Thoughts on veganism, after visiting Farm Sanctuary

I’m changing my eating habits after our two-night visit to Farm Sanctuary. This is partly a response to seeing the cute and happy animals, partly an effect of absorbing the sanctuary’s strong vegan stance (and changing our own diet for a few days to conform to it), and partly my gut reaction after reading more about factory farms (the book that affected me most was Sue Coe’s Dead Meat: Coe, a writer/artist, traveled the country visiting factory farms, then made the book out of her sketchbooks and journals). But it is also a natural evolution in my constant quest for a healthier lifestyle, and so I am refining my exercise routine and general worldview as well as just my diet.

Our time on the farm
We got to the sanctuary on Sunday afternoon, so we had a few hours to hang out in the cabin before bedtime. There were portrait-style photos of the farm animals all over the walls, we weren’t allowed to bring in any non-vegan food (not that anyone checked), and there was vegan literature and media all over the place, from sanctuary newsletters to DVDs to a children’s book called That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals (this book would certainly have made me a lifelong vegetarian if I’d read it as a kid, which may not be a bad thing). Seeing as there was a piglet, chicken, or cow staring at me from every wall, I was glad we hadn’t any nonvegan food around, but I didn’t really feel swayed yet to change my habits. We get pasture-raised eggs from our CSA, we only buy sustainably raised meat and fish, and I try to get organic dairy products where possible. So there was nothing yet to make me feel discomfited.

That evening, I started reading Christina Pirello’s This Crazy Vegan Life, which takes veganism as a jumping-off point to health and happiness, without stressing the “crazy vegan” part more than it has to. The book reminded me, as did John Robbins’s Food Revolution, which I read last February, that there are extremely compelling health and environmental reasons to go vegan, even if you completely hate animals. Pirello also says, and this resonated deeply with me, that when we say humans are omnivores, that doesn’t mean that we are designed to eat meat the way Americans typically do, it just means that we can eat some meat, if it’s available, to supplement a primarily vegetarian diet. (I have — shame, shame, I know — not yet read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though it has been sitting on my shelves since it first came out, but I suspect his ideas are similar. Pirello even quotes his famous manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) So that got me thinking, as did Pirello’s enthusiastic exhortations to exercise more.

The next morning, we toured the farm and met the animals: delightful and sweet goats and sheep, a rather indifferent cow, and a surprisingly amiable turkey named Gideon. Most of the animals seemed quite happy to be there, and they coexisted in lovely harmony: ducks and geese sharing a pond, chickens and turkeys living in the same barn, goats and sheep hanging out in the same pasture, even two cats napping or eating (vegan cat food, which I didn’t even know existed) in total peace with rabbits and ducks! It was definitely the kind of farm we citydwellers all think of when we think of farms, very “Old MacDonald.”

Our tour guide, seeing that we already knew about factory farms, spared us gory details, but I managed to be disturbed three times just the same, when I asked and received answers to questions I’d been wondering about for a while:

  1. Wild sheep don’t need to be sheared, but domestic sheep do, because we have bred them to have more wool than they can comfortably deal with year-round. The guide told us that some of their sheep grow up to 50% of their body weight in wool. So it’s not that sheep are naturally dependent on humans to be comfortable in the summer; we’ve made them that way.
  2. We read in the newsletter that Farm Sanctuary puts sunscreen on their pigs in the summer. This seemed absurd. But out guide explained that while in the wild, animals like pigs and turkeys are dark-colored for camouflage, animals bred for their meat have been selected to have pale coloring, because consumers like white meat. Nearly all the rescued turkeys and chickens at the sanctuary were a startlingly pure white, and their pigs, pale pink — hence the need for sunscreen.
    I find that for many vegetarians, and ethical meat-eaters, there is often just one particular fact that made them change their habits, and it’s often very idiosyncratic. Somehow we can listen to long lists of abuses without doing more than “tsk”-ing, but if you push just the right button, we’ll stop and think. The sunscreen thing really disturbed me. Maybe it’s because I burn so easily myself? I just hate thinking that we have bred these creatures into such a state that they are now actually unfit to live outdoors. They have been bred to never see the sun. It’s against all natural instincts!*
  3. Then there’s something I learned that made me a little less inclined to go vegan. I had been wondering what Farm Sanctuary does with the eggs laid by their hens. Since everyone at the sanctuary is totally vegan, I knew they wouldn’t sell or eat the eggs, but then what? I asked our guide, and she told us that chickens in the wild sometimes eat their own eggs when other nutrients are deficient — so the sanctuary apparently uses this as a justification for grinding up the eggs and mixing them into their chicken feed. (Or their pig feed.) When I heard this, I thought, “That’s it. I have no qualms about eating eggs.” If the chickens themselves are eating them…

Why I have problems with veganism
None of this made me want to give up all animal products, though our tour did strengthen my resolve to eat only humanely raised animal products (“humane” dictated by my own research, not by a label, since those can be misleading) — and to eat less of them in general. Reading Pirello reminded me that animal products are really bad for us: full of cholesterol and saturated fats, less easily digested in many cases, etc. But, as I say, I wasn’t about to go vegan. For one thing, I’ve grown accustomed to the sensory pleasures of animal products in recent months: dumplings, bacon and other cured meats (my favorite), and the rich flavor of meat broths. And I still feel, as I always have, that there is nothing in the vegetable kingdom that rivals the taste or texture of animal fat.** The other thing, though, is that there is much about the vegan community that bothers me. My objections are not limited to vegans, of course, but extend to all communities; this is partly why I’ve always been an outsider; associations make me uncomfortable. But there’s enough that troubles me about veganism to hold me back from jumping wholeheartedly into that community.

