On the subject of non-human animals and their treatment by humans:
His Holiness the 14th Shamar Rinpoche once told me "Jason, just give them (a) good life."
Let's back up a step.
Why was His Holiness talking to me about animals, especially bovines?
I was very lucky to have had the honor of several audiences with H.H. Shamarpa from circa 2003 until his untimely passing in June of 2014. During the mid 2000's, I imported Australian Beef into Hong Kong. H.H. Shamarpa was aware of this. Likewise, I knew H.H. Shamarpa had a devoted stance on animal welfare issues, notwithstanding a generalized attentiveness on issues related to the suffering of all sentient beings.
Whether H.H. Shamarpa disapproved of this business activity or not, I will never know. During a private audience with His Holiness (I believe in 2006) I asked him what he thought about trading beef, and he said with zero hesitation: "just give them (a) good life."
Those words are hard-coded into my memory. I too remember the dropped indefinite article (i.e. the "a") like it was yesterday.
In other words, from H.H. Shamarpa's P.O.V. we are all suffering, at any rate. Yes, you can take pains to slaughter the animal in a more humane way, but you'll likely suffer karmic demerits regardless. The litmus test to relieving suffering is not tabulated in the moments leading to death but rather over the entirety of the animal's life.
H.H. Shamarpa's idea was so simple. My takeaway, which I spent a long time running over and over in my head until I finally got it was: it's not enough to just pinpoint and remove the worst of the pain, one has to actively try to do some good things.
H.H. Shamarpa had a number of very detailed ideas in regards to animal welfare. In sum, this body of work amounted to no less than a treatise. Furthermore, H.H. Shamarpa formed an organization in H.K. entitled the Infinite Compassion Foundation, which has inspired (as an eyewitness to this I can personally attest) a number of young people to be evangelists for better treatment of sentient beings (non-human animals).
So, if you've seen awful images and/or video of errant slaughterhouse practices (which do not represent practices I've witnessed first hand myself), no, the "shock and awe of animal mistreatment" is not one of the factors in my decision to annually give something up.
Ultimately, there are trace-elements of a crime inescapable in the act of eating meat. As long as I elect to continue eating meat, I am responsible for these prospective karmic-type offenses. As long as I eat meat, I can't kid myself. Beef is frickin' cow. The animal is not just life support for its meat. It feels. For sure it does. And when it dies--I don't care how technologically sophisticated the kill room is, the animal will feel pain. The good ones make it momentary (measured in milliseconds), the bad ones botch it and often make a disgrace of the entire vocation and surely themselves. In fact, rather than be desensitized to the "how the hamburger is made" part--everyone who eats meat should be required to go to a slaughterhouse at least once in lives.
So the challenge is not to find quick fixes. Much animal rights talk is shaming others, be they agribusiness or government or run-of-the-mill meat-lovers. It is shock value. Bloody docu-drama footage it is. It is pedantry in the guise of ethics though. The humble-brag, if you will. And it is still all about us, the humans.
H.H. Shamarpa was right--just give them a good life. His Holiness was talking about reciprocity. H.H. Shamarpa was beloved for his practical, nuts and bolts wisdom. If you're gonna eat 'em,* well you owe 'em. Such is the quid-pro-quo.
To make better the lives of the animals that comprise our food supply is something any and all of us who eat meat need to contemplate. Beneath the apparent simplicity of H.H. Shamarpa's statement there is a lot of content, whereby some literature review is required. I'm not quite moved by the idea there is death in my hamburger, I guess because from a very early age, wandering around in wet markets in Kowloon that was shimmeringly clear But I am moved by the idea I have some combined opportunity and responsibility to improve the welfare of the animals I eat--and here's a key point: without letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
In a follow-up post in a couple of days, I'll suggest an idea for what I give up in 2016. And yes, this idea does incorporate concerns for animal welfare. Contemplation is important (I've had about 5 years). But it's time to move onto some action.
*Mind you, when you get buried they will ultimately end up eating you