Friday, January 22, 2010

Animal Rights?

The recent flooding in Northern Albania has sparked a lot of thought and discussion.  "Did the government cause the disaster unintentionally as a consequence of  a scheme to skim money on the import of electricy?"  "Why has the drainage infrastructure been allowed to decay so badly?"  "Is it an act of god or man?" For me, the burning question is: "Would they eat a hippo?"  You might think this doesn't make much sense, but be patient. We'll get there.  But first I have to do some backing up. 

I confess I am not much of an animal rights activist.  Raised in the western U.S. among ranchers, I grew up in an environment that clearly defined "Us" and "Them."  People and Animals, that is.  We loved our dogs but didn't shy away from giving them the "Old Yeller" treatment if they needed it.  We took care of cattle or sheep because of their economic value and had no qualms about plinking at jack-rabbits for fun.  Hunting deer or antelope was a sacred rite which warranted a school holiday.  Seriously, if you scored a buck tag, no teacher would think about penalizing you for unauthorized absence as you spent the better part of a school week freezing your ass off in the slim hope of actually getting to plug Bambi.

From this background I ventured out into the world to discover there were lots of people who never "met their meat," so to speak.  Those who ate meat got it from the grocery store wrapped in plastic with little evidence that it was once a living animal.  Then there were the vegetarians, vegans, ovo-lacto-vegetarians, cat-lovers, dog-lovers, PETA members, and many more who held a starkly different view on the Us/Them relationship.  I listened, learned, and generally held my tongue among these folks.

When I came to Albania, I was back in my element.  The luxury of imbuing animals with human characteristics was not affordable here.  Animals had their work to do or their place on the table.  Period.  In fact, Albanians challenged my comfort level.  It's a common sight here to see a kasapi in a kiosk on the side of the road hacking away at the carcass of a lamb while three more line up for their turn.  Blood runs into the gutter while customers haggle over the choicest morsels.  Absolutely no squeamishness. 

As I learned more about Albania, I heard stories about families who kept a turkey in the bathroom in the run-up to New Years Eve.  That's like Thanksgiving here.  A real turkey bloodbath.  Family members would fend off the turkey while taking their morning constitutional, knowing it was a small price to pay for the feast of gjell deti and pershesh which awaited them.  The slaughtering also occured in the bathroom. 

And it wasn't just food animals.  At three in the morning on a cold January night I awoke to the sounds of a pitched battle outside my apartment in Tirana.  The sounds of gunfire were unmistakable and prolonged.  "What they hell are they shooting at," I wondered.  Turns out, it was dogs.  The mayor's office had a bounty of 500 lek for every tail collected in order to control the stray dog population.  The local hunter's clubs joined the game with gusto.  The most disturbing thing is this hunt was repeated every six month with no shortage of targets. Where are the spay and neuter folks when you need them?

The purest distillation of this experience happened when I went to a distant cousin's 40th birthday celebration in their ancestral village.  Twenty-six kilometers and two hours from the paved road landed me 200 years back in time.  The village of Zhej lies hard in the mountains of southern Albania. Normal vehicles stop a few klicks out of town to let mules take over.  The stoutest of 4x4's get you within 500 meters of the village.  Once there, the hospitality is unequaled.  Despite the fact that they just met me and I was only very distantly related to them by marriage, I was welcomed into the family and pampered.  The culmination of the celebration was the roasting of a young goat. 

A farmer from the neighboring village arrived with the kid slung over his mule.  Pleasantries were exchanged and the serious haggling began.  The goat was weighed, prodded, examined and assessed.  An elderly gentleman delighted in pointing out the subterfuge of the farmer. "Look at his stomach," the old man whispered.  "It's full of water.  This mashtruese has been forcing it to drink water all morning so it weighs more at sale."  A counter-tactic of delay was employed until the kid answered the call of nature in a huge way and resumed a more reasonable weight!  Once bought, the goat stayed in the garden with a crowd of children feeding it choice leaves until its final appointment with the cook. 

The end came quickly and without much ceremony.  The kid was led out behind the cookshed and dispatched swiftly with a sharp knife.  As I watched I gained a new appreciation of the rituals adopted by Islam or American Indians to offer up a prayer of thanks to the animal.  Despite ones outlook on the carnivore lifestyle, you can't deny that while we are "interested" in the process, the animal is "committed."  The cook quickly got to work preparing the carcass.   He started with the upper lip and began to peel the skin back until the entire head was bare.  Then he switched his attention to the rear legs and made a small incision near what would be the Achilles tendon on a person.  Into this cut, he rammed a stick, separating the hide from the meat.  Once the initial opening was made, he pressed his lips to the hole and blew furiously.  The hide came away cleanly and the rest was simple butchery.

Nothing was wasted.  The whole kid, including the head, was rubbed with salt and oregano and roasted over an open fire.  All of the men took turns keeping the spit rotating between sessions of raki drinking and story telling.  The innards were cleaned, spiced, and impaled on a long skewer. The whole thing was wrapped with small intestine and roasted over the coals to make an  incomparable kukurec. As I licked the grease off my fingers I wondered, "What would PETA think of this?"  Then I thought, "Who cares.. this is delicious!"

With this in mind, I had to chuckle when I read this article from the Southeastern European Times about a hippopotamus in Montenegro that escaped from its pen during the recent flooding.  The locals worried it was a dangerous beast threatening their children.  The owner swore it was a gentle lady who wouldn't hurt anyone because "she loves mud more than life itself."  According to him, the only danger was standing too close when she thrashed her tail while defecating to spread her scent around.  Local officials worried about creating an international incident if the hippo swam across Shkoder Lake into Albania.  Knowing what I do about Albanians and their relationship with animals, I know the real potential for a diplomatic brouhaha lies in the very real possibility of the Montenegrins being offered a steaming dish of hippo kukurec