a step away from likes of Dahmer or Luka Rocco Magnotta.