When I started elementary school, there was no missive more coveted among my classmates than an invitation to a birthday party at Starlight Roller Rink. We all knew that a Starlight birthday party guaranteed an hour of roller skating fun that culminated in the Hokey Pokey and Chicken Dance under a flashing disco ball, followed by a cupcake with a four-inch-high swirl of neon-colored frosting, and a keychain made from a rabbit foot that had been dyed an unnatural rainbow hue. Preferably (but rarely) bright pink.
The “lucky” rabbit’s foot: Kindergarten’s most desirable trinket.
I’m not sure how many I ended up with over the years before Chuck E. Cheese became the hot birthday spot. Several. I would latch the ball-chains they came on together to create a weird, multi-colored foot fetish to which I assigned vague, mystical powers. It was a soft, strokable talisman on which I could wish for extra toys or stickers, or maybe more invitations to parties at Starlight Roller Rink.
I never gave a thought to the actual rabbits involved.
The only time that the feet seemed “real” to me - in the sense that they had been taken from a living creature - was when I was scratched by the claws, which could leave welts and sometimes draw blood. The claws were dyed the same, unnatural color as the fur, and so would blend in - forgettable - until they struck back against an unwary child who had thought of the foot as a benign stuffed animal rather than part of a once-living animal.
On those occasions, it struck me: This was a foot! From a rabbit! A soft, cuddly, warm, fuzzy rabbit.
That is now dead.
It was an unpleasant thought. So I didn't think too hard about it.
It’s amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.
Some of my friends recently got their daughter a pair of rabbits as a 4-H project. I have only seen their pictures online, but they appear to be some awesomely cute bunnies. And, despite the fact that 4-H is - in essence - an agricultural group (and “agricultural” activities generally culminate in some sort of "harvesting" process, right?) I’m sure that these bunnies are pets. They don't need to fear either the plate or a piecemeal transformation into keychains and other gegaws.
Because, for a lot of us, that’s what bunnies have become: pets. They are cute and fluffy; they hop around and do adorable things like wiggle their nose and ears. At some point they used these skills to jump (or burrow under) the conceptual fence within which we enclose "food" or "livestock" and cuddle their way into the "pets" enclosure that surrounds dogs and cats.
Lucky rabbits, for sure.
People and - by extension - cultures, have innate organizational schemes that condition the way they categorize the world around them. One of the areas where these beliefs and categorizations are most fascinating and diverse is the realm of food. Which plants and animals are edible? How must they be cooked? How can they be combined? When can they be served? To whom?
The variety of answers can be mind-boggling.
It goes without saying that - in modern American culture - we don't eat things that we consider "pets."
A few years ago, I bought a reprint of the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking. At the time, I purchased it out of a sense of nostalgia for the edition my mom had when I was growing up. I clearly remember it being out in our kitchen as she cooked: it rested in a handy, clear lucite stand that protected it from drips and splashes.
It is easy to see why it was such a presence in her kitchen and why it remains one in mine: if there is something that needs cooking, the Joy of Cooking will tell you how to do it.
One of the things that makes my 1975 edition interesting - at least in my mind - is a section entitled "Game." It is entirely devoted to explaining how to cook a variety of animals, starting with rabbits and squirrels (these are considered likely enough candidates for consumption that they include diagrams that show how to skin and eviscerate them), and progressing through possums, porcupines, raccoons, muskrats, woodchucks, beavers (and - separate section - beaver tails), armadillos, venison (deer, moose, or elk), bears, peccaries, and wild boars.
When I first purchased the cookbook, this section seemed quaint and amusing. After all, who on Earth would consider a beaver tail to be food?
(Answer: "To Indians and settlers alike, this portion of the animal was considered the greatest." Yum!)
Now, my 1975 Joy of Cooking seems less quaint and more like a lens into an earlier reality. There was a time - not so long ago - when enough people in American might, on occasion, eat wild animals - including beaver, muskrats, and porcupines - that it was useful to have instructions on dressing and cooking them for the table.
And not in just any cookbook; not in some random niche cookbook for hunters: in The Joy of Cooking.
Of course, as exotic and weird as it might seem to eat an armadillo, possum, or porcupine, even that would be less preposterous than eating a pet. The 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking does not include a section on dogs, cats or horses.
Because, in our culture, eating a bear might be weird, but eating a dog is just wrong.
Soon after I started pondering a self-reliance initiative, the question arose as to which animal is the most efficient to raise and butcher on a small scale. Opinions differ, but rabbits get mentioned quite a bit: they breed prolifically and mature quickly on a reasonable amount of feed. When well kept they aren't prone to disease, and they produce loads of useful manure that can be returned to the garden.
The problem that arises with meat rabbits is that they have jumped the conceptual fence between "food" and "pet." As one forum participant put it, "some people will act like you are eating your dog."
Which, of course, is considered good eats in some cultures.
There is a scene in the movie "Roger and Me" in which Michael Moore is talking to a woman about her rabbits. Which she is raising for consumption.
It's not necessarily for the faint of heart.
I will be the first to admit that banging a bunny over the head with a metal pipe wouldn't be my personal choice for dispatching a rabbit. I would guess that there are quicker and more humane methods - I've heard the rabbit wringer is a good choice, but it is still shocking to watch.
