I was a vegetarian, because the meat to which I had access at that time was prepared in such a way that was unappetizing to me, and when I stopped eating meat, I felt better. So, I just kept not eating meat for a while. It got really interesting when I would tell people that I was a vegetarian, because I think, in general, vegetarians get a bad rap.
Of course, more and more, and the more vegetarians I meet, the more I'm thinking that perhaps it's not entirely undeserved.
Like recently. I came under fire from a vegetarian for raising rabbits for meat. I know that it's not common, here in the United States, to consider rabbits as meat. I knew that when we got our first rabbits thirteen years ago, which is why we don't talk a lot about it, but I also know that it's a cultural thing, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with whether or not rabbits should be considered a meat animal.
Two arguments against eating meat were posed. The first had to do with the morality of killing the animal that is highly intelligent and sensitive. Having raised rabbits for thirteen years, I know what wonderful animals they are. I think, because I chose to raise them not as just pets, that people might misunderstand and believe that I have a callous attitude about them, perhaps labeling them as just a food source. That would be grossly untrue.
It would be impossible to raise an animal in as intimate a setting as my tiny yard, with my children constantly present, without a huge degree of concern for the well-being of that animal. It would be impossible to have an apathetic attitude about them, and see them as merely objects. They aren't. They're living, thinking, feeling beings, and I am acutely aware of that fact.
Unlike the person who has only experienced meat as a cellophane-wrapped package of anemic-looking pink goo they label "meat" at the grocery store, I have an emotional connection to my food, and the hardest thing I ever had to do was to put aside my middle-class, suburban primness and grab the knife. I came to feel that if I wanted to eat meat, then I needed to be willing to, at least, raise it, knowing that it would, someday, end up on my plate. Yes, I have butchered a rabbit. No, I did not enjoy it. No, I do not have any delusions that the rabbit happily or willingly gave his life so that I could eat. Yes, it is a very humbling and discomfiting experience. No, I don't think everyone should have to do it, but I do think, if we're going to be eaters, we need to understand where our food comes from, and that place is not "the grocery store."
Raising food is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of guts to look at a thing, knowing that some day you will, literally, swallow its essence, and that it will cease to exist except as a part of you.
Ever harvest a potato? It's the root. In order to get to the root, I have to kill the plant. When I eat the potato, I destroy the plant, but I also destroy any hope that plant might have of reproducing and growing next year.
I believe plants feel - not in a way that we can understand, but they do feel. In her book, Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered Machaelle Small Wright explores the belief that plants have feelings. Really, she explores the idea that all things contain that eternal spark that is in all of us - that all of life contains a piece of the creator.
Likewise, in Shamanic/Native/Indigenous philosophies, if one wants to learn about a plant, for instance, what its properties are, one must ask, and then, be willing to accept the notion that the plant will provide an answer. Herbal healing courses often work on this philosophy, and the idea is that it's not enough to simply look up a plant, its properties, and its uses, but in order to really be able to use the plant for healing purposes, one must know the plant, and the only way to know the plant is to believe that the plant is a living creature.
In all of the native cultures with which I have had contact, it is wrong to harvest a plant without thanking it for the gift of life it is giving with its death. Maybe not willingly giving, but giving nonetheless and in saying thank you, we're voicing our understanding.
If we believe that god is in all things, in all life, then we can no longer argue that it's okay to eat plants, but not animals based on some idea that animal lives are more valuable than plants.
Thus, for me, to argue that it's not okay to eat my rabbits, because they can feel, makes me want to counter with the question of whether it is okay to eat the potatoes I planted, then, as they feel, too. At least there are as many learned and thoughtful people in this world who believe so as there are people who believe we shouldn't be eating animals.
Of course, for many, that argument is a little too out there, and I get it. It would be way too far a stretch to believe that plants talk to us, if we only listen.
But that's when the fun starts, because while I would be very reluctant to talk about the spirit of a plant, I can debunk the moral superiority of a lacto-ovo vegetarian who thinks it's wrong to eat meat with just a couple of questions.
The first question is: Can a cow give milk without having a baby?
The answer, of course, is no. Like most mammals - like us - in order to give milk, the female must be impregnated, because a cow's milk is food for her baby.
On a dairy farm in this country - even a small dairy - the cow will be impregnated by artificial insemination. After the calf is born, it is removed from its mother and it will be fed using a pail with an udder-shaped nipple until it's old enough to be put on forage, and then, it will be fed hay or whatever that dairy farm feeds its cows.
If it's a female calf, it might end up being a dairy cow, later, when it grows up. But if it's a male calf, it will be castrated and raised ... for beef. We all knew it, but we knew it in an abstract, cows-have-to-have-babies-to-give-milk-and-ohh-aren't-the-little-baby-cows-so-cute kind of way, never considering that those baby cows grow up to be big cows, and something has to happen to them, right?
