Saturday, 4 October 2014

Why this fattened-up bakra shouldn't get anyone's goat

MUMBAI: Bakr Id for many is a neat way to an extra long break in combination with Gandhi Jayanti and Dussehra. If they think of reasons for the festival, it is just some vague recollection of the large goats to be seen in days before, or perhaps memories of particularly good biryani.

But the festival has also become an unpleasant source of friction. This year saw competing court cases in Mumbai. One asked the courts to allow temporary locations for slaughter of large animals, since the abattoirs where it must take place now are chaotic and unpleasant. The other sought to prevent this on the grounds that this was unhygienic and would cause problems to people who ate the meat.

Preceding both was the attempt by the Indian wing of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA India) to persuade Muslims in Bhopal to go vegan and not kill goats on Bakr Id, for which the activists were attacked. It was an unfortunate example of how an event that could be a useful learning experience in practical animal welfare is being wasted due to a refusal to look at the larger picture.

Animal welfare is an important issue, still rather casually treated in India. And this is why it is truly depressing that PETA India, which is admirably passionate about the issue, prefers infantile actions rather than intelligent interventions that might truly help animals. The problem with its action in Bhopal wasn't just that it was implicitly criticising an important Islamic rite. What is equally silly is that the goats bred for sacrifice (qurbani) on Bakr Id are a poor example to prove animal abuse.

Qurbani goats are specially raised for Bakr Id, far from usual conditions of animals bred for slaughter. Some of the goats sell for lakhs of rupees and are raised on special diets that include almonds. They are guarded and cared for as very valuable assets. Even the less prestigious animals, like the big goats that are seen tied to posts outside houses and shops, are fed leaves foraged for them and cared for by the children of the household like family pets.

And then they are killed. Nothing, it is true, can alter that fact (though occasionally an owner becomes fond of a goat and it lives on fat and happy after the festival).

Goats sacrificed on Bakr Id and animal rights issues are contrasted subjects and mustn't be confused

One could argue that the ultra-sharp knife and quick slash of the throat is a relatively better way to do it. But it is still a very visible killing - the blood in the drains, piled pelts and skinned bodies at Bakr Id is not for the faint-hearted or, PETA India would argue, any animal lover. Yet such unconcealed slaughter actually parallels the messages of animal rights activists. One of their most effective tactics is to make people confront the reality which neatly packaged frozen meats in shops conceal.

It is easy to ignore where meat comes from when there is none of the blood and smell of slaughter - and activists have routinely tried to shatter this complacency with images of the reality. Bakr Id makes it very clear where meat comes from, and combined with how the goats are treated before, could be an effective way to teach people to respect the sources of their meat. Some, quite likely, might want to turn vegetarian, but others might settle for the animals they eat being as well treated as qurbani goats. (It helps that this meat is particularly good).

They might not be ready to give up meat, but willing to eat less, especially if that meat is ethically raised, killed and, as a result, better in quality - and costlier, which reinforces lower consumption.

Such an option might improve the lives of many animals (and not just goats - chicken raised in open yards, not battery cages would also find many takers).

But it would require animal rights activists to accept that people, in some circumstances, can eat meat - and this would be anathema for the hardliners. Yet it is a practical decision that some have made abroad. Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, has reluctantly endorsed a plan by Dr Temple Grandin, an animal behaviour specialist, to create humane slaughterhouses that reduce the trauma that animals undergo in such places. Animal rights activists might also want to consider how actions like PETA India's in Bhopal could result in their efforts being co-opted by those who care less about animals and more about harassing minorities. One reason Bhopal was a particularly bad place to try this could be because its Muslims are already on an edge because they feel the state might use animal rights against them.

Hindu fundamentalist groups are pushing hard for a national ban on cow slaughter and a BJP minister recently linked animal slaughter with support for terrorists.

It is tempting for animal rights activists to go along with this and gain government backing. Yet this would be a mistake. It would politicise animal rights in polarising ways but, even more, it would not be affective. As is already seen with cows, bans neither discourage consumption nor help the animals.

They make things worse since the animals get slaughtered in unregulated conditions, where animal welfare is the last thing on anyone's minds, or transported long distance, in painfully crowded and covered trucks to place slaughter can take place. Conditions, in fact, about as far from the lives of qurbani goats as you can get.

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