Cat casserole: why are we outraged that people eat cats?

A scandal has erupted in Italy over a famous chef’s suggestion that people should eat cat meat because it tastes good.

Well, well, well…

The 77-year-old chef, Beppe Bigazzi (OK – I could not make up a funnier name if I tried…. the jokes about cats and cat lovers ‘Bepping’ his ‘Big-Azz-i’ pracally write themselves) used his show to give out a recipe for a cat casserole.  He advised that the skinned cat ought to be soaked in spring water for 3 days, to ensure the meat is tender….and that it tastes even better than rabbit!

As a person with a pet rabbit, I’d tan his hide for that crack about rabbits, but…

Mr. Bigazzi went on to  say that it is hypocritical for people to eat some meat, then turn around and criticize people who eat dog or cat meat.  He claims that ‘cat’ is a traditional Italian dish, which he himself has eaten many times, and that it is delicious!

He may have some point: cats have, historically, been eaten in Italy and considered a delicious white meat.  But now, eating cat is illegal in Italy and Mr. Bigazzi’s big mouth-y got him into a lot of hot water….there is even talk of criminal investigation of his eating habits as a result of his comments – which he now claims were ‘a joke’.

OK – I can see that ‘eating pets’ thing happening in times of famine.  Our rules for what is acceptable and not tend to be ‘stretched’ when we see our kids starving.  But, I also know of people who would eat cat and dog meat when they had other choices:  the cultural taboo made it that much more appealing to them.

So, are we hypocrites?

Is eating cat or dog meat the same as eating beef or chicken?  Are we hypocrites if we indulge in one while condemning those who partake of the other?

This question goes much deeper than many people give it credit.  It is very closely tied to things I’ve been ranting about, on and off – like, say, that various cultures interpret the concept of ‘murder’ quite differently.   Something very similar is at the heart of this, too.

It’s about ’empathy’ and ‘drawing lines’…

As much as we think of ourselves as gentle, caring creatures, our empathy is not limitless.  The more affluent we are, the more empathy we can afford to have.  That is the nature of empathy – and that the nature of humanity!

We can only empathize with someone or something if we can, in some way, on some level, identify with them.

Actually, this is something which comes up with the whole ‘Aspergers’ thing, too.  That is when I first started to think about the nature of empathy…

Some doctors – and some books ‘out there’ by ‘experts’ claim that Aspies are not empathetic.  This could not be further from the truth!  Aspies ARE empathetic.  They just do not think that empathy is warranted in the same instances that neurotypicals (non-Aspies) do!

Plus, most Aspies find it  embarassing  when others display empathy towards us, so, we usually attempt to suppress any show of empathy on our part, in order not to add to the other person’s discomfort.  Still,the more important thing here is that Aspies will often feel empathy when neurotypicals do not think it warranted, but do not see any reason to feel empathy in many instances where people around them expect an overt show of it.

So – why do we feel empathy, and when?

When I wrote about the different interpretations of  the concept of ‘murder’ (we consider ‘killing of another human being’ to be ‘murder’, while some cultures do not consider the killing of an unfamiliar human to be ‘murder’ – but killing a familiar animal that shares their dwelling is considered ‘murder’), our reaction depends on where we draw ‘the defining line’ of  ‘expectation of non-aggression’.  In other words, just about every culture considers ‘murder’ to be killing someone or something which has an expectation of protection or non-aggression from the one doing the killing.  If that expectation of ‘safety’ is not there, it is ‘killing’, not ‘murder’.

Similarly, when we take animals into our homes and them an expectation of safety/non-aggression from us, we have now drawn the line of ’empathy’ with them solidly on ‘our’ side of the dividing line.  They share our homes and we identify with them.  Therefore, we have empathy for them.

That is the big difference between a ‘pet animal’ and a ‘food animal’.  And that is why it is not hypocritical to eat the meat of a ‘food animal’ while being upset that someone would eat  a ‘pet animal’.

A really good example of this are rabbits….

My parents grew up in a culture where rabbits were 100% in the ‘food animal’ category.  When we got my son a pet rabbit, they were scandalized!   They thought it wrong to keep a rabbit in the same rooms as we live in!  It was just ‘wrong’!

Of course, they have come to accept him.  Sort of.  They still seem shocked to see him play with their dogs as if he were a dog himself…

But it was hard for them!

When growing up, of course, they saw many rabbits.  And, as kids tend to be, they were attracted to them – rabbits, especially baby rabbits –  are uber cute!  But, because these were `food’, there were strict prohibitions against ‘playing with them’ and turning the rabbits into pets:   having to eat one’s pet is traumatic!

Here, in North America, rabbits are ‘mostly’ in the ‘pet animal’ category. My kids are scandalized at the idea of eating rabbits!

And rightly so!

Because it does not matter what the species of the animal is:  if it is in the ‘pet animal’ category somewhere deep in our brain, we identify with it as our companion (or potential companion) and we  ought to be scandalized at the thought of it being slaughtered and turned into a piece of meat!

Unfortunately, ‘food animals’ (and ‘food plants’ are on the ‘ far side’ of our ’empathy line’.  They have to be.  We can take steps to only purchase food from places where food animals had a good life and were treated with the least amount of cruelty possible at the end:  small farmers where you can see the living conditions yourself, and so on.  These days, so many people have this as their priority, it is easier to do than many people think.  Do the least amount of harm – that is the best we can do for now.

This does not make us hypocrites:  until we have Star Trek style food synthesizers,  we cannot afford to move that ’empathy’ line to embrace all living things!