Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eating Animals

My friend Emily, who is a vegetarian, recently lent me the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is devastating, illuminating, enlightening, heartbreaking, and Important with a capital I. In my opinion, everybody who eats food in America ought to read it. Everyone deserves to know the true story behind the food they consume every day (after all, you are what you eat). Unfortunately for meat-eaters, that true story is not pretty. But make no mistake, it is the truth.

The horror of factory farms is too nightmarish to even contemplate. Really. Imagine the worst abuse you've ever seen anybody take in the worst, most violent, disgusting, degrading, twisted horror movie you've ever seen, and I guarantee you that shit, and more, gets done to the vast majority of animals raised for food in this country every day. (Including the shit that happens in Takashi Miike's movies, which are the most violent and disturbing horror movies I've ever seen.) Pregnant pigs get metal rods jammed up their vaginas and anuses, for no reason other than cruelty. They are forced to spend their entire pregnancies in crates so small they can't even turn around in them, stewing in their own shit. Chickens are pissed on by factory workers, who also spit tobacco and spray paint in their eyes, and dragged through electrical baths that are 'intended' to knock them unconscious, but only serve to electrocute them and prolong their suffering for absolutely no reason other than cruelty. And this is just some of the tamer stuff.

I'm not even sure if I'm making sense anymore or flowing well in my writing, I have a hard time being articulate when it comes to this subject.  I just don't understand why stuff like this needs to happen.

Reading Eating Animals has solidified my conviction never to eat meat again. And that is a conviction that I was very doubtful I would ever truly have again. When I first started my vegan project for this class, it was under the pretense that I would be able to eat a cheeseburger again at the end of the two months. My love of cheeseburgers was part of the reason why I fell off the vegetarian bandwagon years ago. I just didn't have the emotional maturity it takes to actually give burgers up. Now, I believe I really do.

One nice thing about Safran Foer is that he doesn't shy away from the fact that it is a sacrifice to give up one's favorite meat-y meals. It is not comfortable, fun or easy. I'm glad he says this, because I'm discovering I feel the same way. No matter how repugnant eating meat seems to me now, I still miss cheeseburgers, sushi, and bacon. I don't want to consume animal flesh (by the way, it seems so weird to me now to eat a corpse, after going without for so long. What am I, a zombie?), but I miss the taste and the fuller feeling you get from meat, (although I prefer the lighter, clean-burning energy I get from plants). It's just an emotional thing. Safran Foer says it's a real sacrifice to go the rest of your life without burgers, and it's hard, and it hurts sometimes, but you have to ask yourself: Do I care more about eating meat, or about my health and the health of the world? Do I care more about being able to have fried chicken whenever I want it, or about being a moral, ethical, and socially responsible citizen of Earth? (By the way, going vegetarian is the single most important step you can take towards helping the environment. Just sayin'.)

It's astonishing that factory farming has gone on this long, and continues to. Well, it's not astonishing, really. It all comes down to money. (And greed. And power.) It's the same reason why we are the only country in the Western world that doesn't provide free universal health care to its citizens, although we definitely have the means. The meat and dairy industry work hand in hand with the pharmaceutical companies to pump our food animals full of unnecessary antibiotics (unnecessary because they are administered even when the animal isn't sick, just in case, since most food animals nowadays are genetically-altered mutated abominations of nature who couldn't even survive on their own in the normal world. They can't walk. They can't even have sex. The birds don't even have beaks, for Christ's sake.), which are then passed on to us, which lower our resistance to antibiotics and other medicines given to us by our doctors (which we have to pay up the ass for, even though most medicines cost next to nothing to manufacture) so we have to take even more medicine, which is even worse for our systems, all while consuming food that is killing us slowly but surely. Countries that don't eat nearly as much meat and dairy as we do have much lower rates of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis (even though the powers that be claim eating dairy helps to prevent this: it actually causes it), etc., and also are not suffering from an obesity epidemic of mammoth proportions (no pun intended. Well, maybe a little bit.).

I think the most punk (punkest?) thing you can do in this country today is go vegan. It makes me feel like some sort of subversive. It's made out to be such a big deal. When you tell people you're vegan, it freaks them out and immediately puts them on the defensive, because deep down, they know eating meat is wrong. At least, eating the meat that we get from the factories and slaughterhouses that provide over 99% of our meat in this country is wrong. It's easier to go with the flow, be a sheep, swallow whatever they give you to swallow (literally). The only way anything will ever change in this country, and the world, is if people stand up for themselves and decide that they really are not going to take it anymore. A life and a country sustained by factory farming isn't what life should be, for both our country's citizens and its animals. It is, I will say again, a nightmare.

I mentioned in my last blog that abstaining from animal flesh has made me feel closer to the animals in my own life. After I wrote that, I read this very interesting anecdote about Franz Kafka in Eating Animals. Foer begins by discussing Kafka's work in general:

"Among many other things we could say about his wide-ranging explorations of literature, Walter Benjamin was the most penetrating interpreter of Franz Kafka's animal tales.
"Shame is crucial in Benjamin's reading of Kafka and is imagined as a unique moral sensibility. Shame is both intimate--felt in the depths of our inner lives--and. at the same time, social--something we feel strictly before others. For Kafka, shame is a response and a responsibility before invisible others--before 'unknown family,' to use a phrase from Kafka's Diaries. It is the core experience of the ethical.
"Benjamin emphasizes that Kafka's ancestors--his unknown family--includes animals. Animals are part of the community in front of which Kafka might blush, a way of saying that they are within Kafka's sphere of moral concern. Benjamin also tells us that Kafka's animals are 'receptacles of forgetting,' a remark that is, at first, puzzling.
"I mention these details here to frame a small story about Kafka's glance falling upon some fish in a Berlin aquarium. As told by Kafka's close friend Max Brod:

"'Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks. 'Now, at last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore.' It was the time that he turned strict vegetarian. If you have never heard Kafka saying things of this sort with his own lips, it is difficult to imagine how simply and easily, without any affectation, without the least sentimentality--which was something almost completely foreign to him--he brought them out.'"

