Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chewing With Your Eyes Open

The debate about how we should and shouldn't treat animals has evolved quite a bit: I read a 10+ year-old copy of Yoga Journal recently, and there were several angry letters to the editor complaining about a past article that had dared to suggest that eating meat might be a legitimate personal decision that some yogis make for themselves, instead of something that should instantly excommunicate one from the yoga fold. Holy shit.

That same old narrow mindset is still pretty prevalent, though: whenever the Humane Society posts something about improving animal welfare laws to protect food animals from cruel treatment, it seems like the bulk of the responses are about how we should just all be vegan.

Our society offers two lenses through which to view the creatures we share this planet with at oppsite extremes of the same spectrum, and like many opposite extremes, they end up being the same in many ways.  On one hand, there are the many people who buy whatever meat their family will eat that is on sale, cook it up, and eat it without sparing a thought for the creature.  We're assured that professionals in animal husbandry are managing livestock, so why would we worry ourselves about it?  The animals are out of sight, out of mind.

On the other end are the members of PETA and those who agree with them: animals have no place in our daily lives.  No meat, no eggs, no yogurt, no leather, no wool, no honey, no lanolin, etc. etc. etc.  The animals these things come from are tormented horribly, so it is wrong to use these things. If you push them, they'll come out and say that they believe any use of an animal for our own gain is exploitation and morally wrong, so even the happy cows moving as a herd and eating grass, with protection from the elements available to them are miserable slaves. But they don't talk about this in their efforts to convert. They show the same horrible footage over and over, and the idea that we could do better, that in fact many ranchers and farmers are doing better, is simply not allowed to be part of the discussion. So animals are still being kept out of sight, and out of mind.

I'm proposing a third option.  Which is actually only the second option.  Stop keeping the animals out of sight, and out of mind.
Most of us can't visit farms on a regular basis, let alone CAFOs or feedlots, and slaughterhouses have a huge incentive to keep you out: they want you to keep eating the diseased, contaminated meat they produce.  But animals are everywhere.

Do you have pet?  Most of us think of our pets more like junior people than animals, but they are in fact non-human animals.  Sit back and observe your pet sometimes. Notice how sometimes your pet's motivation for her or his actions are easy to figure out, and other times, he or she seems to be operating according to some secret code you don't know at all.  Notice how clearly your pet can communicate with you sometimes, but how other times, your attempts seem to totally fail. If you can, look into your pet's eyes. You'll see it: something innately familiar, but at the same time, irretrievably alien. And cats and dogs have been bred to live with, communicate with, and be intelligent enough to learn from people for thousands of years, many many more in the case of dogs.
Watch squirrels in the park.  Read up on the impressive intelligence of pigs, and the legendary stupidity of turkeys, sheep, and cows. Keep in mind that just like cats and dogs, these animals have been bred for thousands of years to particular standards. Animals bred to live their lives in horrifically stressful conditions are better off being as stupid as possible. Intelligent animals are capable of psychological conditions that would interfere with their usefulness to humans. Stupid animals will keep on running the instinctive program encoded in their DNA no matter how miserable you make their lives.  If you don't know how badly animals are treated in modern CAFOs, or if you think it must be exaggerated, do your own research. Explore how the dairy and egg industries work. Look into those animals' eyes, too. We know suffering when we see it. Whether an animals's smart or stupid, how do you feel about it going through a lifetime of pain and misery so you can eat it?
Look further.  What are the environmental ramifications of raising so many animals in so small a place without the presence of the types of plants and animals that would provide balance in a natural ecosystem?  What are the environmental ramifications of texturized soy protein crumbles, and coconut yogurt substitute? What about people living in undeveloped countries?  Why did we start herding and raising animals in the first place? Read about Heifer International, and why they do the work they do.

Obviously, looking is about educating yourself. It's about seeing all sides of the issue, instead of oversimplifying things to make your life easier, but it's about more than that, too. Looking, seeing, is a form of honoring.

The other day I finally took the time to clean and condition my leather jacket, and that process, the slow application, rubbing in, and buffing of different pieces of leather carefully cut and stitched to make up a warm, durable garment, connected me not just to the cow the skin came from, but to the craftspeople who designed and made the jacket.  I saw the light reflecting off the smooth grain, the way that these funny triangular shapes leading up to the sleeves made the jacket more fitted to my body at the waist, saw that even with great care, the jacket wouldn't last forever, because once removed from the cow, cellular regeneration was no longer taking place. It was a meditative, even awe-inspiring experience, to see and comprehend all these things, and at the end of it, with the jacket hung up to air out, I wondered if I would buy another leather jacket one day.  Knowing that most leather is a by-product of the inhumane meat industry, I knew doing so would mean research, and a higher price even than a high quality Italian leather jacket already costs.  But I could see that it would be worth it for what I would be getting. I felt such gratitude for all the beings involved in the making of a jacket that most days I throw on if it's between 30 and 60 degrees and not raining without giving it another thought.

I try to see the meat I eat in the same way: the pig that was foraging for grubs in fields in upstate New York not that long ago is never far from my mind when I smell the bacon in our skillet. I relish the flavor of that bacon so much, and it's only more meaningful because I know of the sacrifice that went into it, not only the pig's, but the farmers who work so hard to make a living in an incredibly difficult industry.

And it is a sacrifice: being stunned, then having your throat slit does not sound like my idea of a good time.  No matter how carefully it is done, it involves some suffering for the animal.  I think that if you're living with integrity, fully exploring and comprehending the consequences of your actions, then you can make the decision for yourself if that suffering is warranted, and how far you're willing to go to reduce that suffering.

The people on the GO VEGAN side of the debate do want to remedy that lack of awareness...but only on their own terms.  Go to PETA's website.  They won't tell you about the small farms and ranches all over the country that work hard to preserve beautiful, unique heritage breeds of livestock by cultivating a market for them, allowing them to live an instinctive and low-stress lifestyle for the duration, and then slaughtering them in as quick and painless a way as possible.  They want everyone to know about the atrocities of factory farming, and I do, too, but once they've got those points across, seeking awareness or delving into our relationship with animals is replaced by platitudes:

"We have so much in common with animals. We all feel pain. How can we eat them?"

Those ideas don't reflect truthfully on our relationship with animals.  The first one is true enough. The second doesn't really mean anything.  If we're supposed to be acting based on how much in common we have with animals, then we'd definitely be eating them with no concern for their comfort or happiness, just like all other omnivorous and carnivorous species we share this planet with.  I believe we are called to do more, but I don't believe it's appropriate for us to act in a way not in line with the animals we are.

If you look for yourself, really look, I trust you to make up your own mind.

Live Omily,

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