I shared this photo on Facebook last night, because, um, hello, goats in coats. I couldn’t keep that to myself.
I didn’t think much of the post. I’m not sure where the photo originated. It wasn’t advocacy for me. It wasn’t meant to provoke deep thought. It was just fucking adorable.
A friend from high school commented “I love this so much I saved the pic,” followed shortly thereafter with: “So I do eat meat but I don’t like animals being treated cruel.”
Although goats are the most “popular” animals slaughtered for consumption worldwide, goat meat isn’t common in the area where we were both raised. It never occurred to me that goats in coats would spark such a comment. I was surprised, but pleasantly so. Don’t shun me for my optimism, but the comment left me feeling hopeful. There’s a subconscious recognition of the disconnect between loving and eating animals present. Why else bring it up–unsolicited, at that–if you are not in the process of reevaluating and questioning? Other than those of you blessed by chance and circumstance enough to be raised vegan, we’ve all been there to some degree. As I was composing a message to my friend, I realized there were many aspects of it that I wanted others to know as well. I hope my friend does not mind that I have decided to share that message, with an edit here or there, but many run-on sentences remaining.
I wanted to thank you for your comment because it reminded me a lot of myself just a few years back. I think some ass-hat acquaintance of mine–I’m looking at you Ray–left some snarky commentary so please ignore that. Some people forget how conflicted society can make us feel about animals. You and I are from the same area so I don’t think either of us are shocked that people can fish and hunt and even work at Smithfield, and then come home to their dogs and cats, or be enchanted by images of horses, or awww at baby farm animals, and still sincerely care about animals. My sister will share a picture of me and one of the cows here at the sanctuary one day and then share a picture of her fiancé or son beaming proudly over a row of dead turkeys or a skinned buck the next day. I know she is capable of great love for animals. I glimpsed it in the raw emotion brought on by the recent loss of her cat. And while some people may not relate or understand how she can have such deep love for some animals, and suppress those emotions for others, equally worthy of love, I get it. It hurts to witness and I hope someday something will shatter that apathy, but I get it, because it’s the same place I came from. (Literally, we came from the same vagina.)
(Was that last bit a bit too much?)
I wrote a blog post awhile back with a photo of me in high school bio lab, pretending to lick the pig fetus we dissected for class. A lot of people virtually patted me on the back for being “reformed,” but missed the point that I was still at that point someone who loved animals. I ate them, I cut their corpses up for class (rather sadistically), and I wore them, too, but I loved animals. I have loved animals and felt a connection with them for as long as I can recall, even if it didn’t manifest in every regard of my life. (Yes, that’s an understatement.)
One of my first connections to animals was with dogs, because we ALWAYS had a litter of puppies in the yard. (I was too young to know about spaying/neutering, a concept still new to most of my family. “Where are his balls?” my mother asked, laughing, when I brought home my dog-son Sora, but I digress.) After the mama dogs had their first litters, they were usually less patient with their second or third litters. (Their bodies were probably a bit worn out from all the nursing.) They’d leave more often even when the puppies were still crying out for milk and warmth. I would warm a bowl of cow’s milk, and carry it out to them. Usually they were too young to drink out of a bowl, so I would curl up in the dirt with them, and tediously place drops of milk into their crying mouths using a drinking straw. One of my brothers would frequently taunt me by threatening to hurt the pups. I spent so many hours “guarding” them, not realizing that he would’ve had no interest in them had I not cared for them. My love for them made me vulnerable. Even then the message was loud and clear that caring was a weakness, especially when it meant caring for someone even more defenseless than yourself.
