ethics of eating meat

After only two weeks, I went to the grocery store. I could’ve made it longer if I was truly out of cash (and SNAP benefits), but, I wasn’t. I got some staples and some fresh fruits and vegetables. And fig newtons (“fig bars“) because my younger daughter had asked to try them a few days before. On Saturday, I stocked up at BJs on some bulk items. Out of habit, I bought paper towels (that I returned before I left the parking lot). I ran out when I wasn’t going to the market and I’ve become a no-paper-towels aficionado.
The length of time I go without visiting the grocery store may not be impressive. Despite this, the life changes for me have been significant. I value leftovers. My cooking is more efficient. I know (pretty well) what’s in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. I don’t get sucked into “screw it, I’m ordering a pizza.” We eat much, much, much better (whole) foods.
I suspected my cooking habits would return to the glory days when I was a new mother with my first daughter. Freezing garden harvests, quinoa with molasses for breakfast, yoghurt in the crockpot. What I didn’t predict at all was the impact on my garbage.
After picking a bushel of apples only to find they were infested with grubs, I needed to get rid of them. Certainly, I wasn’t going to put them all in the trash. I found a place for them (a woman who lives by the Starbucks I work at who has chickens and, it turns out, horses). I was nudged into finally signing up for Garbage to Garden. My ex-husband and his fiancé have been using this service for ages. Now that I’m using it, I can’t say enough good things. It’s amazing. AMAZING.
Garbage to Garden: $11/month, a large plastic tub with a lid, all my organic waste goes in there, put it out with the trash, it gets picked up, new plastic tub is left for me. I also put out a jar with cooking oil (I made potato chips) that will be used in making biofuel.
One significant effect of the no-groceries challenge, combined with Garbage to Garden is visually stunning to me:
IMG_8080That’s it. That’s our family’s garbage for the week. Mostly recycling, a 1/3 full Garbage to Garden, and one very not-full garbage bag. We used to have at least two, if not three bags so full I had to double bag them and put duct tape on the bottom. We rolled out our big trash can to hold the bags. Twice I dealt with maggots because the trash collectors don’t deal with broken bags (and I found that out the first time in the summer, once I just didn’t notice the broken bag was still in there).
Assuming this will be a pattern, that I stick to mostly not going to the market for a couple weeks, then I buy staples, some fresh fruit and vegetables, and some treats (school lunches, etc.), then I waft back into “I’ll just grab some bread since we’re almost out…” ending up with $75 of groceries. I’ll return to the “no groceries” challenge for myself. Restart. In any case, it’s one of the best things I’ve done for me and my family in a long time.
(Plus, the meat share I’ve been making payments on for several months starts delivery soon! Yay! I’ve not bought meat for ages. I simply can’t stomach eating miserable, disgusting, tortured, unhealthy meat.)

When I’m sad—especially the sadness that comes when my daughters aren’t with me—there are some things I like to do for comfort. I go to the Portland Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. I go to Whole Foods to get a small (ha!) chocolate ganache cake and a container full of fancy quinoa/kale/beans/wheatberries kinds of salads. I might buy a few oil pastels that I’ve been doing without.
The meat I buy at the farmers’ market is from animals that have lived relatively happy lives and were butchered on the humane side of slaughtering. I don’t pretend that harvesting meat from animals is anything but brutal, but the farther away from a factory killing site the better. In other words, the meat I buy is expensive.
As I was going through some of these “soothe myself” activities today, I thought about living without enough money but choosing to spend the little I have on things like expensive meat and chocolate cake.
Expensive: meat from animals that lived happy lives and were killed in small, local slaughterhouses.
Costly: purchasing meat that feels like I’m eating death and feces; teaching my children that industrial farming is fine and dandy and harmless.
Expensive: chocolate ganache cake, gourmet salads, and oil pastels.
Costly: dismissing my sadness as something I should make go away; pretending everything is okay.
As I learn to live within my very limited means, I won’t put aside my personal values. Most of the time, I find inexpensive alternatives to those things I might’ve done in the past. I download my audiobooks from the library, for example. Or I brew my own coffee or make my own gourmet salads with stuff I have on hand or growing in the garden. At times, making the more expensive choice is an investment in my quality of life. If it’s my upper-class upbringing that makes me think this way, so be it. Small pleasures or purchases consistent with my values –> contentment –> emotional strength –> less stress –> better choices (more sleep, for example) –> living mindfully and in the present moment = not only surviving but really living, full of gratitude and joy. Sometimes I choose the more expensive option because the alternative costs too much.

