On animals and vegetarianism

If you looked back on your life you could probably find a half-dozen pivotal moments, moments, when your outlook on life changed. Perhaps it was a revelation about religion or politics or a near encounter with death or the loss of a loved one. Trying times in our lives try our souls and the values that make us think and reflect on what is right and wrong, what is important to cherish and what holds the most value in our lives.

On my last overseas work assignment I saw a familiar face on the cover of a hard-cover book. The photo was of Alan Alda who played Hawkeye on the long-running television show M*A*S*H. The book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, was a humorous look at Alda’s life, on Hollywood and about life values and pivotal moments. I’d always been a fan of Alda as he is quite intelligent, articulate and seems to act and speak with great conviction; I’ve always admired someone who fights for what they believe in.

In the book, Alda discusses how – during his life as he matured – he modified his understanding of listening to someone. He said that in order to properly listen to someone you don’t just hear what they have to say, think about it and then respond. He said that to truly listen to someone, you have to open yourself in such a way that you are willing to let them change you – to let their opinion change your opinion. When you are willing to be changed when you listen to someone you step outside of your predisposed beliefs and condition and actually hear and empathize with what they are saying. It was a remarkable concept and I have kept it in mind since I’ve read the book.

During my trip from Perth to Exmouth and back, I had occasion to meet a wonderful woman named Andrea. She is a vegetarian and we talked and talked at great length about the subject of vegetarianism – specifically: eating animals. I’d never given the subject much thought; I’ve always considered vegetarians a bit crazy and thought that they were over blowing the whole issue. I thought about what Alda had said and as she spoke so passionately about cruelty to animals, I listened and for the first time, I actually began to think about the issue.

Interestingly, it took years of debate before I began to even look at the plight of the Palestinians. I’d been raised to believe – as have most Americans – that they are terrorists from birth. It took quite a bit of research on my own to find out what I’d been told by friends in the Middle East during my work there. Perhaps if I’d read Alda’s book earlier I would have had a more open mind on the subject. I don’t think I’ll ever be a vegetarian but in listening to Andrea’s arguments I could begin to understand the criticism of the food industry and how it handles animals.

Andrea shared with me so many examples about how cows and pigs are intelligent creatures, how they are on par with dogs in how they look, listen and feel. Her comments about studies that mapped cow’s brain activity showed that they experience fear and one begins to wonder that if we are going to make food out of them, why make them suffer needlessly? No one would tolerate the sounds of a screaming dog, why should they tolerate those from a cow, pig or chicken?

In an interesting twist of fate, when I was in Perth at my hotel I saw a documentary about Australia’s role in the beef slaughter houses operating in Indonesia. Some appalling treatment was videotaped and the meat industry and Australian government is getting a lot of criticism. In one particular video six or seven bulls were slaughtered – but all in the same room and within sight of each other. As the bulls were killed and slaughtered one by one, the remaining bulls became more and more frightened until the last bull was shaking like a leaf. I’d never seen a cow in fear but this bull was clearly scared out of his mind. I thought what a cruel torture it must have been for him to watch his mates be killed, cut up and then knowing that he would be next. He clearly knew what was going on and it was painful to watch his misery.

I suppose that most of us (meat-eaters) conveniently ignore the subject of animal cruelty because it is uncomfortable to think about. I’ve hunted and I can’t imagine torturing an animal that you intend to eat. Why should I buy food that has been tortured? I began to ask if I had any responsibility to know where my food comes from. If I buy meat that was tortured am I implicit in their torture by merely being willfully ignorant? I’ve made the argument that Americans must take some responsibility for the actions our government takes overseas; it is irresponsible to be willfully ignorant when the actions of our nation may cause other people to suffer.

And in an even stranger twist of fate, I just saw the movie Never Let Me Go. The movie is about donor-clones who grow from childhood to become young adults and then they have their organs harvested. It was a painful movie to watch and was masterfully written and directed. I don’t think that it would be easy to watch this movie and feel no emotion. I thought about the bull that was harvested for his meat and drew the parallel with these beautiful young adults who were also being harvested. I don’t think I’d be able to accept an organ from one of them – and surely that would be to save my life. I don’t need beef to save my life, there are veggie alternatives.

I know that I’ll at least make the effort to make better meat purchases. I’d like to know that the animals I’m eating were killed ethically and didn’t suffer needlessly. An easy choice is to buy free range eggs versus those laid in wire cages.

While we traveled together, Andrea pointed out this animal and that. I had always seen animals but I have never looked at them like this before – as sentient beings that had a life of their own. We saw so many wonderful animals on this trip and I’ll write more about them in later posts. In the photo above, Andrea captured a photo of a little Gecko who was sunning himself on the chase lounge chair at our hotel pool in Coral Bay. He sure seemed comfortable and content there as he warmed himself. In the photo below, as we walked home from dinner one night in Exmouth, I spotted a tiny frog on the ground and Andrea picked him up for a quick photo. She always gets so excited when she sees animals and her enthusiasm is contagious – and it rubbed off on me a bit.

Our meeting, Alan Alda’s book, the news stories about the beef trade in Indonesia and the movie Never Let Me Gohad a significant impact on my thinking. And like some other life changing events I can’t help but think about these chance events and how they will change my life in the future.


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