But, however you do it, there is no sugar coating the fact that an animal just died.
It usually goes without saying that you shouldn't look at the comments on anything posted on the internet: people say some awful things. But I found the comments on the YouTube page from which the Roger and Me video comes interesting. There were, of course, some discussing Michael Moore (he's kind of a flashpoint for opinions, no?).
But, beyond that, most of the comments seemed to fall into two categories: (1) this woman is evil and awful because she just killed a cute, fluffy pet bunny; and (2) well, you gotta eat.
And, if you eat meat, you sort of have to accept the fact that something not unlike what happened to that rabbit happens to each and every one of the animals we consume.
They are killed.
And suddenly it occurs to me that there is a way to sugar coat the fact that an animal just died: the shrink-wrap plastic that covers all the meat you buy in a supermarket.
It is simple, in our modern society, to go to the store and buy a piece of meat. Some, like a roasting chicken, still kind of resemble the animal that they once were. Many have been reduced to parts and pieces; packages of wings and breasts and ribs. Others have become ground beef or sausage; packages completely unlike the cattle and pigs from which they came.
You can buy the meat without having to watch the death. That's some serious sugar coating.
Given the way in which meat is packaged, it is unsurprising that my son - who sees living chickens on a fairly regular basis - still doesn't seem to believe that the animal "chicken" and the meat "chicken" are the same thing. He seems to believe that like "son" and "sun," or "rock" and "rock music" they are just dissimilar things that have the same name.
And why not? A pound of ground turkey has no apparent relationship to an actual bird.
But, as with every animal we eat - like the rabbit in the video above - animal products we purchased came from beings that lived and died.
It's just that, when we buy meat from the supermarket, we know nothing about those lives and those deaths. We are purchasing the depersonalization - the not knowing about an animal's life and death. We are purchasing the freedom from having to kill an animal about which we might care.
Because that would be cruel, right? To kill something we had nurtured and raised?
Well... It certainly won't feel good for us. It's unpleasant to watch anything die.
The fact is, though, that there is ample information about the lives of animals in large-scale livestock production to inform us about their lives. And deaths. You can find it, should you care to look into the industry that provides us with most of the meat wrapped in cellophane in the store.
It isn't pretty.
And it is that - the not knowing - the depersonalization - the unwillingness to look - that, to me, seems cruel. To accept the meat while looking away from both the death, and - more importantly - the cruelty of the life.
Cruelty is raising an animal in cramped, poor conditions and then butchering and selling them in a manner that renders them into a commodity and not a life.
It is easy, in modern America, to buy a package of chicken breasts at the store, and not think about the animals they came from. At least, it's easier on the people involved. It's not easier on the animals.
It is amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.
The act of doing things for yourself is, in essence, the practice of not putting such things out of your mind. Of realizing and appreciating that eating meat takes a life.
In that context, far from being cruel, facing the reality of eating meat - and the taking of a life that it requires - seems significantly more humane than the wrapped, disembodied pieces of meat from the grocery store. It acknowledges what has truly happened and, despite the moment of bringing death, it is possible to ensure that the life has been decent, and the end is swift.
Knowing this - and saying it - doesn't make it easier to contemplate killing and skinning a rabbit: they still seem like pets to me.
But it does make me realize that if I am going to do make a real attempt at self-reliance, I can't continue to rely on packaged meat from the store.
Rabbit feet, as it turns out, carry symbolic meaning in a number of cultures around the world - not just suburban elementary-school kids of late-20th century America.
It makes sense. The only places on the globe where rabbits or hares are not native are Antarctica and Oceania. Humans have had plenty of time to coexist with rabbits; to hunt, raise, eat, and develop mythology about them. Across all that time and space, the foot of the rabbit remains one part that has few clear-cut uses - which makes it the sort of object that can easily be loaded with alternate meanings.
My favorite legend of the lucky rabbit's foot states that such a talisman could only be created when it was taken from an apprentice hunter's first kill - a relic that marked their growth and maturation, and represented their skill in the tasks they would need to assume to become an adult. In an individual life there would be only one such amulet - only one object to mark the acquisition of abilities.
The idea of marking life's transitions, of acknowledging them, resonates with me.
Such a lucky rabbit's foot would be very different story than the tchotchkes that I got, as a child, from roller-skating rink birthday parties. Items that were mass-produced from animals whose lives I don't want to contemplate and for which I wouldn't want to be responsible; by-products that were attached to brass caps and vat dyed in a factory somewhere to eventually be sold, in bulk, as "lucky" items.
As though luck could be mass produced.
And yet the difference between a rabbit's foot as an emblem of learning, accomplishment, and the transition to adulthood and the mass-produced bauble it has become in modern life seems not unlike the gulf between an animal that was raised with care and has been dispatched quickly and humanely and the masses of shrink-wrapped meat at the store.
It’s amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.
I believe that we do ourselves, and the animals, a disservice by looking away. Better to ensure that a life is humane and a death is swift, better to mark and acknowledge transitions from one stage to the next, than to look away and accept the mass-produced bounty and the cruelty that - though we don't see it - is still there, although it is made easier on us because we can look away.