Tag Archives: thoughts

I’m Vegetarian, You’re Not, That’s Okay

Today, I got dragged along to a family dinner. Some idiot invited my douchebag vegan uncle, who spent half the night making condescending remarks and lecturing us on how disgusting it was to have steak on offer at the table. A fistfight eventually erupted, and the cops were called. FML

This particular “F My Life” is followed by pages and pages of interesting commentary from people (justified or not) who feel they have been offended by vegans/vegetarians trying to make them feel bad about eating meat.

This is why I haven’t figured out how to tell a lot of people, including my parents, that I stopped eating meat.  Their first question will be Why did you do that?!? … and then I will have to tell them why, and I can’t figure out how to transmit that information without coming off as an overbearing asshole trying to push my belief system on them.

Image found at prettyfakes.com

From “Animal Man” by Grant Morrison and DC Comics. Pencils by Chas Truog; inks by Doug Hazlewood; letters by John Costanza; colors by Tatjana Wood.

It’s not like I’m planning to belittle them for not having the same ideas I do, or complain that they don’t share my thoughts.  If they have not arrived at the same conclusions I have about the world, that does not make them bad people.  But how do I say, “I stopped eating meat because they’re torturing animals needlessly and gratuitously to get it,” without also silently implying that, since my parents have not also stopped eating meat, they are implicitly supporting that process, and are therefore bad persons?

(I like to think I’ve struck a happy balance with my husband, who still consumes the occasional meat-based nom, but recognizes that I have a point of view and that I must have put some work into it to reach it, but not all people are as copacetic as my husband.)

I’m interested in how the comments compare proselytizing vegans/vegetarians to proselytizing religious persons.  I suppose they’re all belief systems, and the whole point is to be able to share one’s point of view without stuffing it down anyone’s throat (foie gras, anyone?).  Hmmm.

The Monkeysphere

The online magazine Cracked, which is primarily known for cramming the maximum amount of four-letter words into the minimum amount of space but still occasionally tosses out some utter brilliance, in 2007 put out an article called “What is the Monkeysphere?”  The article presented the concept of Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of social relationships any given animal (including humans) can form and maintain at any given time.

The theory goes: Think about having a pet.  A dog, for example.  Your dog has a name (“Gozer the Magnificent”) and wears a funny hat and likes eating frozen rhubarb.  Now imagine you have five dogs.  Their names and personalities are a little harder to remember, but you can still keep them straight.  Now try to picture owning a hundred dogs.  Likely, you can’t even picture that many dogs, much less think of individual names or personalities for each.  The maximum number of dogs (or people, etc) with whom you can form caring social relationships is somewhere between five and one hundred.  That’s Dunbar’s number.  That’s the biggest social sphere we, as “monkeys”, can create.  That’s our monkeysphere.

Dunbar’s number varies from person to person and from species to species, but the basic principle is the same.  Where animal research, farming, zoos, and the pet industry — animal industry in general — goes wrong is about the point where the number of animals being cared for by any one person becomes greater than Dunbar’s number.

If a lab tech is told to care for ten mice, they all get names, personalities and individual identities.  A lab tech caring for a room full of 500 mouse cages, each containing between one and five mice, barely has time to count the mice as they blur past during each daily check.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” four cows an hour can move slowly and patiently, properly aim the “stunning” device, and make sure each animal is dead before the rendering process begins.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” one hundred cows an hour — as many currently are — is “processing” something like one cow every thirty seconds.  There is no time for patience or proper aim.  A zoo or wildlife park worker who cares for ten to fifteen animals has names for each one, and the animals are often treated as personal friends.  A zoo director, overseeing a collection of five hundred to two thousand animals, starts to see them as “units” rather than social companions.

Other factors — primarily money — come into it as well, but there is something about reaching Dunbar’s number that really damages the structure.  Once the humans can’t form social relationships with the individual animals anymore, they stop treating the animals as beings with which you might form social relationships — and that starts the whole downward spiral, where “what we should be doing” begins to look more and more different from “what we are actually doing”.

Just a thought.

99% of the Time, the System Sucks

I am not a vegetarian, but, 99% of the time, I will not eat meat.

I was raised a confirmed carnivore, and, having worked with animals for many years, I appreciate the food chain as well as anyone else, including the human position on (or near) its top.  I double majored in biology and animal behavior.  I understand that we are all protein in different packages, and that protein moves around the system most efficiently via predation.

The people who taught me that animals are intelligent, living things with their own needs and personalities also taught me that everyone in the household — including the animals — works for their living.  While I took out the trash and cleaned the house, the dog defended it and provided ambiance; the cat caught the mice in the kitchen; the horse carted me around on its back in return for food and care.  Cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens (should) likewise enjoy a peaceful life being cared for, fed, sheltered, and watered before turning in their service, feeding the rest of the household.