Some might suggest that we could just pasture the bulls, but let's look at some numbers. The average family drinks about a gallon of milk per week. There are approximately 119 million households in the US. That means that about half a million boy calves are born each year - if half the calves are boys. That's a lot of boy cows hanging out with nothing to do - half a million, every year. The life expectancy of a cow is twenty-two years. Approximately two acres of pasture is needed per cow. At the twenty-two year mark, when the oldest bulls were dying, there would be 12 million bulls and they'd need 24 million acres. For reference, the State of Kansas is just over 52 million acres.
If we're going to keep drinking milk and using other dairy products at the rate we are currently using them, we will have to do something with the baby calves, and if those baby calves are boys, they will become meat.
Perhaps the lacto-ovo vegetarian isn't eating the meat, but given the fact that a baby calf must be born to make milk and cheese and yogurt and ice cream and sour cream and whipped cream and cream ... cream, that vegetarian is as cupable in the death of that animal as I am. The difference is that I am willing to accept that fact (and the responsibility) that as an eater, things will die so that I can live.
Eating eggs is no less murderous - unless one is raising one's own chickens ... and then, eventually, there will be the issue of what to do with all of those chickens that aren't really laying eggs anymore, which happens when a chicken reaches the tender age of three. At some point, there will be a lot of chickens and not so many eggs. On farms where chickens are kept for eggs, those non-laying hens are culled, which is a nice way of saying they're killed.
If one eats eggs purchased from a grocery store, at some point, one will need to accept responsibility for the fact that the chickens who lay eggs will some day be killed and replaced with other chickens who will continue to lay eggs.
So, when a lacto-ovo vegetarian hops up on her soapbox and deigns to preach to me the immorality of my choice to raise rabbits, I like to ask, what happens to the baby cows and the chickens who no longer lay? And to let them know that they may not eat the meat, but they are no less culpable than I am for the death of an animal to get that food on their table.
The other argument I hear is with regard to the superior health benefits of a vegetarian diet vs. a diet that includes meat, and this one makes me laugh (because our teeth, apparently aren't enough evidence to prove that we need at least some meat, righ?)
The fact is that there are several nutrients that are only available through animal products. B12 is one. There is no reliable plant source for B12, and for those who eschew all animal products, B12 deficiency is a serious issue.
Vitamins D and iron are also limited in their availability in plant foods. There are some plants that do contain these nutrients, but iron, for instance, is more easily absorbed from animal sources. Further, there is some good deal of research to suggest that not all nutrients are created equal. For instance, the iron found in plants isn't exactly the same as the iron found in meat, and our bodies will process them differently.
Let's not talk about supplements, either, because if the argument is that a vegetarian/vegan diet is so much healthier, then one would be able to procure all of one's dietary needs from the food and wouldn't need the supplements, right?
I like looking things up, and I was curious. How do vegetarian cultures compare to non-vegetarian cultures around the world, health wise?
France is one of the heart-healthiest countries in the world, which really surprised everyone, especially the researchers, because the French make no sacrifices when it comes to rich foods. The life expectancy of a French person is 84 years. Only 2% of the French consider themselves vegetarians and when one looks at the causes of death, only 9% of the French are stricken by heart-related illnesses.
- An aside - France is the largest exporter of rabbit meat in the world, and rabbit is a staple in much of French cuisine. For those suffering from diet-related illnesses (heart disease, diabetes), the absolute best meat, pound-for-pound, is rabbit, as it's incredibly lean and has the highest protein content of any of the most common livestock animals - maybe there's no correlation between French health and eating rabbit, but there could be.
In India, 40% of the population is vegetarian. The life expectancy of someone living in India is 64 years, and we might want to argue that their lower life expectancy has nothing to do with their diet, until one considers that 38% of the population dies from heart-related illnesses.
Maybe there is no correlation between their strict vegetarian diet versus the French's eat-everything-as-long-as-it-has-cream attitude and the longer life expectancy and healthier hearts, but maybe there is.
The country with the healthiest diet in the world is Japan. They are not vegetarians. In fact, there is a lot of information on the Internet about how difficult it is to be a strict vegetarian in Japan, because so many of their dishes contain fish or a fish-broth.
And, I'm sorry, but fish are animals, and fish have feelings and intelligence, just as much as my bunnies. Ask my daughter, who raises Betas about how smart and sensitive and interactive they are. If one eats fish, one can not call oneself a "vegetarian."
We can't live (for very long) without food, and eating requires killing something. Really, it's just that simple. As such, arguments that demonize the eating of meat on ethical grounds are a bit naive, in my opinion.
Further, if our first concern is being completely ethical when it comes to our food, our only choice is to forage and/or hunt all of our food. That way, the plants and animals we consume have an equal chance against us.
Unfortunately, no one’s going to do that, and so the next best option for ethical eating is a diet that consists of local, seasonal foods. Without knowing our food, where our food comes from, who grew that food, and what had to happen for that food to get to us, it’s too easy to ignore the fact that everything we eat was once a living thing, and if one is unwilling to admit that he/she has killed to have that meal, then one really has no right to make a moral or ethical stand against me for raising rabbits for meat.