‘I want to take you to see something special tomorrow morning. It does not always happen, so I think you should see. But just to get you prepared, it will be a bit gruesome.’ My friend said to me in the second evening when I was in his farm in Northern Namibia, and that was all he told me.
We had our simple breakfast the next morning, then we sat quietly at the verandah of his farm lodge, my friend flipping through a magazine published for the hunting community, I gazing at the vast expanse of vegetation and the clear sky, feeling amazed at how quickly the sun had baked the land at this early hour. My friend passed me the magazine, showing me pages full of photos with zebras taken in the wild, illustrating the differences of the sub-species of this animal in Southern Africa. I looked hard at the photos side by side, as if in a ‘spot the difference’ game, and was stunned by how tiny the differences are between the sub-species, those slight variations of the stripe patterns, and even more, the almost unnoticeable differences of the body shape and size between a stallion and a mare. I tried to remember the details, though, as I was expecting to spot them in the nature reserve a few days later. I would love to identify the species in the wild, like a pro. Then I turned overleaf. The article went on to offer tips to readers, with photo illustrations, which body parts of a zebra are considered best to aim at for a perfect shot when they are spotted in the wild.
The telephone rang. ‘The auction is over. Let’s go’, my friend said. We drove on the dirt paths that seemed to snake randomly in the farm, spotting a family of ostriches, a herd of springboks and a few oryxes along the way. Crossing the flimsy barriers that outlined the border of the farm, we stopped in front of a large square enclosure fenced with thin wires. Inside the enclosure, a few farm workers were busily loading a slumped, lifeless mass onto a pickup truck. The dead body was so big that the truck bed could not hold it completely, and a part of it dangled in the air. Not far from the truck, two beasts of the same tone of brown fur were pacing around. Neither did the two care to cast an eye on the bustle taking place, nor did they seem to notice the huge blotch of warm crimson freshly splashed on the dirt.
The loaded truck drove away. The foreman came to greet us. ‘Sorry we had to start earlier because that one was a bit agitated. When the truck came back, we would work on the other two.’ My friend took me to wait a little away from the pen, and helped me ask the worker things about the cattle just being taken away, like, what species he was, about how old he was and how much he approximately weighed, all in past tense.
The truck returned. It was pulled up a hundred meters away from the fence outside one corner of the enclosure. With a few turns of the steering wheel, the driver skillfully adjusted the position of the truck. When he stopped and reappeared through the car’s side window, he stood with his upper body tucking out, a rival in his hand. Without a juggle, he aimed and shot, an action that was clean, swift, cool. Diagonally inside the pen, a massive body slumped, the motion heavy, slow, clumsy. After a few jerks that lasted no more than a few seconds, the animal abandoned to struggle.
The same bustle with handling the dead body took place. There remained a lone cattle in the pen. Just as when his first peer left him, he did not show a hint of surprise when the second one suddenly fell. He continued to pace around in the pen leisurely. At some point he went close to the fence, where I was standing. With a fence between us, we stared at each other. A long long stare. I did not know what he was thinking, nor did I know what I should be thinking. I did remember, though, to do one particular thing – I searched his eyes, trying to find a shadow of tears. As my mother used to tell me, the legend goes that cattle is a kind of spiritual animals. Many of them can feel and have the sense to know when they have to meet their fate. Then when the time comes, they have tears in their eyes.
I did not find a pair of wetting eyes on this cattle. Losing interest on me, he turned his head and paced away. I was almost glad when I was released from his fixating gaze, the gaze of an innocent prisoner on death row.
I was expecting this last survivor’s life could linger a little longer while the workers were handling the second dead body. But they decided not to take the pain to lift the body to the truck right away. They left it there. So it did not take long when the last death bell tolled. In spite of the bloodshed that took place before him, the last survivor seemed not to be aware of anything when a bullet shot him in the neck. One split second ago he was still pacing his own leisurely pace, the next he jerked, and the next, he dropped dead.
We did not wait until they loaded the two bodies. We drove back to the lodge. On the way back, I thanked my friend for letting me see the slaughter. ‘It is not something I saw in documentaries. Today I see it first-hand.’ I said, There was a lot of food for thought, but I could not make out how I should think about it right away.
‘This is exactly why I want you to see it,’ he said. ‘As a farmer and a worker in the trade, I am a person who can say a lot about animal rights.’ But he said no more. He let me decide for myself on what to think of this whole affair.
