24 November 2006

The Best Way to Stuff a Turkey

What's the best way to stuff a turkey? To feed her! Just toss her some dried corn and some seeds (not bread!) and let her gobble them up. Here is a NY Times story about wild turkeys inhabiting city parks and living peacefully and harmoniously with the humans who frequent those parks. After having been hunted to near extinction, wild turkey populations have rebounded thanks to reintroduction programs. Some of these turkeys are making their homes in our city parks giving great pleasure to the residents lucky enough to see them.

In the NY Times story linked-to above, you'll meet some fascinating characters, including Zelda the wild turkey who makes Battery Park her home, but perhaps the most fascinating character that you will meet is Sara Hobel, an "animal lover" who shares her home with 5 cats, a gecko, a frog, and until a short time ago, a rabbit, who recently died of lung cancer. Hobel is described as "a woman who, by dint of her job and near fanatical love of animals, has become one of the foremost experts on wildlife that happens into the city’s parks." She is director of New York City’s Urban Park Rangers, a parks department agency that runs nature centers and handles wildlife management and rules enforcement in the five boroughs’ 28,000 acres of parkland. Hobel has devoted much of her life to rescuing hapless animals from the wilds of the city. Virtuous conduct to be sure. But that is not what makes her fascinating. What is at once both fascinating and pathetic about Hobel, especially given her "near fanatical love of animals" and her intimate knowledge of their intelligence and awareness, is her psychological ability to compartmentalize her concern for animals, i.e., her ability to care deeply about some animals (wild turkeys) while caring nothing at all for other animals (domesticated turkeys) even though these animals are alike in all morally relevant respects. She devotes her life to caring for and looking after the interests of the wild turkeys that inhabit her parks, but she cares nothing for the interests of the turkey in her oven. How do I know this? The lovely NY Times story concludes: "Yesterday, Zelda finally flew down from her perch, delighting onlookers by pecking at the seeds and chasing away smaller birds. Life in Battery Park clearly suits Zelda, and Ms. Hobel estimated that she weighed about 12 pounds. 'Portly, for a female turkey,' Ms. Hobel said. Then Zelda wandered out of sight, and Ms. Hobel announced that she had to go, too. She had another turkey to attend to, this one a 10-pounder, bound for the oven."

What we glean from the story, starting with its title, "A Kinder, Gentler Way to Stuff a Turkey," and continuing up until the penultimate sentence, is that turkeys are sensitive, intelligent, delightful creatures. If the story were to end there, we might have to think twice about eating such birds, but the author, Cara Buckley, makes sure the story doesn't end there. Instead the story ends with Hobel's rubberstamp seal of approval for eating domestically-raised turkeys.

Buckley's intended message seems to be: "If an animal lover like Sara Hobel eats turkeys, it must be o.k. to eat turkeys." If this is Buckley's message, it is bad reasoning at its worst. The fact that Hobel eats farm-raised turkeys doesn't make it right. Just because someone is virtuous in some respects does not entail that she is virtuous in all respects. Hobel's concern for wild animals is virtuous indeed. Her lack of concern for farmed turkeys is not. Hobel is simply inconsistent. She respects the interests of wild turkeys while ignoring the interests of domesticated turkeys, even though they have exactly the same interests and even though there is no morally relevant difference between these two types of turkeys. Because wild turkeys and domestic turkeys are alike in all the morally relevant respects, they deserve equal consideration of their interests. A wild turkey's interest in avoiding painful mutilations, permanent confinement, inhumane handling and inhumane slaughter is no different than a domestic turkey's interest in avoiding those same abuses. Hobel would be outraged if someone mutilated Zelda by cutting off her toes and burning off her beak, kept her in total confinement for 5 months, and then inhumanely slaughtered her, as well she should be, even though that is exactly what happened to the turkey that Hobel was so eager to place in her oven and eat.

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