Thus I feel that there is no moral imperative not to eat meat.  We are all (and this includes humans) required to work for our place in the world.  If I feed, water, and shelter a cow, and provide her with medical care — if I treat her like any other member of my family — I should be able to ask her for her milk, and, at time of need, provide her with a humane death, and eat her.  She will feed my family (and others!) for a month, properly apportioned.  If I stopped working and paying the bills, I would soon not have a house to live in, or any food to eat.  In the wild, animals work to obtain their own food, water, and shelter.  Why should a cow not have to work for her living?

My issue arises when the life of a captive animal moves from “work” to “slavery” — when the animal is no longer paid for its efforts.  This happens somewhere along the continuum from “small family farm” to “enormous animal factory”.  A farmer handling 20 head of cattle can call each one by name, tell you her birthday and her social rank in the herd, her likes and dislikes, and her medical history.  A farmer with 200 head of cattle has little time to spend with each individual.  A corporation with 200,000 cattle uses a computer to tag and electronically track its bovine “assets”, which become managed by electronic gates and subsystems and by several tiers of employees.

Today, an unimaginable number of animals are “processed” each day.  Large corporations, each encompassing dozens of farms, each farm managing hundreds of thousands of animals, provide most of our meat.  The entropy of such a system is enormous, and even if it began with the animals fed, watered, sheltered, and vetted, soon the edges will wear and corners will be cut.  Animals cannot be paid for their work — they can barely be counted.  When one “unit” “breaks down”, it is simply discarded — there are millions of others to take its place.  There is no time, when herding 10,000 cows a day through the milker, to be patient with a nervous cow, to notice impending mastitis, to separate a single animal to treat a small wound.  The process cannot be stopped.  In such a system, a dead animal is simply one who has reached the end of the assembly line early.  It can still be used: if not for human food, then for pet food, fertilizer, cosmetics.

The animals receive the bare minimum of care necessary to maintain them in an “alive” state, because they are (marginally) more useful alive and certainly easier to transport.  No time can be devoted to anything more than the minimum.  In the rush, things get delayed, ignored, forgotten.  Employees get overwhelmed and frustrated, and take out their anger on the animals.  Procedures are performed en masse, and if individuals cannot cope, they are culled.  The budget is tight, and animals cannot form a union and strike for better pay.

The methods of an animal’s eventual death under such a system — the “humane slaughter” which is such an unbelievable oxymoron it makes my eyes water — is a topic for another post, or perhaps a hundred posts.  It suffices to say that it isn’t, in any sense, the quick death free of pain and fear that all living things should receive.  Nothing about the factory farming system works — especially not for the animals.

Most of our commercially available meat today comes from these titanic animal factories.  While I love eating meat, and do not have any personal problem with eating another animal, I have all sorts of personal issues with the treatment of animals in such factories, and I will not eat animals which came from such places.  This leaves me out of luck at restaurants, most public venues, and other people’s homes — basically anywhere that does not get its meat from a small, family farm which still has a low enough number of animals that they can afford to handle them humanely.  These still exist, fortunately, and are becoming more popular, so now, with careful planning and researching, I am able to locate occasional meat-based products that do not involve the Great Machine.  And thus I am not a vegetarian; but in 99% of cases, I will not eat meat.

Step One

I have a message to communicate.

Over a two-and-a-half-year period from 2007 to 2010, I learned something.  It is a huge thing, an unimaginably complex thing, and it is horrible.  In this era of gratuitous exaggeration I hesitate to use a phrase like “it ripped chunks out of my soul”, but at times it felt like that was happening.  It snuck up on me slowly, aggregating imperceptibly out of little fragments of information, and then abruptly it was visible.  It was not a pleasant thing to learn.  Having it in my head now is difficult.  Knowing what I know, I have an urge to communicate it.  This is the kind of thing that I feel everyone should know.  It is awful, but it is fixable, and the first step to fixing it is to tell someone else about it.

I want to tell someone else.  I don’t know where to start.

The idea is so complex, I can’t fit it into a sound bite.  I can’t casually mention it over dinner.  And it’s unpleasant, so it’s not something you can take in all at once.  The mind just stops processing.  It took me two years to see it, and I was seeing little bits of it every day.  When the picture came into focus, it was breathtaking — but that focus rested on two years of accumulated pieces of data.  I can’t fit that into a blog post.  I can’t fit that into a piece of writing someone will want to read.  It’s too big to fit through a pencil, a keyboard.  The scream, waiting to get out of my head, is huge.

So I’m having to take the thing apart, piece by piece, and try to reconstruct the original fragments of data which led me to my original epiphany.  I’m probably going to do it wrong.  Some things I’m not remembering correctly, and some things are too painful to think about, even now.  But I want to tell someone.  I must tell someone.

When I figure out where to begin, I’ll get on with it.