The other day on my Tumblr, I reblogged a set of images featuring “pet animals” on one side and “food animals” on the other, with the statement “Why love one but eat the other?” in the middle. They were from billboards that ran in Toronto a couple of years ago. The message, of course, is that we shouldn’t eat chickens, pigs, and cows because they’re animals just like puppies and kittens are; it’s an attempt to turn people to vegetarianism or veganism.I don’t think I gave the desired response. For one thing, I have reasons for not going veg*n. I’m an obligate omnivore due to various quirks of my body and its metabolism; I even have it on doctor’s orders that I need a reasonable amount of meat protein because I tend to get sick otherwise, even on a well-balanced vegetarian diet. And I don’t respond well to attempted guilt trips masked as appeals to emotion, especially when they present only one true way for everyone to do something. So I decided to respond with some non-rhetorical reasons why we eat cows and not cats:
Because generally speaking herbivores taste better than carnivores. Also, we’ve spent centuries selectively breeding cows, pigs, and chickens to be meatier and tastier, while we haven’t done that with cats and dogs. And it’s easier to raise herbivores as food behaviorally, especially because we have bred them to be more docile.
And it’s also cultural. There have been and still are cultures in which dog and cat meat is acceptable; it’s just that in Western cultures, where this sort of ad campaign pops up, it’s not acceptable. If you talk to anyone raised on a farm, though, you know that farm kids are raised with the idea that some of the animals end up as food, and that you can be attached to them and care for them and still accept that fact. If they’re from a hunting family they often learn that the same deer they hunt are also beautiful animals that can be admired, and this doesn’t have to be a contradiction. On a farm, you’re closer to life and death than people who shop at the grocery store and have never raised their own meat or gone hunting. I didn’t grow up on a farm itself, but I grew up in a rural area with lots of farms, and with the reality that if I am going to eat, something has to die, whether animal, plant, or fungus.
I have had people ask me before, “How can you say you love animals when you have dead ones all over your home? How can you appreciate them when you support killing and eating them?” Simple: like those farm kids I went to school with, I understand that death is a reality and an inevitability, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that defines my relationships with other living beings. Just because my existence is going to directly lead to the deaths of certain animals doesn’t mean I can’t have empathy for them and want them to have the best lives and cleanest deaths possible. I support both strict regulations in the care of domestic animals in homes and farms, and strict penalties for animal cruelty. I also support the protection of wildlife; I follow regulations surrounding animal parts as carefully as I can, and beyond what I need to cover personal and business bills I’m able to donate some money to animal-based nonprofits.
And I appreciate all of these animals both in life and death. I am ever grateful for wildlife sightings, urban and rural; the birds outside my apartment make me incredibly happy, and on the occasions I’ve seen a coyote or Douglas squirrel when out hiking, it’s been a highlight of the trip. But I also enjoy the beauty of well-crafted taxidermy that captures the grace and form of the animal when it was alive, and I’m fortunate to know some incredibly skilled taxidermy artists who are similarly appreciative of the wildlife whose remains they’re preserving. In a similar vein, I love how intelligent pigs are, I know what good pets chickens can be, and I think Highland cattle are one of the most adorable species of critter known to this world. But I am also grateful that I have relatively easy access to beef, pork, and chicken and the protein therein that keeps me going. If anything, my appreciation for these beings when they’re alive makes me more mindful of their remains once they’re dead, as well as the processes by which they went from life to death.Is it hypocritical that I do eat pigs and cows and not dogs and cats? Perhaps. But just about everyone has some discrimination as to what animals will be harmed and which will not in order for them to continue living, and making a living. There are dead critter artists who limit themselves to vintage furs, roadkilled bones, and other relatively cruelty-free remains, but who will still happily scarf down a steak made from an antibiotic-stuffed cow that lived in a crowded stockyard and died badly in a factory farm, and eggs from a battery hen in a tiny cage. There are vegans who refuse to eat or wear anything that came directly from an animal, but who wear petroleum-based synthetic fabrics whose manufacture led to the deaths of countless animals through oil spills and factory pollution. Are these bad people? I don’t think so. There are very few people (thankfully) who actively want animals to suffer, and a lot of the rest of us would prefer that animals, even those we kill, were well cared for in life and death. Continuing public awareness campaigns help people to be more informed, even if they aren’t currently in a place where they can, for example, buy only free-range meat or raise backyard chickens for eggs. There needs to be a variety of solutions to match a variety of personal situations.
Which brings me to the last part of my Tumblr response:
Does that mean you should give up veg*nism and eat all the animals? Of course not. Nor does it mean that we should try to change American and other cultures to make dog and cat meat more acceptable. What it does mean, though, is that the above questions do have different answers, and a lot has to do with a person’s background and experiences in life. It’s not a simple situation.
I know, I know–there will be people who see this and say “Yes, it IS simple–don’t kill animals, period!” To that, I am going to have to agree to disagree for a variety of reasons. It is almost impossible to live a life that does not end in the deaths of other living beings, animals included. If your aim in life is to reduce the number of animal deaths as much as possible, then I wish you the best in it, and I respect you for it. But there are those of us who do to one degree or another have to and/or choose to benefit from the deaths of non-human animals, and our solutions to ethical conundrums may be different. I do agree there are plenty of people who aren’t mindful of where their meat and leather come from, and maybe they’d go veg*n if they really thought about it.
However, the assumption that anyone who eats meat and other animal products, or who is a leatherworker or taxidermist or similar artist, or who otherwise uses animal products–the assumption that we obviously haven’t thought the issue through enough, that we lack compassion, that we love animals less than a veg*n? I don’t agree with that, and neither would many of my omnivorous/leathery/etc. companions. Just because someone’s stance on an issue isn’t as extreme as yours doesn’t mean they’re acting from a place of ignorance, and I feel this fallacious argument in general is a big error in the discourse surrounding a lot of controversial topics.
Really, what I’d love people to take away from this is the idea that each person has their own relationships with the non-human animals we share this world with, whether they’re members of Pheasants Forever or PETA. And those relationships can’t be minimized to single sound bites; each one is the product of a unique lifetime of experience and thought and emotion. I feel this is a crucial thing to remember if we’re going to do anything other than argue and throw up defenses against each other. Even if we don’t agree on everything, we still have the potential to learn from each other, and at the very least have a more civil discourse over a complex, sensitive issue that affects far more than ourselves.