The City is More Than Human
photos courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives and Rainier Valley Historical Society

Chapter 5:
Cattle, Pigs, Chickens, and Salmon:
Eating Animals on Urban Plates


Cattle, pigs, and chickens are as much a part of urban life as cats and dogs, as crows and raccoons. The vast majority of urban-dwellers eat meat, eggs, and dairy products and encounter these three animals regularly on their dinner plates, fast-food trays, and take-out boxes. In this way, these cattle, pigs, and chickens are integrated into urban life in the most intimate way imaginable. Yet their presence as living creatures in the city has steadily declined. Issues of property transformed these animals' lives, both as companies developed new market strategies to profit from their sale and as families began to view the home as a sign of wealth more than a producer of wealth. This latter trend contributed to a decline in backyard chickens (a trend that has reversed somewhat in recent decades). In the 1920s, the last large hog farms that made use of urban food waste moved from South Seattle to the east side of Lake Washington, and by 1960, the system of feeding urban food waste to hogs had disappeared altogether. The urban stockyards and slaughterhouses where cattle, pigs and chickens that had lived their lives in the country spent their final hours or days disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s, as owners found ways to lower costs with non-unionized workers in rural places. In meat departments and butcher shops, consumers increasingly encountered the flesh of cattle, hogs and chickens in sanitized displays of meat wrapped in cellophane. These changes emerged, at first, not from any squeamishness about all those animal bodies hanging in butcher shops, but from business owners' desire to make money and consumers' desire for convenience. In these systems where animals' status as property was paramount, only rarely was consumers' attention focused on their status as living creatures: when concerns about E. coli or mad cow disease temporarily made the largely invisible system of factory farming visible to urban meat-eaters. These animals have become increasingly hidden from view, even as we consume them in greater quantities.

As Seattleites asserted power through relations of property, animals were key. Sorting animals helped define Seattle as a Euro-American space; it helped define some neighborhoods as white and middle class; it helped define the city as modern and benevolent. The sorting of animals intertwines inextricably with the sorting of people and the sorting of places. This sorting has transformed the city but has not eliminated the complexities of human-animal relations in the city. It has not eliminated the blending of categories. We cannot neatly separate human from animal, domestic from wild, pet from livestock, because all are connected. The city is more than human.

(A story from Chapter Five). Norman Guthmiller had some very practical reasons for keeping chickens and ducks at his house in North Seattle in the 1970s this despite the 1957 zoning ordinance he was violating. They provided his family with eggs and meat, as they had done for Seattleites for over a century. Guthmiller differed from many other poultry-keepers, however, by articulating an ideological justification for what others simply engaged in as a practical subsistence strategy. Quoting Thorstein Veblen's famous phrase, he saw the keeping of cats and dogs as a wasteful example of "conspicuous consumption." He felt, rather, that the city should encourage the keeping any "productive and edible animal" like a chicken. "I've got nothing against dogs and cats," he said, "and I know they give people love but maybe if everyone in the city kept chickens instead of dogs, the old and the poor wouldn't have to eat dog food. [...] If someone can starve in Northwest Africa because we give the food to dogs, then how long will it be before we say someone in the Ozarks can starve." His rhetoric identified him as part of the back-to-the-land movement that consciously questioned urban consumerism. For Guthmiller, keeping poultry was more than a way to get eggs and meat, it was a defiant stance for social justice. His chicken and duck keeping might not have drawn much attention in South Seattle, where the practice was still common, but irate neighbors in his North Seattle neighborhood soon complained to the city. Guthmiller received a number of calls of support from other Seattleites keeping birds in defiance of the ordinance. This support notwithstanding, a jury found him guilty and fined him for a practice that many felt no longer fit in the city.

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