Making sure you don’t puncture the large intestine (causing shit to squirt out) takes patience and precision. I can see how, with practice, a person could get it down to some fairly quick motions, but, the care necessary for a clean gutting of the carcass simply couldn’t happen at an industrial slaughterhouse. There’s no way.
As I wrote about in January, I participated in a “pig kill” at a farm in Maine this past winter. Until one of the farmers “butt-dialed” me a couple times the other day, I had filed the experience away in my mind as something to come back to. I took photographs of it from start to finish, but they are so graphic I haven’t sorted out a respectful way to share them.
Since the pig kill, I haven’t been able to comfortably purchase meat from the supermarket. It’s gotten to the point that I almost never do. The pig kill itself, as I wrote about before, wasn’t traumatic or disturbing to me. It simply became clear that using a factory model to handle this process is entirely absurd. In each step, personal attention and mindfulness were required, both from a health perspective (preventing contamination from pig shit, for example) and from the perspective of processing the dead animal’s body parts properly. My hands held and pulled a leg to hold open the abdominal cavity so the guts could be removed. In an industrial slaughterhouse there would be no time to patiently hold the carcass at the right angle (not stretched too far open, but open enough for a clean removal of the internal organs). Impossible.
Combining this intimate personal experience with the horrific descriptions of the industrial slaughterhouses from the radical vegan (my label) author of Eating Animals makes for a new relationship with eating meat. I’m still a committed omnivore. Or, rather, I want to be. I enjoy eating meat. I like red meat quite rare. One of my favorite foods of all time is sashimi. I like how caramelization happens on the outside when meat is cooked with dry heat or oil. How moisture changes the consistency. And, how each part of the animal has different colors and flavors and textures. I like that human beings live as animals among other animals; that we care for and use non-human animals as food. I think that seems like a natural arrangement. A natural arrangement when it’s done mindfully. While Jonathan Safran Foer would disagree with me (see, “radical vegan”), I think part of caring for the earth includes omnivorous behavior in at least some parts of humanity. Again, with mindfulness.
I struggle with this, though, since Eating Animals affected me in ways that Supersize Me or many other documentaries about the meat industries or factory farming haven’t. I walk by the meat section of the local supermarket, even the fancy schmancy one at Whole Foods, and I can only see and feel brutality. Not only the abuse and terror of non-human animals, but, even more vivid to me, the dehumanizing effect the industrial farming has on the human workers. I can’t get past that. So, when I remember to do it (I’ll do it tomorrow), I go to the Portland Farmer’s Market (or the Portland Maine Winter Farmer’s Market) where I can buy meat that comes from animals that lived relatively happy lives and died relatively peaceful deaths. I don’t have any illusions that their deaths are somehow painless or serene or spiritual. I do believe the killings there must be done more responsibly than at the mega-slaughterhouses. But, when I forget to stock up or simply can’t afford to buy much and run out of meat in our freezer, we turn to other sources of protein like beans and cheese. I can’t afford, financially, to stay true to my values when it comes to dairy. So far, I’ve been able to stomach continuing to buy industrial farmed (short-term cheaper) cheese where I can’t get myself to buy the (short-term cheaper) supermarket meat.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post I have photographs I want to use as I discuss these issues, but I’m not sure how to share them. I’m going to post one photo here that I think shows a glimpse of the kind of precision and patience that was required for the proper cleaning of this pig carcass. I’ve added it far down the page so those who don’t want to see the mildly “gory” pictures can avoid them (I hope).

