Thursday, January 14, 2010

My transition to being a "Mindful Meat Eater"

My Dad grew up hunting with his father and passed on the ethics of hunting to me. Knowing many vegetarians and city-dwellers, I know that phrase "the ethics of hunting" may sound funny, but I think you might just be surprised at how hunters like my father feel about what they do.

Life, I was told, is precious and the animals that die so that we can have food deserve respect for the gift that their death brings to us. The kill must be clean. You don't go out and hunt if your skills are rusty. That's what the range is for, to target practice and make sure you can kill in one shot. In the field, you don't get trigger happy. If you aren't 100% sure you'll hit your mark, you don't take the shot. And if, after all that preparation and care, you hit the animal but don't kill it -it's your responsibility to find the injured animal and finish the job. You don't let the animal suffer by starving or bleeding out slowly. And whenever he took a life, my Dad told me late one night, he'd silently pause to thank the animal for it's sacrifice.

I don't hunt. Never have. I was decent with a .22 at 50-100 yards, but I couldn't stomach the idea of being responsible for an animals death. I still carry the respect for animals that my Dad taught me though, including the ones that I eat, but it's never been something that I think about on a daily basis. The problem is that the animals that I eat hardly seem like animals at all. I buy steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops -they all come in cleanly wrapped styrofoam trays, so that's all they are to me. It's easy not to think that they were once animals; that they represent a life that's come to an end.

The other problem is that, once we think about the fact that our pork chop was once a pig, we tend to picture Wilbur on Old McDonald's farm with a sunny stretch of grass, a mud pit, and chickens and cows, a red barn... he'd be sent to slaughter only after living out a decently life on the farm. But I've been learning that this is far from reality today.

The vast majority of our meat comes from large factory farms where animals are kept in pens that don't allow them the room to even turn around. They live short, uncomfortable or even painful lives because we consumers buy based only on price. How they keep those prices low is hidden from the customer -it's remote, abstract, and as long as we keep price as our number one priority in choosing which animal products to buy, things will continue the way they are. Animals will continue to live their entire lives in really inhumane conditions. Your money will go to those that can get their meat to the market at the lowest price even if they do so by packing their animals in just a little tighter. By slaughtering them just a little cheaper (perhaps at a plant that doesn't properly stun or kill the animal before it's "processed") other words, by ignoring the fact that they are dealing with animals who feel pain, have emotions, and deserve our respect for the vital role they play in our lives.

I'm sure I've lost some readers already. It's not an easy subject to think about and there are enough PETA wackos out there to make most people just turn off this kind of talk, chalking it up to being overblown, not as widespread as it sounds, or that somehow it doesn't apply to the meat THEY eat. I understand. I roll my eyes at those militant vegans too. But, I've also done the research and I've come to the conclusion that the way most animals are raised and slaughtered doesn't fit with the ethics my Dad taught me when I was little. And I'm determined to do something about it. What? I'm not 100% sure yet, but it won't include becoming a vegetarian. I hate vegetables and love meat! But there has to be a practical solution to eating meat without supporting factory farming.

My first effort will be simple -if I buy meat I will make sure it doesn't go to waste. 8.2 billion pounds of meat a year -that's 22.5 million pounds a day. The book "Compassionate Carnivore" breaks this down into animals so we can visualize this better. She estimates that this breaks down to 15,000 cattle, 36,000 hogs, and 2 million chickens that are killed every day and then just thrown away. I will do my best to reduce this number. That's the number one change that I vow to make.

My second change will be that for any meals cooked at home I'll buy all the meat and animal products that I possibly can from the most humane sources I can find. I'm lucky to live in an area with a "Whole Foods" where I can buy some meat products that are from better sources. Perhaps not perfect, but certainly better than the default choices and the more money that goes toward even only slightly better sources, it sends a message to the industry that shows a demand for more humane meat products. More demand, I hope, leads to better choices in the future.

So, those are my goals for now. And, yes, I still eat out regularly, so I'm still consuming factory-processed meat. I'm taking practical steps, I'm not up for a complete lifestyle change. Baby steps, right?