I stopped eating animals two months ago.
The decision was personal. I hadn’t planned on writing about it here, and I realize that the topic of whether or not to eat meat can elicit strong emotions on either side of the argument. I would just ask that if you feel the urge to comment, please wait until you’ve read this entire post. It might surprise you.
So what happened?
Two months ago, I read the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel Everything is Illuminated is one of my all-time favorites. I didn’t choose to read Eating Animals because of the topic but because I loved its author and because it was a BlogHer book club selection; I honestly didn’t expect to learn anything more about the meat industry I hadn’t already read about in The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation or seen in the film Food Inc. I knew how bad the conventional meat industry was. I knew that the conditions for chickens, cows, and pigs were abysmal and that raising them, as well as overfishing the oceans, was wreaking havoc on the environment.
And yet, I loved cheeseburgers.
I mean, I really really loved them. And believe it or not, the cheeseburgers I craved were not even made from organic, humanely raised meat, but came from McDonald’s. I loved McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, to be exact. And I also reserved a special place in my heart for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins with their slabs of Canadian bacon. I mostly resisted these “foods” and felt extreme guilt when I occasionally succumbed to the urge. But the negative consequences of eating that kind of meat were purely intellectual to me. In practice, I had a hard time connecting that burger with the animal it had been. Eating less meat, especially less factory farmed meat, was something I did because I knew I “should.” I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it.
And I should have known. I used to drive past the Harris Ranch feedlot every time I visited my brother in Coalinga. The rank smell preceded it for miles. And when you finally came upon the “ranch,” the sight was appalling. Thousands of cows jammed together, feeding from troughs, and standing and lying in their own shit. It was depressing. And yet still, there was a disconnect in my brain between the cheeseburger that tasted so good, and this:
According to Wikipedia, Harris Ranch keeps about 100,000 cattle on 800 acres. That’s .008 acres per cow. Compare that to the 1-2 acres per cow needed for pasture grazing, which is how calves are raised before they are weaned and forced to spend the rest of their lives in these deplorable conditions. Passing the feedlot, I would feel a momentary twinge of sadness and guilt before turning my head to look away.
If seeing a sight like the Harris Ranch feedlot didn’t stop me from craving meat, perhaps my knowledge of the environmental damage resulting from the meat industry should have.
Environmental Consequences of Industrial Meat Production
Consider the following points from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization’s 2009 report: The State of Food and Agriculture — Livestock in the balance (PDF):
- Livestock production generates about 18% of human-derived greenhouse gas emissions.
- Animals confined in feedlots produce a larger concentration of waste than the environment can absorb, resulting in pollution runoff into our waterways and groundwater.
- The grain and forage required to feed livestock has led to the destruction of large portions of the world’s forests for crops and grazing land, forests necessary to sequester carbon dioxide and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Industrial meat production requires huge amounts of water — for feed crops, for animals, for cooling and cleaning facilities, and for processing the meat itself. For these reasons, the livestock industry accounts for 8% of global water use.
- Cattle contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions directly through exhalations of methane gas (burps and farts) as well as nitrous oxide from their manure.
- Illnesses such as swine and avian flu are more likely to mutate into more aggressive diseases in intensive feed operations where animals are crowded together and pathogens can gain access to an abundance of susceptible hosts.
Those are just a few of the major environmental effects of the industrial meat industry. And the industrial fishing industry contributes to the destruction of entire marine ecosystems. Knowing these facts prevented me from eating flesh foods on a regular basis. I resisted those cheeseburgers the best I could and mostly stuck to chicken here and there. I didn’t keep meat in the house (except for what we fed our cats), and I tried to patronize restaurants that claimed to serve local, humanely-raised meat. But I wasn’t strict about it. I rationalized that I ate so much less meat than the average American that it really didn’t matter.
And then I read the book.
