I meant to submit this article to a New York Times essay contest but with a trip to Ireland and our move I hadn’t time to edit and post it. Here is it, very late, but I wanted to share this with you as it is a big part of how I view the world and who I am.
One of our mama cows licking her calf.
Lambs are impossibly cute, so are piglets, and there’s nothing as adorable as a doe-eyed newborn calf and the loving nudge its mama cow gives it to say: “I am here for you, I’m your mama and you are mine.” On our farm, our animals nurture their young for as long as needed, express their instincts, run in pastures, sometimes get sick. They live and yes, when it is time to slaughter them we take them to a small local plant where this is done with respect.
To me, all the cuteness can’t be separated from the cycle of life and death that is part of our
farm. Do I feel bad about sending our animals to slaughter? No, I don’t, but I am thoughtful about it—when my dad is loading the trailer with pigs it isn’t done casually. I get a feeling in my gut; it isn’t regret exactly, but solemnity. We know we are taking these animals to die. Meat isn’t just meat to me, it’s our pastures, our land and our way of life. Our animals are part of an ecological system that adds nutrients to our pastures, joy to our lives and nutritious meat to our plates.
My father believes that everyone needs to ask themselves whether it is ok to take the life of an animal. Some go as far as to say you must be able to take the life of the animal yourself, which I think is a bit ridiculous, but I can understand the reasoning behind it. It is ethical(ok) to take the life of an animal because it is part of the cycle of life, and as farmers we are bonded to our animals in an ancient tradition of care and slaughter. We also have the privilege of living closely with them and it’s hard to quantify in words how deeply right caring for animals feels. In Icelandic a farmer is called “bondi,” which like the word “husbandry” means you are bonded to the animals in your care. It’s a bond that is beautifully complex and like any good relationship it’s deeply rewarding and stirs something deep in one’s humanity. People who have worked with cattle know what I am talking about and there probably are evolutionary reasons for this. Cattle have been with us for almost as long as we have been human.
As someone with a learning disability, my bond to animals and my ability to understand them has given me confidence in world where my talents as a visual thinker aren’t valued. With our animals, dyslexia is a plus. I can check the herd quickly and because I think visually our farm is a place where I can excel. Amongst the pigs and cattle I know that my “disability” is a symptom of our modern times, where we don’t need to measure and quantify small changes in our natural environment for survival. Unfortunately today we don’t value observation and have become collectively indifferent to the natural world, which has created a lot of confusion about food, and this is particularly true when it comes to meat.
All forms of agricultural cultivation have an environmental impact; vegetable farms kill deer and rabbits and dairy farms kill bull calves. In the Salinas Valley they have implemented strict extermination protocols to avoid e coli contamination for the lettuce much of America consumes raw—which means they kill as many animals as they can in the valley. I spoke at a conference where a group of students had created a garden as part of a class. They were all surprised to learn its impact on the environment and there was passionate debate on how to control the rabbits and deer. Even vegetables raise ethical issues. However, few care to see the impact all our food has on the natural world because food has become an abstraction. Few people have a direct relationship with food.
The question of whether we have the right to kill animals isn’t really a question that is exclusive to meat, but with meat, the ethical questions are harder to ignore. You are eating the flesh of a living thing, and this fact can’t be avoided. Just because you don’t eat meat doesn’t mean the food on your plate is more ethical; the opposite could be true. If cows and calves need to die to make milk, isn’t it ethical to make use of their meat? Most religious prohibitions on meat were born out of limited natural resources. The Middle East is a good example, where lush land turned dramatically arid, and restrictions on pork (pigs are omnivores and compete for human food) were implemented to keep social order. In pre-industrial India, cows and oxen were more valuable alive and religious restriction reflected this. Now oxen have been replaced by oil-powered tractors and a prohibition on meat has resulted in cruelty where older dairy cows are left to starve–and those that are sent to die are slaughtered by the lower classes. Strict prohibitions on meat can sometimes result in cruelty and unforeseen moral issues.
The killing of animals shouldn’t be glossed over. Slaughter is a violent act, the taking of a life, but part of the ethics of killing an animal is respecting that it was once alive. Having personally experienced the slaughter of animals has made my decision to eat meat and sell it a deeply personal and ethical one. Animals can’t see the future and when they are slaughtered they haven’t been thinking about being killed; it just happens, and hopefully quickly and without too much pain. Meat is ethical because I live in a world filled with animals, and if we didn’t kill our animals they wouldn’t be born and our pastures wouldn’t be renewed. It’s this intense love of animals that makes me so thoughtful about killing them, but I never want to lose that feeling in my gut or the joy of knowing what it is to see them fully alive.