I’m curious about how exactly you reason the snail-killing out ethically alongside the vegetarianism. Does the fact that there’s simply no other workable way to deal with the pests mean the benefits of killing them outweigh the ethical problems? Does the fact that they’re molluscs make a big difference? Would you kill mice if they were pests in your house? If you wanted to eat snails, would you? Or maybe the not-wanting-to-kill-animals thing is a relatively small factor in your vegetarianism?
Killing the snails is not something I relish (and not just because of what a slimy job it is). Although they are molluscs, I’m inclined to think they experience something like pain while the salt is sucking all the water out of them. I suppose it’s also likely that they would experience pain while being eaten by a chicken, or while being cooked to be eaten by a human. Would drowning in beer be painless to snails? I don’t know. (I do know, however, that the beer method has been less effective for us than pick and destroy.)
Anyway, what I’m doing to the snails probably causes pain. If I knew of a painless (for them) way to destroy them, I’d probably use it. From the point of view of animal welfare, my snail eradication plan is suboptimal.
So what is the interest pulling against minimization of snail pain here?
The short answer is that the current snail population makes it next to impossible for us to successfully raise food crops in our yard. On its face, this looks like a practical consideration rather than an ethical situation. However, our gardening is motivated at least in part by other ethical issues.
Raising food in our back yard is not just a way to feed the family a variety of fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables (and maybe someday grains). It is also an effort to reduce our toll on the environment by removing a significant proportion of the food we consume from the big agriculture (and even the big organic agriculture) system. The food we are growing has fewer petroleum inputs, since we aren’t applying petroleum-derived synthetic fertilizer, nor driving tractors or other motorized farming vehicles, nor putting what we grow on trucks to get to the store (and driving to the store to buy it). There is also less packaging generated, since we keep using the same bowls and baskets to carry our crops from the garden into the kitchen.
I suspect we’re making more efficient use of water in raising our food crops, too. In addition to our bucket system, we also plant crops close enough to each other that they provide “living mulch” that reduces evaporative loss.
And, I strongly suspect that fewer animals are killed in our garden than are killed in the fields that big ag (even big organic ag) uses to raise crops. Mechanized tilling routinely kills small mammals who may be living under the soil, and pesticides and herbicides kill identified pests while running the risk of killing wildlife (either directly or when they wash into streams and such).
Slug and snail infestation at the commercial growers? I’m willing to bet they’re killing those gastropods promptly.
It’s probably not the case that everyone with a back yard garden intends it as a means by which to unplug from the big agriculture/supermarket/fast food cycle. However, for us, it is; while we might not be able to unplug completely, we can drastically reduce our participation in the cycle. And this, in turn, is intended to have a positive environmental impact, and thus a positive effect on the prospects of the human community as far as not rendering the earth unlivable
But we can’t have that positive effect without getting a handle on the snail population in our garden.
At this point, you might wonder if we could keep the garden snail population down without killing the critters. I don’t see relocating them as much of an option. They’re endemic to this region, and seeing as how they were brought here from elsewhere (France, I’m told) and became an invasive species, I would not want to risk doing the same thing to another region.
If I were to buy all our produce at the store, rather than raising it myself in the snail killing fields, that would not necessarily reduce the number of critters that die to make it possible for the peas, the tomatoes, the potatoes, or the carrots to grow to maturity. It would just be the case that I wasn’t intimately involved in these killings (whether intended or accidents following upon mechanized tilling or pesticide use), an so would not be directly aware of them.
Plenty of people are happy just to get the food without knowing the details of its provenance. I’d rather shoulder the responsibility of doing my own dirty work here. The karmic costs of my food are not hidden out back in the fields behind the farm stand.
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If snails were at all aesthetically appealing to me as a source of food, I’d be eating them instead of just killing them. They aren’t, so I don’t.
I have a fondness for rodents, so if we had an infestation of mice or rats, we’d be using the “live” traps. Grain moths, however, we swat.