33. Multiple Choices (07/2010)
Consumers are more aware than ever about knowing the origins of their food. Sheep are thought to be a healthy option because they are presumed to be free-range. For most people it is difficult enough to tell different sheep apart in the fields. The secret histories of half a dozen legs of lamb in a display fridge still remain a mystery. Supporting ethical farming practice is something every caring person wants to do especially when they know the right questions to ask.
Appearance can be deceiving. A thicker layer of fat has accumulated due to lack of exercise. In the confined feedlot space there is no pasture for grazing. The sheep are fed concentrates in troughs. Growth hormones are used to improve weight gain, and the flesh is tender. It is generally accepted that the withdrawal period for hormones has lapsed before the lamb goes to slaughter. Tests can be done to identify traces of potentially harmful hormones in the meat. There are also drugs available that can be used to make the tests invalid.
The piece of meat that is the right size came to no harm during its brief life on the farm. The last remaining leopard that reigned over the mountains beyond the farm was caught in a gin trap and died from septicaemia after an agonising week gnawing at his festering paw. The fatal poison that had been distributed along the paths by the perimeter fence had killed scores of naturally free roaming jackal, raptors, rodents, otters, and also the neighbour’s harmless pet dogs. So the lambs were safe until their throats were cut.
Elastrators (elastic bands/ ‘rekkies’) are commonly used to dock lambs’ tails and for castration. Some farmers have used these on their best friends too! This method has been revealed to be the most debilitating of all. Constricting bands cause intense pain and suffering, and sometimes death from the gangrene and associated infection. It would be like placing the tightest elastic band imaginable over your ring finger and leaving it there until the finger drops off. But the pain would be worse for a lamb only a few days old because young nonhumans (and humans) feel pain more intensely than adults do. Good herd management and breed selection have eliminated the need for these procedures that were once considered mandatory. In some instances traditional standard procedures like docking fat-tailed ewes’ tails has recently been proved to actually lower lambing percentages. It is now understood that the tail is important not only for sexual attraction and distribution of pheromones, and it has many other functions as well. And there lies the leg of the lamb that lost its tail and testicles on the vast and violent plains of the Great Karoo.
Sheep survive even better than ostriches when the temperature hits hellish heights in summer. There is no shade from structure or tree in camps for all to see how sheep shelter in each other’s body shadows, panting during the hottest part of the day. So many flocks linger longing for the starry night, enduring the midday inferno with nowhere to go for respite. The fences are strong, the water is deep, the distances are long, and the sun burns no holes in the meat.
We are still left with a dilemma. There are vital questions and selections with consequences. In the past it was not possible to make an informed choice. Details of production may not be standardised and there is no perfect solution. A little discretion will bring us closer to compassion for the sentient creatures of the earth over which we have assumed power. You choose.