Today, I witnessed the killing of a pig. I participated in the processing of the dead animal, preparing it for tomorrow’s butchering. Of my many swarms of thoughts and feelings about today, I keep returning to how I didn’t feel sad for the pig that got killed. My response wasn’t troubling to me as I believe we all use different coping skills to survive difficult experiences. But, this didn’t feel like denial of something tragic or painful. I simply felt void of sorrow for the animal. Am I some kind of monster? How did I not care about this pig?
During the killing—which was not at all what could be described as a “clean kill”—I was moved nearly to tears. A few times, I heard myself quietly moaning like a mother comforting her injured child. But it wasn’t the pig who was being shot and cut that was causing this deep sorrow.
The man who did the killing and the second fully living pig were the focus of my grieving. They were alive and experiencing the horror.
“You came at a bad time, Heather,” said one of the farmers, apologetically, referencing the required brutality of the messy kill. I said, “I think I came at the right time.”
Why did I feel so disconnected from the pig’s experience of a slow death?
In many circumstances, people use feelings and intuition to make choices. They then tap into logic and rationality to explain the emotional decisions. Most people tend to think this isn’t the case, preferring to believe their informed decisions are made based on reason and critical thinking. I’m comfortable with the fact that most of my life is guided by intuition but that I may want to (or need to) explain my choices in ways that seem rooted in reason or rationality. This evening I’ve been reflecting on today’s experiences, trying to piece together the whats and whys of all that I felt. Moments ago I remembered shock.
In 2001, I was in a car wreck. I ran a red light and was “double t-boned.” That means as I was crossing the intersection, one car on either side of me (those that had the right of way) crashed into my car. A t-shaped crash.
Since that time I’ve had some “flashbacks” or memories of the experience that mostly I can’t put into words. The only part of the experience that made a big impact on me was the silence. Not really silence, but, the absence of sound. There has never been a more quiet time in the history of time than those moments when the cars made impact, my car spun around (I was told), and it slid to a crashing stop against (a stop sign? a parked car? I don’t know) something. Even when I was awake enough to interact with the police, everything was still so quiet.

Today I believe I was intuitively aware that the pig who died an unfortunately slow death was likely hardly aware of what was going on. Not because I think pigs don’t feel. In fact, the emotional impact of the second very living pig’s presence continues to bring out very strong sorrowful and maternal feelings in me. But because I believe after that first shot, the one that didn’t kill it, the chemicals in that pig’s body probably kicked in like the ones that made my car wreck emotionally survivable for me. I’m not suggesting there wasn’t pain, terror, confusion, desperation, or a whole range of possible feelings this pig was having. But because of my own experience with what should have been a life/death terror, I think the dying pig probably didn’t suffer. I can’t know this, of course. And I hear the voices of PETA people or others who object to killing animals, such as the author of Eating Animals, saying I’m making justifications for what was actually cruelty. All I know is my own experience. It is my experience, and my gut tells me, that this animal didn’t suffer from what might seem like a horrible death. Based on my experience and my intuition, this pig had the chemicals of “shock” raging through its body and if it had survived much of the experience would go unremembered or, at least, not be easily recalled.
The intention was to kill the pig quickly. The intention was to avoid all unnecessary suffering for the pig. When the pig’s body was giving the last heaves of life or audible and visible physiological functions, the group gathered with arms around each other and most members sang a song of gratitude. There were tears and hugs and quiet gestures of comfort shared among the group.
With the dead and still bleeding pig at my feet, my focus continued to be on the living beings around me. I found scraps of vegetables from around the yard to give to the obviously distressed living pig. I watched to be sure the man who did the killing was finding support among his peers. I didn’t take pictures of the killing or immediately following. There was a feeling of privacy and respect in those moments I would not tarnish by clicking pics with my iPhone.
The ethics of eating meat is complicated. So many people need for things to be right or wrong. Simple is preferred, even if it’s not honest. Much of today I was struck by my emotionally removed intellectual curiosity. Tonight, I’ve settled into the awareness that I was and am feeling a deep and true sense of awe.

Bloody rare. I like my meat. I’m an omnivore, not a vegetarian. Once my first daughter was old enough to start asking questions, I began more seriously investigating my own relationship with my carnivorous tendencies. I taught her that this was “cow meat,” and this was “pig meat,” instead of hamburger or bacon, for example. Around that time I read Barbara Kingsolver’s fantastic book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Mindfulness, or intentionality in my food choices became important to me.

Fast forward a few years and where my food comes from is still important to me. As much as I love eating meat, I don’t love pretending that’s not what I’m doing. I like the idea of knowing the animal, for example, before eating it. Or, if that’s not an option, knowing the farmer and trusting they provided the animal with a good life.

I got the idea last summer that I’d like to harvest my own meat. Our landlords won’t let us have chickens, so that’s out. I would like to explore the relationship between taking an animal’s life so I can eat its flesh and my own thoughts and ideas about mortality, what it means to be human, all those big ideas. I’m toying with the idea of going hunting. Deer hunting, I guess, is what has crossed my mind.

In On Killing (an incredible book—if you’re a peace-loving liberal like me—as it instilled in me more respect than I thought possible for our military) he talks about how death is taboo. How as in Victorian times sexuality was hidden and therefore became the Holy Grail. Everything was about not dealing with sexuality and sexuality was perverted from those days. These days most of us aren’t familiar with death. In past times death was a part of life. Killing chickens or other animals for meat was no big deal. If someone in your family died, you dressed the body for the funeral. It was close and real and undeniable.

