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Food for Thought
by Stephanie Bell
I was three years old when I encountered my first cow. My
parents and I were taking a leisurely Sunday drive through back country roads in the
Midwest, meandering past acre after rolling acre of farm fields. "Cows!" I
pointed happily, as my father slowed the car down for a closer look. "Beef
cows," he corrected me. I can only imagine the brief glance exchanged between my
mother and father as they debated whether or not to tell me the
truth. "People eat cows," said my mother gently, as my father pressed the gas pedal to the floor and whisked us away from the brown-eyed Jersey calf with long eyelashes, chewing her cud at the edge of the fence. Horrified and confused, I burst into tears. "We were sure we had a vegetarian on our hands," jested my parents for years, every time they recounted this incident. (In reality, I didn't actually become a vegan until I was twenty-four.)
My experience as a child with the Jersey calf was not unique.
Most children seem to have a natural affinity for animals and it is the rare-usually
disturbed-child who chooses of his or her own accord to kill or maim another living
creature. Perhaps children recognize in animals a shared helplessness; they have not
yet learned to disassociate humans from the
other living creatures that inhabit the earth. Instead of squashing spiders underfoot, they are more inclined to want to touch or hold them; instead of fear and repulsion, they exhibit fascination in creatures different from themselves. Jane Goodall-the famous primatologist-became enthralled by worms as a child and was discovered by her mother on several occasions with piles of them squirming under her pillow at bedtime. But as we mature, we are taught to outgrow our childlike ways of approaching the world. Spiders become scary; worms become objects of disgust; cows become barbecue delights.
We've conveniently forgotten that hamburgers and leather gloves were
once brown-eyed calves; that sausage was once the flesh of a mud-loving pig; or that
gelatin is derived from a horse's hoof. And as our society becomes more technologically
advanced and further removed from the natural world, forgetting becomes easier and easier.
Most of us remain blissfully unaware that the vast majority of the foods we eat, the
clothes we wear, and the
every-day household products we buy have been derived from an animal that has suffered at our expense-and suffered greatly. Steeped in denial (and possibly a deeply-buried sense of shame), we tell ourselves, each other and our children that we have the right to use animals to make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more convenient. But the animals' suffering is something nobody really wants to talk about. When I first learned the truth about what really happened to the animals on my dinner plate or the animals my shampoo was tested on, I felt infinitely betrayed. Raised to be a compassionate person, I had inadvertently condoned unthinkable cruelties and abuses. Worse, I had been encouraged by my elders and peers to do so. And as our society continues to find ways to justify the
use and abuse of animals, the number of living creatures killed for human consumption creeps higher every year. In 1996, nine-billion farm animals were killed (that's more than the number of people on earth) in the United States alone-for sheer profit and convenience.
What makes these staggering figures more haunting is the fact that
each and every one of these thinking, feeling animals spends the duration of his or her
life suffering at the hands of humans. Slaughter is the end of a long continuum of
suffering that begins the moment most animals in our society are born. As babies, they are
debeaked, dehorned, detoed, tattooed and branded with hot irons; their tails and testicles
are routinely chopped off without the use of anesthesia. Brutal metal contraptions (aptly
dubbed "rape racks") painfully extract and inject semen for breeding purposes.
Chickens and cows, horses and pigs, sheep and goats, emus and geese are confined in
chains and crates, overcrowded into warehouses, and stacked by the dozens in rusted
battery cages. Even the lights are manipulated to regulate production; some animals are
kept in total darkness for months on
end. Dairy cows are pumped so full of hormones and antibiotics, their bodies produce up to ten times the amount of milk they would naturally produce; their udders become so enlarged and mutated, they actually drag along the floor. Primates in medical labs are injected with hideous human diseases, forced to inhale cigarette smoke and become addicted to cocaine. Rabbits eyes are propped open and doused with burning chemicals to test cosmetics for allergic reactions. Cats are embalmed alive in the name of science; dogs
are blown apart to test the effects of top-secret military weapons. Orca whales are taken from their natural waterways where they swim hundreds of miles every day with their mothers and grandmothers, only to be placed in barren, chlorinated tanks just large enough for them to turn around in.
Rarely-if ever-are these animals granted relief from pain or fear or boredom. They are denied fresh air or access to the outdoors. They never feel the warmth of sunshine on their faces or the sweet coolness of a fresh breeze. They are not allowed to stretch their aching legs, romp with litter-mates, or suckle warm milk from their mother's teats. Treated like inanimate objects, these living creatures are forced by the billion to endure a life that by most standards of living isn't life at all. And then, when animals have exhausted their usefulness as breeding or milking or medical or money-making machines, they are shipped to slaughterhouses in overcrowded trucks, then herded with electric prods in droves through grimy corridors reeking of death. Here, they are hung upside down by their feet on sharp metal hooks and haphazardly stunned with electric guns. As they dangle in agonizing pain on a moving conveyer belt, the animals are bombarded by the bellows and screams from other animals as their throats are being slit farther down the line. For these animals, death is the only reprieve; when it finally comes, I imagine they are truly grateful.
I spent the first twenty-four years of my life unaware of these facts. I've spent the past five years trying to make some sense of them. No matter what angle I take, I know-in the deepest core of my heart-that what is happening to animals in our society is morally unjustified and terribly, terribly wrong.
The mountain of shame is tremendously steep. The despairing roar of the animals' cries is deafening. The path of hopefulness is rocky at best. But should that stop us?
Every day offers new opportunities to take a stand against suffering. Every time we reach for our wallets or lift a fork to our mouths, we can consciously choose not to partake of suffering and in a very meaningful way lift our voices in protest. It's a small step, arguably. But we are their only hope - and the only voice they have.
"Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully,
lest you forget the things your eyes saw,
and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life,
and you shall make them known to your children,
and to your children's children."
-a plaque in the Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C.
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