One thing I never noticed about cows is how absolutely adorable they are. And thinking that, I couldn’t help thinking about something else. About how arbitrarily we categorize things. And also about the consequences of those categorizations. Dogs are pets, for example, while cows are food.
Those differences are cultural, of course, which is just another way of saying that they’re what our parents and neighbors believed. And they believed what they did for no other reason than their parents and neighbors before them believed those same things. If we had been born in India, where cows are often revered, we’d see things entirely differently.
If that is true then it is also true that our strongly held feelings regarding meat (among other things) are really based on nothing more than random chance. There is no law of nature dictating that we react with horror at the thought of eating Fido but be completely indifferent to the sight of Bessie on our plate. It’s simply what we’re used to. A more rational approach to our foods would have us either recoiling at eating all dead animals or at none of them.
I can still remember a time, back when I was growing up, that I really enjoyed fishing. I collected lures and tied flies and jumped at the opportunity to cast a line whenever I could hitch a ride to a lake or a stream. As I grew older, I grew out of the sport for no particular reason at all. I got busy with other things. I moved to an urban environment. For one reason or another I used my old rod and reel less frequently until one day I abandoned them altogether.
Many years later, as an adult, I borrowed my grandfather-in-law’s rod and spent some time casting into a pond in the back of their house. I caught one fish. My last.
Reeling in that fish didn’t engender the feelings of excitement I remember feeling as a kid. All I felt was the overwhelming cruelty of the act: tempting another living creature to impale itself on a barbed hook and then hauling it by torn jaw into a suffocating environment. Struggling, gaping, gasping, twisting, turning, croaking, agonizing at the end of my line. Presumably all for my enjoyment. Never again.
I’m not exactly sure what changed over the twenty-five-odd years between my last two fishing experiences. I think a heightened sense of empathy explains everything. As a kid animals were just things. As an adult I know they feel pain and fear. I know they suffer. I don’t want to be the cause of suffering.
Sportsmen are quick to point out the hypocrisy of meat eaters who disdain hunting and fishing. They note that we simply sub-contract out the killing to slaughterhouses that do the dirty work and deliver meat for us to the sterility of a grocery store cooler. And they’re right in that the end is the same. Both result in a dead animal on a plate. But the means matter.
Eating meat, especially out of need, is one thing. Stalking and killing for the pure pleasure of it seems something else entirely. And the practice of mounting animal carcasses as trophies puts the lie to any notion that sportsmen are simply, or even mostly, just procuring dinner.
And yet meat-eaters, a group to which Shannon and I claim membership, shouldn’t be too smug. We’re not quite so far removed from the barbarity as we’d like to believe. It’s been a very long time since any of us has really needed to kill for survival. That is important, I think. Our bodies certainly don’t need as much meat as we generally fill them with. If anything, we tend to eat more of it than is even good for us. We do so really for only one reason: because we enjoy it.
Killing for pleasure and commissioning killings so we can enjoy the fruits of the killer’s labor are not exactly the same thing. They are, however, close cousins. Close enough that intelligent humans can see the relationship.
But mostly we don’t see. We go out of our way not to see. Instead we’ve constructed an environment where picking up a cellophane-wrapped steak feels no different than buying a head of lettuce. Both are just things on a shelf. And we have no empathy for things.
That is what those big brown eyes said to me, anyway.
These words are not written in judgment of anyone, unless mostly of ourselves. We still eat meat and expect we’ll continue to do so. But we are eating far less than we once did.
Over the years we’ve tried to make healthier choices and that has gradually moved us away from a meat-centric diet. Along the way we’ve discovered that vegetarian and even vegan offerings can be outrageously delicious. We eat portobello mushroom burgers and “sushi” rolls made with avocado and cucumber not because they’re vegetarian, but because they’re awesome.
Over the coming years we’ll continue to seek out more of these foods, but this time for a completely new reason: because it’s the right thing to do.