First, if you don’t already know, veganism is not just about diet; if you’re a vegan, you are against all use of animals as commodities, whether for food or for other purposes. I support this stance in theory, but in practice, I really can’t tell you why we shouldn’t use wool or honey or silk if it’s humanely obtained. Leather I understand, since the animal must die for us to use its skin, but for these others, I just don’t know. While we were on the farm tour, our guide spoke disparagingly of some of the goats’ former lives as “lawnmower goats,” adding that they had been mistreated, and that she doesn’t like to see animals used where machines would do just as well. But the goats we saw used for brush control on our local trails seemed incredibly happy and well cared-for. Should we be turning these goats over to places like Farm Sanctuary? Would they (the goats, or the people) like that any better?

What gets under my skin about the no-animals-as-commodities view is that it seems, at its worst, arrogant and short-sighted. Say we really do stop using animals as commodities. What will we do with them then? Let them die out? I can’t get behind this. Divvy them up among the world’s people to keep as companion animals? There are abuses aplenty in the pet world, and say what you will about pigs being smarter than dogs, there are far fewer people around who can keep a pig as a pet — or a goat, or even a chicken — than can keep a cat or a dog. Society is about as likely to convert wholesale to veganism as it is to start dedicating pasture to “food” animals so they can coexist among us as non-food. So I just can’t see any way to support a total “don’t use animals” view; I don’t think we can make it work. Of course, as Erik points out, we are so far from this end-of-the-road scenario as to not need to worry about it, but I’m irked anyway because I think the vegan stance alienates potential supporters. Everyone can agree that abusing animals is a bad thing; precious few have that same level of enthusiasm for phasing out wool or honey or well-loved draft horses or brush-clearing goats.

The other thing is, much as we love animals and appreciate their affection and comfort, much as they are documented to be loving creatures who are intelligent and sensitive, we still do not know what they’re thinking. As someone who lives with two very funny cats, I don’t quite believe the “experts” who tell us that pets don’t get jealous or whatever… but I would never go so far as to think I know what my kitties want all the time, or what they’re thinking when they look at me or meow a certain way. How can we say, in full confidence, that a goat at Farm Sanctuary or a goat who is a family pet is any happier than a Goats R Us goat? How can we say — setting slaughter conditions aside for the moment*** — that a humanely-raised meat animal is any less contented during its lifetime? It’s all very well to say we want animals to be free and happy, but let’s not forget that people are not free. We think we are, because we have money and possessions and non-arranged marriages and employment contracts. And thank god we’re not slaves. But we are not 100% free, and perhaps never will be, because that’s the nature of living with others.

So this is why I get frustrated with the “lawnmower goats” objections. Why shouldn’t goats work for a living? We do, and I’d argue it’s not any more natural for us to do 9-5 drudgery for pay than it is for animals. As long as both animals and humans are treated decently, and allowed to pursue our instincts and inclinations as much as possible, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t benefit from animals as long as we also treat them well (and as long as there aren’t non-animal sources that serve equally well).

In the same vein, I also get upset when animal activists act as if animal rights are the only abuse we should care about, or the only guideline for ethical behavior. Look around! Our world is full of horrors. You want me to stop wearing leather? I’d love to, but what shall I wear instead? Faux leather is made from plastic, which pollutes the environment in its manufacture and sits in landfill forever after it’s thrown out. Conventionally grown cotton is an environmental nightmare. Much of our clothing is made in sweatshops or by otherwise poorly paid and poorly treated human beings. There are no easy choices, and this is what I think too many animal-rights activists tend to gloss over.

Animal-rights activists think that if only people knew what goes on in factory farms, they’d stop eating meat. But that’s not true. Is there anyone in our generation who doesn’t know, at least on a superficial level, that meat doesn’t come from Old MacDonald’s happy farm? We know, but the trouble is, we can’t make the connection between that yummy fried chicken and the 7 weeks of acute suffering that is a meat fowl’s life on a factory farm. And, worse still, why should we? Our ability to live in our world, as reasonable empathetic beings in a corrupt world, depends on our ability to cognitively disconnect; were it otherwise, we’d be overwhelmed by the suffering all around us. Even if we gave up everything and became activists ourselves, we’d still be complicit, just perhaps to a lesser degree. And we can’t all be activists, anyway (or hermits), any more than we’re all cut out to be artists or engineers or athletes or public-school teachers.

