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Killing Animals for Self-Improvement

How to evaluate Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge

By Michael Mountain

Two years ago, he pledged to wear a tie, last year to learn Mandarin Chinese … and this year to personally kill the animals who are going to be on his dinner plate. What are we to make of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement to the world?

Zuckerberg is not the first person to say that if you’re going to eat meat, you ought to know what it’s like to kill the animal. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a major critic of the food industry, eats meat sparingly and, as part of writing his book, learned to go hunting (as Zuckerberg plans to do) in order to understand what it means to kill animals for food.

Zuckerberg probably won’t be killing that many animals; he’s already part vegetarian. So give him credit for at least thinking about the animals he eats. But there are some problems with what he’s doing: with the logic as well as with the message he’s sending when he talks about it.

In his announcement, in an interview with Fortune magazine, Zuckerberg said that his first victim was a lobster, whom he boiled alive.

“The most interesting thing,” he said, “was how special it felt to eat it after having not eaten any seafood or meat in a while.”

I boiled a lobster once, too, when I was young. Growing up in England, it was quite normal for people to buy lobsters and boil them alive, so I was there in the kitchen one day, joining in the dinner preparations. I’d agree with Zuckerberg that it felt special, but not in a good way. The thing that felt wrong about it was that I knew my life didn’t depend on the lobster, but that the lobster’s life did indeed depend on me. And even though I was only 8 or 9 years old and it would still be many years before I stopped eating animals, killing that animal set off a yellow light for me.

Zuckerberg is a lot older than I was. He’s a public figure, and a wealthy and sophisticated one. Anything he says goes viral and worldwide. So the interview with Fortune was instantly reported around the world. He knows this, and he clearly wants as many people as possible to know what he’s doing.

But what exactly is the message he’s sending? Is it that killing animals makes for an interesting personal exploration in the same category as putting on a necktie or learning Chinese? If so, has he questioned the ethics of making other sentient creatures part of his personal growth experiment?

Or is he suggesting that we should all have this kind of experience with the animals we eat? That would involve millions of city apartment-dwellers heading out into the wild with weapons to bag a deer after studying up on Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Or visiting farms and lining up to kill pigs. And then doing what with them? Butchering them on the kitchen floor? (According to one butcher, Zuckerberg pulled up to her shop with a slaughtered hog in the trunk of his Lexus.)

If, on the other hand, it’s about becoming more sensitive to other living creatures, especially when, like him, you have the means to live any lifestyle you choose, wouldn’t the obvious commitment be to spare the animals and go vegan, as many other of the super-rich have done before him?

Incidentally, what’s Zuckerberg going to be doing about dairy foods? Dairy cows probably suffer more in factory farms than any other kind of animal. To be consistent, is he personally going to be keeping a cow pregnant so that she can deliver calves in order to keep lactating so he can have milk and cheese? If so, has he considered what will happen to the calves? Will he kill them, turn them over to the veal industry, or what?

We can’t all kill the animals we want to eat. We’re not hunter-gatherers any more. And having someone bring you a goat or a pig so you can slit their throat and take them to the butcher so you can have a slice for dinner is not an authentic experience of being part of nature.

If you want to develop some empathy for farm animals in today’s world, there’s one obvious way to go: stop eating them. To announce that you’re going vegan for a year would have carried many valuable messages: about kindness to animals, about a healthy lifestyle free of heart disease and type-two diabetes, and about how to feed a human population that’s already growing beyond what the planet can sustain.

When you become a public figure, you’re setting an example with everything you say or do. Killing animals for one’s personal growth is not setting an example that’s of any value to any of us.

What do you say? What do you think of Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.