Near the beginning of the book, Foer presents a case for eating dogs. It’s a thought experiment, nothing more. But his arguments are pretty reasonable. There is a huge population of stray and unwanted dogs and cats (3 to 4 million) that are euthanized annually. Right now, the flesh of these dogs and cats is sent to rendering plants where they are converted into food for farmed animals. Why not skip that step and eat them directly? It would create much less environmental impact. It could, in fact, be argued that eating stray dogs and cats is actually a very eco-friendly thing to do.
After reading that section of the book, I looked up at my kitties Soots and Arya sleeping peacefully in the window, enjoying the sun. I love those little beings with all my heart. Even though they were littermates (born at the same time to the same mother), they have completely different personalities (or as Michael says, “felinalities.”)
- It’s Soot’s job to walk on my chest and nip my nose and chin every morning at precisely 9am, breakfast time, (yeah, I stay up late and get up late) while Arya waits expectantly at the foot of the bed. How did they come up with this arrangement? I have no idea, but it seems to work. It’s Arya’s job to explore every surface that holds stuff and to test the laws of gravity over and over and over again. “Will it fall? Yes! It WILL fall!”
- It’s Soot’s job to lie on Michael’s lap and allow himself to be combed until his coat is so shiny and slippery he sometimes slides off furniture onto the floor. (Sooo funny.) Arya, on the other hand, is the punk rock chick, the scruffier the better. No combing for her.
- Soots hides under the bed when strangers visit. Arya climbs on their laps or sniffs the inside of their shoes.
- And of course, it’s also Arya’s job to hunt down and eat plastic.
Am I anthropomorphizing them? Of course I am. I’m human. What else can I do? And that’s actually kind of the point. I couldn’t eat Soots or Arya unless I was starving. Fortunately for all of us, I am not starving. (This reminds me of a certain South Park episode, but now I’m getting sidetracked.) And thinking about the animals I love and would fiercely protect, I had to ask myself:
What’s the difference between this…
How is a dog or cat any different from a cow or a pig? Why shouldn’t cats and dogs be included in our dinner options? In many countries they are routinely eaten. But I wouldn’t eat a dog. And suddenly, in light of this comparison, cows and pigs didn’t seem so much like food to me either.
And then the cruel realities started to sink in.
I have to clarify that I didn’t actually read Eating Animals. I downloaded the audiobook and listened to it through headphones. So it was like being strapped into a roller coaster seat. You can’t skim past that first big drop and move on to less terrifying parts of the ride. You have to let go and experience every moment of it. So it was listening to the litany of every day horrors associated with farming animals.
I heard stories about farm workers administering daily beatings to pigs, bludgeoning them with wrenches, putting out cigarettes on their bodies, sawing off legs and skinning them while still conscious, basically taking out their own frustrations on these animals that had no real way to fight back. What caused me the greatest pain was not hearing about cows that had their bodies cut open and skin flayed while still conscious because the stunning equipment had malfunctioned, although that was hard enough to imagine, but the stories of deliberate cruelty inflicted on purpose. Temple Grandin, designer of “humane slaughterhouses,” argues that ordinary people “can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.”
Many of us have seen the images of downer cows being prodded and dragged to the slaughter house. But did you know that in most states, it is very common and legal to simply leave them to die of exposure over several days or to toss them alive into dumpsters? Last night, in doing some additional research for this post, I stumbled upon a photo that I can’t get out of my mind. A cow whose neck had been broken due to rough handling was left to suffer on the ground until she died. But according to Foer, not all of these downers are animals that would have died anyway. Some of them are simply dehydrated, but the pace of the factory system does not allow for the individual care of such animals.
And what about poultry and fish? It was just as hard to hear of chicken farm workers who must grab and toss live chickens into trucks at such a fast pace that they often feel the leg bones crack in their hands — chickens who had lived most of their short lives in an area that afforded each one floor space the size of a sheet of paper and were mercifully on their way to slaughter. And surprisingly to me, it was equally difficult to hear about farmed fish forced to live in spaces so crowded they begin to cannibalize one another, in water so dirty it’s difficult for humans to breathe, before being slaughtered while still conscious and convulsing in pain as they died.
