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Every animal we kill to eat is an individual with a life and character of its own, and with friends who will mourn and miss it. Every death is its own tragedy and in every death we kill a world.
But. The fate of prey animals is nearly always to be killed and eaten. The choice facing a cow or a sheep or a chicken isn't "Be killed by humans or live a long and happy life"; it's "Be killed by humans or be killed by some other thing". And whatever kills them, their friends will mourn. The only way totally to avoid pain and loss would be the destruction of all life.
What we as farmers are doing which is unnatural isn't that we kill and eat non-human animals, but that we order the length of their lives and decide they shall die at a set age, often but not always in early adulthood, whereas in the wild they would be taking pot-luck on dying anywhere between early infancy and reasonably old age. We have an ancient contract with our farm animals which says that in return for getting to set the date of their death and be the predator that eats them, we will protect them from all other predators, guarantee them at least some months of life which they might not get in the wild, and provide them with comfortable shelter, regular meals and medical care and a fairly pain-free death - at least better than being disembowelled and eaten alive, which is often the fate of prey species in the wild. It is only through human intervention that prey species ever have much chance of a "good death" or of a comfortable, pain-free old age.
We also have to bear in mind that the interests of the individual and the interests of the species or breed may conflict. It is not to the advantage of an individual chicken to be killed and eaten (although if it's going to be eaten anyway it may be to its advantage to be killed by a human rather than a stoat): but it has been enormously in the interests of wild jungle fowl as a species to be domesticated and bred up into chickens, thus elevating them from a moderately common Asian pheasant to one which is fantastically common and universal on all continents except Antarctica. Horses were almost extinct as a group before humanity entered into partnership with them, but now they are common and successful purely as a result of domestication.
It might have been better morally if we had never domesticated any animals at all, and it would almost certainly have been better for wildlife diversity if we had never domesticated the cat. But we did, and we have to go on from where we are.
At present it makes no sense to become a vegetarian. It may make you feel better to know that you are not personally ordering the death of an animal which you will then devour, but in fact the production of milk, wool and eggs depends almost entirely on female animals, and if we don't eat the males they will simply be killed at birth, depriving them of any life at all and causing grief and stress to their mothers. Artificial insemination with gender-selected sperm can solve this problem but it is not yet common and at the moment, large numbers of surplus males continue to be born. At least if we eat them, they will have some sort of a life and be allowed to grow up to the point where the connection between them and their dam is less intense and separation less stressful.
Becoming a vegan is more logically consistent, but it raises problems of its own. It's just about possible to keep a dog on a vegan diet, although it's unnatural and probably rather cruel to do so, but cats require animal protein to live, and so do many of the rare creatures which we try to save through captive breeding programmes. These creatures cannot survive without the death of another animal, or at the very least the production of large quantities of eggs and milk, which requires the continuation of livestock-farming with the attendant problem of what to do with surplus males.
Universal veganism at present would mean that all pet cats, ferrets, hedgehogs and tame raptors and probably most dogs as well had to be either killed or thrown out into the wild to hunt or starve. It would mean the almost immediate extinction of the Tasmanian devil (critically endangered in the wild by an epidemic of infectious cancer, and urgently dependant on research and captive breeding in order to survive at all), followed by the snow leopard, the maned wolf, most sub-species of tiger and numerous smaller predators such as solenodons which are currently depending on us for their survival as a species. It would also mean that wildlife rescue centres would no longer be able to care for injured carnivores or insectivores, and would have to either kill them or leave them to suffer and die in the wild.
Veganism also means, of course, breaking the contract that we have with our farm animals. We couldn't afford to keep more than a small fraction of them going as curiosities or companion animals if there was no commercial benefit in feeding and housing them, so we would have to allow those species which have become common and successful through their relationship with us to lapse back into obscurity, if not outright extinction.
As it stands at the moment, there are no easy solutions. Vegetarianism or veganism may make you feel better and less conflicted about eating "anything with a face" but they do not actually provide much benefit at the sharp end where the farm animals are - they just rearrange the problem and look good cosmetically.
