It was the grief in the voice of the crying – no, wailing – young rhinoceros coming over my car speakers that put me over the edge. NPR reporter Frank Langfitt warned that the next segment contained graphic and disturbing sounds and 30 seconds later I had burst into loud sobs at the shocked and bereft sounds of a young animal who had just lost his or her mother to a terrible death. A poacher had killed her for her horn.
As I sat in my car weeping through the story about African rhino poachers, the questions came: “How can I eat chickens and cows if I feel this way about a rhinoceros? If my cats are so precious and intelligent” – each one has his or her own cat-ality, I like to say – “how can I justify taking pigs' lives for the sake of my tasty bacon for breakfast?” I knew then I had to stop eating animals.
I had once tried being vegan for a month or so, about 15 years ago. My senses seemed sharper. Flavors were brighter, less murky – I didn't need to add so much spice or jazz everything up the way I normally do. I didn't crave salt and sugar so much. But it was often less than satisfying given the quality of the nondairy cheese and milk replacements I tried then. Veganism felt like a huge set of deprivations, and I quickly reverted to my meat-eating ways.
Even the word vegan suggests that all you get is vegetables – it smacks of asceticism, of martyrdom. Friends draw little “cuckoo” circles in the air up by their temples, asking you, “Isn't vegan about halfway to breatharian?”
Somehow a “plant-based diet” sounds far sweeter and more satisfying. In a recent interview on America's Test Kitchen Radio, veteran chef and cookbook author Mollie Katzen (Moosewood Cookbook, Heart of the Plate) said people often mistake her for being anti-meat. But she does eat a little meat occasionally if it seems like just the right thing, she explained. It's just that Katzen prefers vegetables: by the time she's put all the vegetables she wants on her plate, there's no room for anything else.
When a friend's Facebook discussion flitted onto the book The Engine 2 Diet, I requested it from the library and learned about a fire station in Austin, Texas that went completely vegan, and whose firefighters now rely on barely any seed oils and no animal products in their diets. My questions keep coming: “If a bunch of Texan firefighters can do it, why can't I?”
Before I heard the crying baby rhino, I had already been teetering on the fence, leaning toward giving up meat. One challenge is that my growing child has a surprisingly robust appetite for meat. She craves it. Since I announced to our family that I wouldn't eat meat or prepare it, my daughter and husband sometimes order meat when we go out for the occasional meal, but they don't always.
I've found I haven't been able to quit all meat cold-turkey, though. I became a pescetarian, giving myself permission to eat more protein since I was working out regularly and not trying to lose weight (ok, I admit I wouldn't mind losing just a few pounds). But I have not made peace with this new line I've drawn, this arbitrary one between creatures that live above the water and creatures who live beneath it, and I have continued to question my own wisdom.
Another line in these shifting sands is dairy and eggs. I am an ovo-lacto pescetarian, to get specific. Yet I am less and less comfortable buying the animal products that are available in my local markets. Yes, we buy organic chicken eggs, but this fact doesn't tell me much about the lives of the chickens who pump out all those eggs, day after day. For a while, I was buying eggs from a fellow at work who has chickens. But the supply was erratic, as various weather patterns and other mysteries influenced their egg production. This too has given me pause about buying eggs from large-scale operations.
But I find eggs and dairy harder to quit than anything. I can walk away from alcohol, or order a tonic and lime if I think people will give me a hard time about not having a drink with them. But please don't take away the milk or cream in my morning coffee, or my poached egg for breakfast! My mother says my grandfather – her daddy – saved her life when she was a young girl. Her mother, who was anorexic (or who possibly had intestinal problems she never spoke of aloud) barely ate anything. My mother was failing to thrive. They had been moving around Europe and Mexico. Her father insisted on moving the family to Amsterdam and he saw that she got abundant butter, milk, cream, and cheese. She returned to health and has never forgot her daddy's advocacy, or the role dairy played in her recovery.
“I'm ok with being at the top of the food chain,” I used to say. But I no longer believe this. I am nowhere near the top of the chain, and everything I've learned tells me I'm not all that compared with animals. I may have abilities to conceptualize things animals can't (like past and future – “Here, now” is what my cats seem to say every time I see them), but that doesn't make me better, just differently abled.
Autistic author and speaker and inventor Temple Grandin asserts that as an autistic person, she thinks much the way animals think: in pictures of things and not in words – words are abstractions animals don't understand. We say the same thing to our daughter when we explain to her that the cats understand her tone of voice, but not the words she speaks. Grandin's work has had a huge influence on how people think about animals, and she has used her knowledge to make cows' journeys to the slaughterhouse less frightening. If you follow her logic, either animals fall somewhere on the so-called “autism spectrum,” which for human animals includes Asperger's Syndrome. Or it follows that, like people, some animals have autism, which could mean that others don't, or maybe some animals have lesser degrees of it than others.