I would like my meat’s former life to be undeniable to me. Not every moment, but I’d like to face it head on.

In the quest to face the truth of meat, I signed up for a firearms training course sponsored by the North Berwick Rod & Gun Club and the NRA, Women on Target. The experience was spectacular. Most startling to me was what it felt like to be on foreign territory. It was clear that no one, even those people who seemed to think they understood where I was coming from, had any idea. Every single person there had experience with guns in some form or another. I once touched a rifle that a boyfriend had for when he and his father would go duck hunting in the boundary waters of Minnesota, but that was about three minutes of contact with a firearm. That was it. Everyone else was used to them. They had them in their homes. They talked about using them “to protect themselves.”

Of course, with the horrible shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a lot of people are talking about “gun control.” There were a couple times in my workshop where I decided to go ahead and bring up some of the issues I knew would be controversial. I surprised myself with how much I held my tongue, honestly. I wanted the guys to like me. But I also didn’t pretend to be who I wasn’t. It was just difficult to sit back and hear them talking about how “this light’s gonna shine on an intruder and scare him away before I even take a shot” as if the terror of a home invasion wouldn’t render them immobile (maybe it wouldn’t but there was something so television/movie about the way they described protecting themselves).

One of the greatest things I learned in this experience is what an intellectual or even spiritual experience it is to work with guns. There are so many different levels of appreciation or talent. My addict’s personality was definitely into it. I wanted to shoot more. Keep shooting until I mastered it. I immediately had a favorite gun (if I were a real fan of the things I’m sure I’d call them firearms, as that’s what the guys of the club did) because of how it felt. I was totally drawn into the experience of learning how to hold them, how to not anticipate the shot, how to aim correctly with a variety of different weapons, etc.

What I’m saying is those of us on the outside of gun culture don’t understand, or, I didn’t, that it’s a complex experience. It’s not necessarily just a bunch of yahoos who want to go explode some shit with bullets. There is mastery of a skill. There’s a major psychological component to the experience. Even writing about it I’m reminded how I wanted to arrange some practice time again.

It’s my position that outside of a military or police context, only cowards use fully automatic weapons. This is a statement I think that should become the norm in our society. It’s something I think even the most radical right wing fanatics would agree about. I’m not discussing issues of legality or control here. I’m talking about our moral compass as a culture.

If we all agree that fully automatic weapons = cowardice, we can begin to find common ground. Stepping outside the “control or no control” argument seems key.

It’s also my belief, and the workshop confirmed this for me, that we must require significant levels of training and testing before anyone is allowed to own or operate firearms of any kind. It’s not like riding a bike. Even riding a bike takes practice. We ought to, as a society, put firearms in the same category as automobiles. Our government (we, the people) is responsible for our protection. Part of that protection ought to be the requirement that gun owners train, practice, obtain licenses after testing, and get re-tested every year or so (to be determined). We ought to be free to own and operate any kind of weapon we see fit. But those weapons also ought to be available to us only after we show we have the skills required to use them. It’s just common sense.

At some point I’d like to detail the entire experience of the workshop. For now, here are some highlights.

My first shot:

The Henry. My favorite. It was smooth and steady. I felt it was my favorite before I saw how I did firing it, but I did alright with it and that made me like it more.

When they took us out at the end to shoot… I forget what they called them, the things that get shot up into the air, several things were interesting. First, there was almost no guidance about how to do this. I liked that, though, because I like doing things to learn them rather than being told how. It was less satisfying, though, than shooting the (very close) targets because it was hit-or-miss. With the targets there was the satisfaction of knowing how close I was getting. Still, it was a fun way to end the morning.

Keeping ourselves safe shouldn’t be about getting guns into everyone’s hands. It should be about making sure that everyone who has guns is trained in their use. And, of course, criminals will always have weapons. That’s not the point for me, here. Guns are scary, powerful things. Holding a loaded gun in my hands was freaky and strange and exhilarating. It was a meditative experience that brought up many philosophical issues that I’d like to explore further. I will explore them further, in fact. I am glad to understand that it’s not just idiots who like guns. That’s pretty much how I felt, though I knew intellectually that wasn’t the case. It was my sense that only idiots would like guns, what was the point in them anyway, right?
Well, if this social anarchist peace loving empathetic and caring liberal can learn the gun culture isn’t about assholes and power (only) I think maybe some of those guys from that side might learn that those of us who believe regulating firearms aren’t against them entirely. It seems there are opportunities to learn from each other, find common ground, and still hold true to our own values.