I have been striving to maintain a predominately plant-based diet for a few years. I am concerned about the environmental issues on meat consumption – the disproportionate drain of natural resources to support animal farming, the CO2 emission, etc. With empathy, I want to avoid as far as possible the killing and suffering of animals for the sake of my own indulgence. From documentaries, I learnt about the inhumane side of factory-farming, where animals are kept in such tiny sheds that they can hardly move or see sunlight all their lives, and they are fed with antibiotics and unnatural grains to make them grow meaty. Sometimes they are slaughtered with a slit of throats while they are still conscious. Our meat consumption promotes animal abuse.
Then I recalled the last few seconds before the two cattle became motionless. I might not be able to say that the process was painless; but definitely it ended quickly. One shot in the neck, a few jerks, that was it. In my friend’s farm, all their lives these cattle roam freely on the grass. They can eat as much as they like. Not a single day are they trapped and deprived of their freedom. The farm is their home, and the farm is basically a land of unaltered nature. At least on the several issues I have concerns on animal farming, I can vouch that there is no animal abuse here, and the killing is humane, if not completely painless.
While animal meat has been part of the diet of human beings for the past thousands of years, it is unrealistic to expect our species would eliminate meat from our diet altogether. If that is the case, we should definitely do more to promote and fight for the humane treatment of farm animals in the industry.
‘I am not ashamed to be a happy meat-eater. I love meat; I produce good meat, and I cook good meat.’ my friend said one day, not without pride.
As an animal farmer, my friend has access to the best supply of fresh meat in wide variety, and straight from the source. Every evening while I was a guest in his country, he grilled for our dinner a different kind of meat over the firewood in the outdoor, a cooking method what the Afrikaans called ‘braaiing’.
In fact, I had been forewarned. ‘In Namibia we do not have fruits and vegetables because of the poor soil. But you will have a lot of good meat,’ my friend told me before the trip.
While I was in Namibia, some of the meat I consumed were so extraordinary that I could never have imagined tasting them in my life. Oryx steak, springbok sausages, zebra meat. At the beginning, I found difficulty even to picture the look of the exotic animals before they turned into a piece of aromatic steak on my plate. Until when I started spotting them more often in my friend’s farms and in the wild, I began to realise how beautiful every one of these animals is.
But the more I saw them in the wild, the more I was perplexed by a thought – how can I reconcile between my fascination of the animals’ beauty and my deprivation of their rights to live due to my own epicurism?
My friend does not seem to have the same problem. We traveled in his farms and traversed the wild plains every day. Trained to have the good eyes to spot animals and birds, he was always quick in spotting animals even in the far distance. ‘See? There! How beautiful they gallop!’ he would point to a herd of springboks and exclaim with much affection. ‘One of my favourite animals,’ he added. That same evening a springbok appeared in a different form before us – a long chain of springbok sausages. My friend apparently did not feel any contradiction between his love of wild animals and his love of eating their meat. We devoured the whole thing in no time, although the image of those springboks graciously galloping in the plain flashed in my head for a few seconds.
When we arrived at my friend’s farm down south of Namibia, all the discussion with the farmers in the neighbouring farms concerned the rain, or the lack of it, to be exact. While the rainy season was almost over, and there was still no sign of any rain coming, the farmers were worried. ‘We might need to hunt a large lot of springboks if the rain doesn’t come. They breed a lot lately. They will eat up the grass, and the cattle and sheep will not have enough to eat.’ That very same day, I heard a farm owner sending farm workers to hunt jackals, which were killing the sheep and in turn threatening the livelihood of farmers.
I tried to make sense of the logic here: Springboks graze on grass; sheep also graze on grass. Humans eat sheep; jackals also eat sheep. But for human beings, sheep is not merely food. Humans also raise sheep for money. So humans need to kill springboks and jackals for the sheep. At the end of the day, it is a war of survival among human beings, jackals, springboks and the like to fight for the limited natural resources. Or, is it a war triggered by human greed when money is involved?
Now the trip is over. I still do not have answers to all the questions surrounding animal farming and our relationship with animals. When I told my mother about what I saw in the farms, how I was entangled by all the unanswered questions, and how I struggled to eat less meat, my mother just told me one thing.
‘It’s all a circle of life,’ she said.
Indeed, I had seen lives and deaths in the wild. I had seen tiny birds nursing their even more tiny babies; I had seen young zebras protected lovingly by their parents. I had seen animal skulls left exposed in the wild; I had seen the debris of a dead giraffe laid out by the lake, probably the leftover of a sumptuous meal of the jackals. I had heard my friend, sounding worried, talking about the disappearance of a male giraffe who used to be residing in his farm. That day, we spotted the mother and the baby giraffe, but there was no sign of the father on their side.
Perhaps, all this is nature. All this is the circle of life.