Future scientific developments may of course solve that. If gender-selection becomes more widespread it can give us a population of cattle, sheep or poultry in which 99% of the individuals born are female and have an economic value other than as meat, with a few rare males who can be kept for breeding rather than being killed at birth or when they reach a good carcase size. That would make vegetarianism a real and humane option, and we could at least give our cats both large and small plenty of eggs and cheese, and meat from the carcases of milk, egg or wool-producing farm animals which had died naturally or had had to be put down for welfare reasons - because eating a carcase or feeding it to the cat is an ecologically sound way of disposing of it.
Artificial cloning and growing of meat in slabs in a laboratory would be even better. The technology is currently in its infancy but in ten years it could be commercially viable, and that would enable us to feed the predators which depend on us without taking another animal's life, and without having to wait for a sheep, cow or chicken to die of old age. At that point, veganism would become a real and humane option which would not entail the extinction of those rare species which require captive breeding in order to survive, although there would still be the breach-of-contract issue to consider.
Unfortunately, however, the very people who campaign for vegetarianism or veganism nearly always also campaign against any scientific intervention such as gender-selection or vat-grown meat which they see as "unnatural", even though these scientific interventions provide the only middle way between killing prey animals or killing the predators who are our companions.
Although there are no easy solutions at present, there are some things we definitely can say. Any form of husbandry which fails to provide farm animals with a more comfortable life and humane death than they would have had in the wild is theft, because it takes away their freedom without providing benefits in return. That means that most forms of factory farming are out, because they are in breach of our contract with our domestic animals.
Killing animals just for sport is a definite no-no, although hunting for meat may be acceptable. Although we are no better than other animals we are also no worse and as such we have as much right to predate as bears or pigs or chimpanzees (fellow omnivores which like us could survive on a purely vegetarian diet if they really had to) have. And we can be sure that wild-caught game has probably had an interesting life, if not necessarily a comfortable one.
On the other hand, hunting for meat generally provides the animal with no benefits other than those which come from thinning the herd, so it may be more morally questionable than farming; and encouraging hunters to take pleasure in killing risks them starting to kill purely for sport. In areas where hunting is big business, as it is on Scottish shooting estates, there is also the issue of landowners reserving the prey for human predation by massacring other predators, some of them already rare and getting rarer by the minute.
There exists here in Britain an embryonic ethical farming movement called Cow Nation (and its spinoff Hen Nation) which could provide a blueprint for the future. The idea is that the farmer acts as an agent or manager for their livestock, rather than their owner. Wool, eggs and milk are sold on behalf of the farm animals and the money goes first to pay for their upkeep, including medical bills and retirement when they become too old to produce, with any surplus going to the farmer as an agent's fee - rather than the farmer setting his or her interests first, and maximising profit by killing off sick or unproductive stock. Calves and lambs are left with their mothers at least until they reach a natural age for weaning.
This system is dependent on using gender-selected artificial insemination, to ensure that large numbers of surplus males are not born, and at present it's very expensive because the numbers involved are low. However, if this catches on in the way that free-range eggs and high welfare standards have caught on (in the U.K., at any rate), and if lab.-grown meat becomes widely available, we could arrive at a situation where we could feed our carnivorous companion-animals, and ourselves, without needlessly killing other animals. Farm animals would be turned into meat only when they became so decrepit that it was in their best interests to be finished off, and many domestic breeds would remain commercially viable, preserving the domestication contract.
Pigs present a problem because they currently have no large-scale commercial use except dead and the structure of their nipples means they can't be transferred to use as milk animals. Ceasing to farm pigs for meat would mean pigs as a species would suffer by becoming a lot rarer. Yet, killing pigs is even more morally dubious than killing other farm animals, because of their great intelligence. As far as intellect goes, eating a pig is equivalent to eating a human child of three or four years old, and the fact that they are so intelligent means that they are more likely to suffer badly from boredom in captivity, and to miss their companions if separated from them by slaughter or sale. Their excellent sense of smell also means that they are more likely to be aware that they are about to be killed, and so more likely to suffer fear. They are also quite difficult to kill humanely.
If we moved to no-kill livestock-farming, we wouldn't have to stop keeping pigs and let them die out altogether. The smaller breeds can be kept as companion animals - although the quantities of dung they produce are a problem - and their great intelligence and good sense of smell means that they could be trained as working animals to perform many of the same tasks undertaken by dogs, such as sniffing for drugs, herding cattle and light haulage. They might also be suitable for forestry work and scrub clearance: you could probably train a pig selectively to uproot kudzu or brambles, for example, in return for treats.