Life is not black and white; left or right—it segues every which-a-way and is abundant in gray. I often find myself in the gray areas, which can offer neutrality and compromise but so often are rife with contradictions and hypocrisy.
I became a vegetarian at the age of 18. It was 1972 in Mobile, Alabama when I crossed from a meat and potatoes menu to the only place that my love of animals could feel comfortable. I did this with no knowledge of where my meat and seafood stand-ins came from. My protein substitutes of milk, eggs and cheese were sourced primarily from factory farms (warehouses), which cause enough pain and environmental damage that animal slaughter starts to look sane—even humane. To this day my diet still walks a moral tightrope between cruelty and kindness. It’s easy to get lost is the gray zones.
Before making a case for a dairy and egg free appendix to vegetarianism let’s first examine why a meatless diet is sensible, even necessary.
Some argue that animals are placed on this Earth for us to eat—that this is the natural order of life. Well, there’s nothing natural about the manner in which we hunt and gather meat and seafood.
There’s a complete disconnect from the old days of a clean kill. There are now fewer green meadows of sheep and cows lazily grazing. And cowboys herding cattle across fresh streams and rolling hills singing “keep them doggies rollin’, raw hide!” do not reflect today’s mass-produced meat. Today’s “food” rarely lives that bucolic life or romps in the wild before being quickly dispatched. Torture and a protracted death are now part of the equation.
Meat consumption in the United States is responsible for the slaughter of thirty-five million cows, a hundred and fifteen million pigs and nine billion birds (Nov. 9, 2009, New Yorker Magazine). And while fi sh might not invoke a warm and fuzzy emotion in us, allowing for guilt-free dining, did you know that approximately 80,000 dolphins and thousands of other marine mammals are caught in fishing nets worldwide— most will die (Science 2/6/98 and 5/14/99).
For the most part, there’s nothing natural about the manner in which we obtain animal protein for our dining. Cows, pigs, chickens are fed nearly twenty-eight million pounds of antibiotics annually (according to the drug industry). The Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations recognize the problem of resistant strains of germs cropping up from this practice and have demanded an end to the madness. Yet the use of antibiotics in our food continues.
Think about the massive pollution of our rivers, streams and the resulting dead zones in our Gulf.
The EPA states that some thirty-five thousand miles of American waterways are contaminated by animal waste—yeah, we’re talking about shit.
Now you might say: “Well if we don’t eat them and allow them to live aren’t we letting those green house gases (from the waste) and feces continue to pollute?” No. Factory farming actually augments the massive number of animals raised for consumption. Example: All forms of dairy farming involve forcibly impregnating cows. A person inserts his arm far into the cow’s rectum to position the uterus, then forces an instrument into her vagina. The restraining apparatus used is commonly referred to as a “rape rack” (humanemyth.org/happycows.htm). Not exactly nature’s way.
When I fi rst chose not to eat meat I simply didn’t want to take a life for my dining pleasure. I knew little about the suffering. Just that something died. Hell, death is nothing compared to a creature being tramped in a cage so small it can never lie down, spread its wings, and turn about. (Often sharing this space with dead and decomposing animals.) Beaks, tails, horns, toes, testicles are severed without benefit of anesthesia. Death in a slaughterhouse is anything but swift. When the electric or bolt stunner fails to kill the animal might remain conscious as they are skinned, dismembered or boiled–alive.
As mentioned above, not all pain and suffering can be avoided with the mere abstinence of meat and fi sh. A vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs can still cause serious problems. Most dairy cows are not milked by some sweet farm girl and rarely are eggs garnered from frolicking happy chickens. Even if you do fi nd cheese from a truly “happy cow” humane farm it may still contain rennet, which is an extract from a calf’s stomach lining membrane, used to curdle milk. The calf does not survive.
I applaud anyone who attempts to eat lower on the food chain, even if only once a week. A plant-based diet saves not only the lives and dignity of animals and eases somewhat our impact on the environment it can save your life. A vegan diet, which takes vegetarianism to its full and thorough position (no animal products- -therefore no cholesterol), is a heart healthy bone building diet. Yes, bone building. Contrary to popular belief, we barely absorb the calcium in cow’s milk; in fact it actually increases calcium loss from our bones And don’t think for a moment that animal-free cuisine means boring. Anyone who knows their way around a well stocked kitchen can whip up amazingly rich, spicy, savory dishes. No one need suffer for a great dinner. With this said, I fi nd myself often veering off the course of a vegan lifestyle. I go weak in the knees when faced with lemon meringue or artisan cheeses. And traveling makes for hard choices—a recent road trip through the Mississippi Delta yielded very little tofu. So, I understand, sometimes we compromise—but always with consequences. But every time we do chose the welfare of an animal over our own pleasure we as humans stand a bit taller.