In his most recent collection of essays, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, anthropologist Marc Bekoff says some humans feel they are superior to non-human animals and this can indicate that they feel superior or justified in treating other humans as lesser beings. In people, cruelty to animals has come to be an indicator to law-enforcement professionals and psychologists of a likelihood for cruelty to other humans. But, Bekoff continues, like people, it turns out animals have a sense of justice. This immediately rang true to me, having grown up with a violent father. I knew something wasn't right when my father treated my mother as if she was less deserving of the respect and freedoms he insisted on, and when he kicked our dog, who chewed holes in his socks. It felt like a matter of time before it was my turn to be treated badly, too.
In his new book, Bekoff describes a couple of studies that illustrate the notion that animals also have a sense of fairness. In experiments with Capuchin monkeys, known for being a social and cooperative species, "individuals who are shortchanged during a bartering transaction by being offered a less-preferred treat refuse to cooperate with researchers." And an Austrian researcher found that "dogs won't work for food if they see other dogs getting more than they do for performing the same task."
While I've been walking my path toward vegetarianism and possibly veganism, my daughter has been learning to ride horses. We have seen a variety of attitudes toward animals at the stables where she's learned. Her first lessons were at a Mustang rescue center. The staff were working with wild and sometimes traumatized horses but gentling them over time so they could work with children, some with special needs. One day when my daughter was in the middle of her first series of lessons, I was helping brush an Appaloosa named called “Shoni Pony,” short for Shoshoni. I felt Shoni flinch when I rubbed the curry comb across one of her flanks and said something about it.
“Oh, you noticed!” The trainer sounded surprised, and explained, “That's where Shoni got bitten by Prince. Prince is new and he's a lot bigger than she is, and they were alone in the corral yesterday for a while before someone noticed she was hurt.”
I thought I was in with Shoni after that, but then another day I was curry-combing and she nipped my arm. That time the trainer was really surprised: “She hardly ever does that! Huh, I wonder what's going on with her.” But I knew I had been up in my head, thinking about other things, and felt Shoni had noticed and given me a nip to bring me back to the here and now.
Another time, I was planning on going on a ride with my daughter and husband as a birthday treat, but when I saw the horses, I balked. My sore knee gave me a good excuse but it was really the horses' rheumy eyes and noses that stopped me – and the way they weren't curious about me like horses usually are when I walk over and try glancing at them and then walking away, a little behavior I picked up in a book by the real-life "horse whisperer" Monty Roberts. After the ride, my daughter protested to me, “Those people are mean to their horses. My horse kept stopping to graze, and the guide told me to kick my horse, hard. I didn't want to, but they kept saying 'The horse doesn't feel anything.'” She wasn't buying that either.
A few years ago, as a member of a selection committee for a film festival, I watched “The Path of the Horse,” an autobiographical documentary by a woman who had been a horse trainer for 20 years and had suddenly come to feel she was doing it all wrong. She quit her training business and sought out people who had different approaches to see if there was an alternative to the “I'll-show-them-who's-the-boss” training demeanor and her habit of bullying the horses into submission, yanking their bridles and jamming the metal bits in their mouths, their eyes rolled back in what looks like desperation at their brutal treatment.
What she found was beautiful, and so much easier. Alexander Nevzorov had done away with bits and bridles and, with only a loose piece of cord around their necks for the most gentle of suggestions, worked with his horses to earn their trust. As with many of the most exquisite interspecies interactions I have ever seen, you can watch these amazing dance routines and behaviors with them on YouTube. The filmmaker found other people who were finding the same communion with animals and building on it in kinder, gentler, and more productive ways.
Last summer, my daughter went to a summer camp at a stable that seemed fine at first, but then the young campers were given crops and encouraged to use them to lash their horses forcefully to tell the horses what to do and not to do. At the Mustang rescue stable, she had learned that horses have sensitive skin and you can only curry them in certain places and not others; now she was once again being asked to inflict pain on them.
It has taken me years to acknowledge the violence I grew up with and to see how I allowed some of it or perpetuated it into my adulthood, even when my father was no longer around. To protect myself and my daughter, I had to walk away from a relationship with my father because I couldn't trust him – not only did he lack any understanding of what he had inflicted on me and my mother and siblings but he also continued to tell stories and jokes that revealed the gaps in his empathy with other human and non-human animals, as Marc Bekoff calls us. As bit by bit I have weeded out these acts of violence in my life, I've felt more and more strongly that I and my fellow human and non-human creatures, and even the planet we all share, deserve better. Somewhere, whether down deep or up here at the surface, we all know we deserve kindness and justice.
And I really, truly hope no studies ever show that plants suffer when we use them as food.