Foer goes on to say: "Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely--yet not entirely--forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate gratification." (Let me just interject here and point this out: what would be our word for somebody in our human society who forgets social and moral obligations in favor of their own immediate gratification? An animal. Kind of ironic, don't you think?) Foer is speaking specifically about fish in this paragraph, in light of the Kafka anecdote, but I think his words here are worth quoting and remembering every time we think of eating meat: "We do not, so to speak, blush with shame before fish. We can recognize parts of ourselves in fish--spines, nociceptors (pain receptors), endorphins (that relieve pain), all of the familiar pain responses--but then deny important parts of our humanity. What we forget about animals we begin to forget about ourselves."

With those few words that Kafka spoke to the fish in the aquarium--"At last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore"--he was able to sum up and articulate for me a lot of what I was trying to say in my last post. That's just it, I can look at animals in peace now. There is not something held up between me and them anymore, no "work of memory against forgetting," no shame. I do not feel guilty cuddling my cats now that I know I am not turning around and eating their brethren. This is a profound shift in perception that I did not expect when I became vegan, but again, it is one I am eternally grateful for, and happy to explore in my daily life.

It seems like every time I've been reading Eating Animals, I've been accompanied by an animal of some sort: either my own cats, Cinder and Kai, my mom's dogs, Indy and Saira, or my friend's roommate's dog, Peaches (that was just this afternoon). I guess I just fraternize with a lot of animals, which is the way I like it, but it also seems like it's the universe trying to drive the point of this book home to me. I'll read about a cow who broke out of her pen in the slaughterhouse and ran miles and miles away, as far as her stocky cow legs could carry her (and cows don't like to run; she was desperate), and when she reached a river, she didn't stop even though she was exhausted; she swam all the way across, right to where the owner of the slaughterhouse was waiting on the other side to take her back. I'll put down the book to have a moment of silence and send some waves of compassion into the universe for any animal who has had, is currently, or will have to suffer such a fate in the future, and my own cat will crawl up on me to give me hugs and kisses around my neck. It seems like the universe is saying to me, through my kitty, Look, there's no difference between your cute cat here and all those thousands of cows, pigs, chickens and fish who have to suffer this brutality every day. Every one is a sentient, intelligent being and therefore deserving of love, respect and fair treatment. I hate the thought of my own pets in peril, but this is what I do think of to remind myself of the immediacy of the suffering of all these other animals, who are tortured daily in the name of human consumption. It serves as a good reminder of how much I don't want to participate in that cycle of pain.

As I type this, I can smell my neighbors' dinner cooking downstairs. It's a yummy, distinctly pork-y odor; it may even be cudighi, my favorite. But I know the spiced, sizzling flesh on their stove top was once part of a pig who was as smart as, if not smarter than, your dog; a pig who had just as much personality, compassion, and capacity for feeling as anyone, human or not. Sure, that flesh smells great, and the sensory pleasure of biting into a flavorful piece of meat cannot be denied, but there are more important things at stake here. At least, that's the way I feel.


  1. Wow Jessica. This blog was VERY informative, interesting AND inspire. I actually read it aloud to my boyfriend. I thought it was so interesting because he is always telling me about this kind of stuff, how our animals are injected with all these chemicals and hormones, plants sprayed with chemicals and pesticides. So hearing you say this, really hits home. It really makes me think twice about ever eating meat again, and I haven't even read the book. I think my hardest part would be fish, and well cheeseburgers also! But other than that I don't even care for meat, so might as well give it up. This is crazy though. I can't believe our government and country sometimes, damn.

  2. Another passionate post. Well done. And to answer your question early on, the flow is just fine.

    And not that people eat crows too often, but if you haven't read this article on the intelligence of crows from, you should:

  3. Oh, Jess -
    You continue to dazzle me with your writing. And break my heart, with this particular post. Although I eat very little meat I haven't been able to go the extra mile and give it up altogether. Your reasoning, coupled with facts and eloquent, heartfelt, furious compassion, will resonate in me and maybe help me say no the next time I get the desire to eat a four-legged or feathered fellow being.
    I am so proud of your intelligence, heart and humanity.

  4. MOM!!! You made me cry. Thank you. I love you so much and would not be the writer, reader, or person I am today without you <3

  5. Thanks for your comments, Josey and Michelle. Your kind words make me feel really good. Also, thanks for the link to that cool article, Josey. Birds are SO not dumb. Jonathan Safran Foer talks a lot about bird intelligence in his book, and it's very enlightening. If humans really confronted the fact that poultry are just as smart IN THEIR OWN WAY as any other animals (including fish, and ourselves), they would have to consider the dire consequences of eating them. It's much easier to pretend to ourselves that they are dumb ("bird-brained," so to speak. More disgusting irony.).

  6. This blog seriously makes you think about your choices in life. I LOVE it. and I love your writing. I know you are so passionate about what you are doing and you an really tell here. The sheer amount of detail you add to each blog really lets the reader know that you are in this for the long haul. Its so scary the way humans can treat other humans and animals. Its like we arent human at all but who defines what is human? I cant believe the way people can treat animals even if they are only to be eaten. I cant say I could ever give up meat, as i just whoofed down a french dip (you can read about it in my blog! haha) I love it but I cant not think about how horrible I feel or guilty I now am after reading this! maybe i could eat LESS meat but i dont think i could ever say good bye to it. Thanks again for another interesting post Jess!