Sigh. This has turned from a complaint against single-minded activists to a lament on my own conscience troubles and relative powerlessness. I know one person can’t do everything, and I know change only comes very very slowly. I’m glad Farm Sanctuary and even PETA (sometimes!) are doing their part to change the world, and I realize that it makes sense for them to think unrealistically big-picture and long-range. I just wish, given all the terrible stereotypes about vegans, so many vegans and animal activists wouldn’t think in ways that alienate other people who also care about animals, but who just don’t subscribe to all their extreme views.

What I’m going to do now
Anyway, coming back to where I started with all this — meat and my lifestyle, post-Farm Sanctuary — what is most clear to me now is that I can’t condemn anyone for eating meat, any more than I can condemn vegans for not wanting anyone to eat it, any more than I can condemn myself for making mixed choices in a complicated world. I believe we all have a powerful ethical obligation to live as lightly, yet as fully, as we possibly can… which is a big task, and not at all a simple undertaking.

So, to this end, I am committing (or re-committing) to a lifestyle that does this as well as I think I can right now. I will exercise every day, as I have been trying to do over the past year (and, because I’m a nut, I have actually documented this) — which is the right thing to do for myself, as well as an ethical obligation of sorts to others. I will aim to leave as light an eco-footprint as possible. And I will, in keeping with Christina Pirello’s suggestions, try for not just a mostly-vegan diet but also one that is low on refined sugars and other grains, low in processed food products, cooked at home as much as possible, AND makes me happy and doesn’t stress me out. Which means, if I crave meat, I’ll have some, but I’ll try to buy the most humanely raised meat I can find. If I eat out, I’ll do my best likewise. I’ll adhere to Michael Pollan’s manifest and eat real food, most of it plants, knowing that this will be good for my health, my wallet, and my conscience.

I think of this commitment as post-vegetarian, by which I mean merely that — for ME, as an individual — this is a progressive step up from where I was as a vegetarian. Believing, as I do, that the complexity of the world makes it impossible (but desirable) for us to make wholly harmless choices, I feel that this is the best step for me at this moment.

Hey, this is #31 on my life list!

(1) Produce: organic, sustainable, local from our CSA.
(2) Fish: I have wanted seafood much less frequently these days, and I don’t know as much about sustainable seafood as meat, but I should find out. In the meantime I’ll do as I do with meat: eat it rarely, do my research beforehand.
(3) Dairy: Dramatically reducing my dairy intake is not a big problem anymore, since I swore it off for months earlier this year and now have virtually no lactose tolerance. Pirello says dairy is really bad for us, and I believe she’s right. So I’ll treat this the same way I do meat and fish.
(4) Eggs: Oh, eggs. I love them, and as I said above, the chickens themselves are eating them. But there is one dirty downside to eggs, which is that when laying hens are hatched, there are of course male chicks born also, and since they don’t lay eggs, they get discarded — which sometimes means actually thrown in the trash, sometimes ground up alive. Our CSA, which supplies the eggs we buy, sources its laying hens from someone who gives the male chicks to the UC Davis Raptor Center, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds of prey. I think this is good work, and I suppose male chicks are good food for them, but I can’t be happy about this. Nevertheless, if I am going to eat eggs, I suspect this is as good as it gets.
(5) Environment: I love composting and recycling, and buying used whenever possible. The non-organic cotton thing reminds me again why to buy clothes and fabrics secondhand.

*Not that this is, by far, the only unnatural thing we’ve done to meat animals. Meat fowls have such large breasts that they can’t stand on their own; veal calves can’t stand up either because of their diet and the way they’re confined; laying hens’ bones are tremendously brittle because they’re forced to lay at such a rate that the calcium just leaches from their bones. Many factory farms force animals to be in close proximity while they’re being killed — can there be any worse torture than watching your companions’ throats slit all around you? And you surely already know about separating animal families, cage confinement, debeaking, and all that.

**I was a really big carnivore before I went vegetarian in 2001. After I stopped eating meat, a strange thing happened. I did not crave meat, but I craved fat, animal fat, like nobody’s business. I wanted bacon grease and crunchy roasted chicken skin and fatty pork and just… everything, any kind of fatty animal part. I had never been a dry-meat kind of person but this was beyond any previous fondness for juicy texture. And this has been my greatest pleasure in my meat-dabbling of recent months: eating fat. I know, it’s disgusting, but it is beyond reason. If they ever come up with a good vegan substitute for pure animal fat, I may never need to eat animals ever again.

***Not that I feel in any way secure in assuming non-terrifying slaughter conditions. The most humane way of slaughtering a food animal I have heard of is from my friend Stella, who lives in Portland and who went out with her partner to a free-range cattle ranch to select their beef and watch the rancher shoot it. The rancher was a clean shot, and the steer apparently had no idea what was coming. I could never do this myself, and admire Stella for being so unflinching about where her meat comes from.