If anyone treated my cats this way, I would rip their face off and feed it to them.
Of course, not all farms are torturous and not all farm workers are cruel. Those who eat meat can look for the “Certified Humane” label for assurance that the animals were not subjected to some of the worst conditions. And the argument can be made that on some farms, the most humane farms, many animals have lives that are far safer and more comfortable than they would have in the wild.
After all, animals often kill each other in ways that are far from humane. And in fact, for a long time, that was my main argument FOR eating meat. Animals kill each other for food. Humans are animals. Therefore, we have the right to kill other animals for food. I argued this point with a friend of mine several months ago, and I felt pretty darned self-righteous about it.
Little Furry Killers
Soots and Arya, those two little warm beings lying in the sunny window, don’t go outside. But if they did, they would surely hunt down birds and mice and other small animals and kill them. And not only would they kill them, they’d probably toy with them unmercifully. I’ve seen a cat I loved batting around a little mouse whose hind legs were broken so that all it could do was squeal and suffer. The cat appeared to be fully enjoying itself.
What’s more, I feed my cats other animals. Every week we buy ground turkey from the butcher shop for our homemade cat food. We do this knowing that we are trading one life for another. I understand that there is at least one brand of vegetarian cat food, but from my research, I am convinced that cats are obligate carnivores and that they only truly thrive on protein from meat. So I make the choice to sacrifice a turkey’s life for a cat’s life. It’s a conscious, fully-informed decision.
Nature isn’t cruel, and neither are the animals in nature that kill and occasionally even torture one another. Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty and the ability to choose against it or to choose to ignore it.
Let me repeat that. “Cruelty depends on… the ability to choose against it or to choose to ignore it.”
Unlike my cats, I am not an obligate carnivore. And while I realize there are people whose bodies require animal protein, mine apparently does not. I can thrive easily without meat, double cheeseburger fantasies notwithstanding. So why should I eat it? Why ignore the potential cruelty in eating animals when I can choose not to eat them at all?
The precautionary principle, which is often invoked in arguments to ban chemicals that, while not conclusively proven to be unsafe, are generally considered to be risky, states that:
if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.
I now see eating animals in the same way. Do farm animals suffer the way humans do? Do they feel fear the way we would being shipped to the slaughter house? Do they experience pain? Foer suggests that they do, and based on my own personal experiences with animals, I assume that they do too. It sure looks like it to me. Once again, I’m anthropomorphizing. I only have my human experience to draw on. Can I know for sure how animals suffer? No.
But can I be sure that “certified humane” animals have not suffered? There are some farming practices that are beyond the purview of certifying organizations. The fate of male chicks from laying hens, for example, that are routinely macerated at birth. Or the fate of animals from humane farms after leaving for the slaughterhouse. Or the simple fact that animals are raised and destroyed before they have completed their lives.
How can I take the chance of inflicting suffering on another creature, another sentient being, one that might not be as unlike me as I had thought, when I don’t have to? I, personally, do not need to eat animals. And as a human, I can make the conscious choice not to. So I have made that choice.
Or it has been made for me.
Animals and Plastic
I guess it really comes down to what my gut tells me. Three years ago, I had a profound, life-altering experience. I saw a photo of a dead albatross chick filled with plastic pieces and read the story about how our everyday plastic use was harming animals in ways I hadn’t imagined. Suddenly, I was changed. From the inside out.
Two months ago, it happened again. Reading Eating Animals hit me in the gut in a way that no other argument against the meat industry ever has before. Was it because I listened to each word without looking away? Was it hearing page after page of horror described in specific detail? Or was it simply that it was the right moment for me to hear those stories that had previously left no lasting impression? A month ago, I tried nibbling a tidbit of cooked turkey meat as I was making cat food, and I simply couldn’t swallow it. So the question for me has become:
What is the difference between this…
For me, the answer is nothing.