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Does a Duck Have a Soul?


The Growing Room at Hudson Valley Foie Gras.  

Ariane Daguin, co-owner of D’Artagnan, the country’s leading distributor of foie gras, is not tortured by doubt. “Animals have no soul,” she says, in her rich Gascon accent. “God made ducks to have that liver—and He made it incredibly delicious! Why would it exist if not for us to enjoy it?”

Daguin does not come by her beliefs lightly. Her family has been producing foie gras continuously since the French Revolution. Further, she argues, the process is merely something ducks do naturally, to bulk up for migration. “No one invented the foie gras—the ducks did it themselves,” she says. “The liver is their cockpit for calories, and they need this when they are going to fly across the Mediterranean, when it is cold. So they have a natural propensity to extend and retract the liver. Besides, they have no gag reflex. It takes me pages to explain this, but all the protesters have to do is hold up a picture of a poor duck and people say, ‘If that were me, it would hurt.’ But this . . . this is the anthropomorphisme!” Daguin also invokes, and can produce, a French study appearing to demonstrate that ducks do not experience heightened stress from gavage. Judging from steady corticosterone levels, the study concluded that ducks actually worry more during the rearing process.

“God made ducks to have that liver—and He made it incredibly delicious!”says a foie gras purveyor. “Why would it exist if not for us to enjoy it?”

In a softer moment, Daguin concedes that abuse does occur in some farms’ production of foie gras—but adds that mishandling of poultry only renders bruised, unsuitable livers and is simply bad business. Still, she rues the misguided reasoning of her detractors. “There is a certain amount of cruelty in killing an animal to eat,” she says, “but there is also a certain amount of cruelty to pull a leek or carrot out of the earth to eat! Foie gras—this is the easy target. If these people wanted to start in the right place, they would outlaw the slaughter of cows in a kosher way, which they could never do here. The one time I saw a cow slaughtered that way, seeing it bleed for two hours, this was the one time I had to go outside and vomit.”

Daguin’s is the unspoken logic of many who have quietly resolved never to think about where meat comes from—those who will decry deer-hunting through a mouthful of venison. In the modern world, where humans increasingly see themselves as separate from nature, most carnivores are willfully blind to the direct line from butcher to brunch. To their way of thinking, in the Darwinian game, we’ve won. If ducks don’t want us to braise their livers, they would be wise to arm themselves.

For their part, the city’s chefs are extremely bashful about speaking on the record about foie gras. Having their names associated with images of poultry vomit evidently strikes them as less-than-stellar publicity. But, when granted anonymity, one of the most storied cooks in Manhattan is effusive. “Foie gras is very much like caviar,” says the Big Name. “The taste, the texture, the refined flavor. Oh! You can try to use any other kind of liver as a substitute and it will never, ever be the same. Foie gras has been a bliss for centuries—and it should remain so.”

This is the age of of absolute divisiveness. Just as there is red and there is blue, there is no middle ground on gavage. For every Ariane Daguin who embraces humans’ superiority over animals, there are those who are equally steadfast in claiming that the food chain isn’t so much a hierarchy as a horizontal structure, a world in which we can all just get along.

At another protest outside the Union Square Cafe, on another misty day earlier this month, Anandah Carter, the IDA coordinator, is appalled to hear of Daguin’s remarks. “No gag reflex?” she says, craning forward to telegraph contempt. “That’s one of the most insane justifications they use. These ducks’ livers are ten times their normal size! When they fly over the Mediterranean, they’re not ten times bigger. These ducks are living in cages—in feces.”

Jessica Morgan, a 26-year-old protester-dancer-Pilates-instructor, is still feeling her way along on these issues. I ask her if ducks have a soul. She ponders for a moment, then says, “Ducks do have a soul. They’re sentient beings. I honestly don’t know if vegetables have a soul. I don’t think so. But Buddhists say anything that flinches has a soul.”

I ask if, by that logic, humans would be wrong to perform medical experiments on ants. I’m trying to gauge where the activists draw the cruelty line—and, more to the point, why they aren’t protesting around the corner at McDonald’s, which is responsible for a cosmos of brutality that makes foie gras farms look like something out of those movies about the talking pig.

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