We had cows up until my freshman year of high school. I resented them for the many evenings they broke free of their enclosure and my sister and I had to herd them back from the woods surrounding the pasture. But I loved them, too. I loved that my sister was afraid of the bull, but that I was not. (In hindsight, that was probably recklessly stupid of me considering the sheer size–one accidental misplaced footstep would’ve crushed my lil kid feet, but still, I felt very brave, and I felt as if he and I had an understanding. He wouldn’t charge me because I was such a bad ass little kid.) I enjoyed feeding the cattle ears of sweet corn now and then, as well as the rinds from the watermelons I devoured. I loved the way their tongues felt like sandpaper, and the abrasive sound of their tongues against the treats I gave them. But I also loved hamburgers. At the age of twelve, I probably knew somewhere in the back of my head that hamburgers were cows, but I don’t recall ever thinking about it. Society isn’t structured to encourage us to think about such things. It’s just the opposite. Every step possible is made to remove that association between ground beef and the living, breathing, sentient beings slaughtered, and it is made with such expertise that not many tweens are going to see through it. There were so many days I’d be outside, feeding and petting the cows, or simply watching them lick salt blocks, which was oddly entrancing, and then run inside when my mother called to have steak or porkchops or fried chicken…. We probably never even had an accidentally vegetarian meal as my mother seasoned all the vegetables with pork.
So people who congratulate me on being a different person now than the person I was in that photo, holding that fetal pig, completely miss the point: I am EXACTLY the same person. I have always held the same values. I have never wanted to be “cruel” to animals. The difference is now I am informed to better align my actions with those values, and I am emotionally open to do so. I had to undo decades of social conditioning that taught me “these” animals were pets, but “those” were food. I had to shrug off the behaviors of my parents to live the values they had inadvertently taught me (or maybe it was PBS–I watched a lot of TV). I had to come to terms with the fact that eating animals inherently entails cruelty when it is possible to avoid eating them. In the words of Matthew Scully, “When you start with a necessary evil, and then over time the necessity passes away, what’s left?”
It is entirely possible to avoid eating animals for many, if not most, people in the United States. (Though it may be more difficult for some than others without resources and support.) There is no nutritional necessity provided by animal sources that cannot be derived from plant sources. Even people who otherwise have no moral dilemma with the act of taking an animal’s life would find the conditions of modern farming appalling if they were honest with themselves. And 99% of meat comes from such conditions, so getting hung up on the idea that there might be some “humane meat” source becomes simply impractical for meeting the nutritional needs of this country.
I don’t want to “preach” at you, and I would never send you this lengthy message unprovoked, but your comment reminded me of a time in my own life when I began to recognize the disconnect in my life: that avoiding cruelty to animals might just extend beyond concerns for the animals I accepted into my “family.” And I wish someone had come along, not hellbent to persuade me one way or the other, but just to present me with the information so that I could have decided for myself sooner, instead of stumbling upon it in fragments over the years.
You’re in the unique position of being one of the few people I’ve kept in my life from my teenage years. You knew me when I was kind of a dick to people, for lack of a more apt phrase, because I didn’t know how to relate to people. I was conditioned to view caring as being weak. It is not. Caring is strength because it takes strength to deviate from the norm of apathy. It can be depressing to think of the cruelty towards animals and to face having been complicit in it, but I hope that knowing me then and knowing me now is enough to show that the good, the positive, of feeling connected with one’s values can outweigh the uncertainty of facing those unpleasant truths. If you’re inclined to do so, you don’t have to face those truths alone.
Veganism is starting to come into mainstream consciousness in ways I would never have predicted. (Just the number of celebrities switching to a plant-based diet is overwhelming. Exhausting even, if you have to hear everyone be angry about it.) There has probably never been a better and more convenient time to give it a try. If you are at all interested, I send out care-packages to friends who are willing to go vegan for a month, with the outcome after that month being entirely up to them. I have only been doing it since October so it is still a working project, but I am proud of the effort I put into it and the selections I currently include. I would love to send you one. I am putting together the packages for January now. It would be a good time to give it a go as everyone else will also be hacking away at New Year’s Resolutions. All I would need is a mailing address and a list of any food allergies. Let me know if you’re interested.
This is the end of the letter/I don’t really end Facebook messages with signatures/You know who this is; it’s me.
I won’t include the reply because I don’t have consent to do so, but I will be sending out another vegan starter kit. It isn’t a lifetime commitment, but it is a start.