“Conservation is also about choices in our daily lives. It’s not only about how we commute to work but whether we choose to commute at all. It’s about what kind of fabrics we wear and what kind of beverage containers we buy. It’s even about the kind of heating we have in our homes.”My recent “Where’s the Beef?” post inspired a reader to send me an email that, using unnecessarily harsh language, made explicitly clear his opinion that my diet is nonsensical and unethical. Each to his or her own; I suppose I should turn the other cheek, so to speak, but the reader's invective makes me think that I should better elucidate my choices.
-George Reiger, “Heron Hill Chronicles”
My diet's principal motivation is environmental and rational. I prohibit meat consumption unless I have hunted or fished the creature myself. The water and land use problems associated with industrial meat farming can not be ignored. More strict federal regulation of grazing, feeding and watering practices would no doubt ameliorate their negative impact, but such legislative salves can not eliminate the fundamental environmental challenges posed by large-scale, commercial meat production. According to the USDA, growing crops for farm animals requires nearly half of the U.S. water supply and 80% of its agricultural land! Those are astounding (and very troubling) numbers. The steep decline in offshore fish populations makes poorly regulated commercial fishing ecologically untenable, as well. Surf and turf consumption is therefore unethical. There's no other way to put it.
The ethical call may sound Sisyphean to many of us, but every individual should be compelled (by his or her conscience) to do what they can to mitigate our negative impact. Certainly, as my angry reader points out, plastics (made from oil) are ubiquitous, industrial dairy farms are responsible for environmental problems, and cotton, the base ingredient of my wardrobe, is the among the world's most environmentally destructive crops. While it is difficult for me to avoid consuming plastic products, cotton clothing and milk, I can (and do) take simple steps to avoid these items as much as possible. An increasing percentage of my wardrobe is now hemp or synthetic (also problematic, but not as bad as cotton) and I buy only soy or organic dairy products. If, however, I’m dining at a restaurant that doesn’t offer such alternatives, I won’t refuse the cheese that I'm served. Without retreating to ascetic life, each of us must pick our battles after considering the facts, and I believe that industrialized meat production is among the most serious threats to the world’s environment and to human rights.
Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, ethicist, and author of “Animal Liberation,” sums up my dietary habits well.
The Peter Singer suggested diet:It may seem surprising that Singer, a father of the contemporary animal rights movement, should serve as a guideline for a hunter and fisherman. Though animal rights concerns wasn't the principal motivation for my shift to vegetarianism, I do consider such moral considerations integral to my mongrel philosophy.
- replace animal flesh with plant foods
- replace factory farm eggs with free-range eggs if you can get them; otherwise avoid eggs
- replace the milk and cheese you buy with soymilk, tofu, or other plant foods, but do not feel obliged to go to great lengths to avoid all food containing milk products
A moral hunter aims to make every kill as humane as he (and, increasingly, she) possibly can. Unfortunately, even the best hunters will sometimes make a poor shot, and I am deeply disturbed by the long minutes spent tracking a wounded deer or the quiet, slow-motion gasps of a mourning dove as I squeeze the last breaths from its small breast.
Like humans, critically wounded animals go into shock. The endorphin rush associated with serious physical trauma prevents neurons from communicating normally and, as a result, one feels little, if any, pain. The dying animal enters a trance-like state in the final moments. This accounts for the military medical field practice of treating screaming soldiers before the wounded fighters that quietly stare off into space; if a wounded soldier is quiet, he or she has suffered only minor injury or is beyond medicine.
Crippled animals, like screaming, wounded soldiers, are often suffering a great deal. Their body is programmed for survival; the neurons let the pain “scream” to make sure that the animal knows where the source is. I used to believe that wounded non-human animals felt the same amount of pain as wounded humans, but I now fear they may feel more. Unable to reason what has happened to them, the stress of the experience must be that much greater. That I have been responsible for such awful moments in the life of another creature is a terrible reality, but I do feel better about facing such realities myself, rather than entrusting them to underpaid laborers half a continent away.
Even anti-hunters (many of whom continue to eat meat, a ludicrous fact!) sometimes find themselves in similarly distressing situations. A motorist that strikes an animal while driving is morally obligated to put the injured animal out of its misery or attempt to assist it.(1) Those drivers that opt to drive away, shirking responsibility and doing their best to evict the incident from their mind, are acting in a morally weak fashion. As I see it, it's no less irresponsible than a human "hit-and-run," for which convicted individuals often go to jail.
Simply put, it is immoral to allow a suffering animal a slow, perhaps agonizing death after having caused it direct harm. Increasingly, people I talk to claim that their benevolence prevents them from extinguishing the pained creature's life. In fact, they're often horrified by the suggestion that they kill it. My thinking that they should is, in their eyes, barbaric. These individuals are victims of their own good intentions, lies designed to make their little world more comfortable. I have no patience for such people; I disdain them as I do the “trophy hunter” or the violent environmental activist.
As Rien Poortvliet, the Dutch author and painter, wrote in his excellent picture book, “Dogs,”
“Some people would rather see you fool around with an animal than put it out of its misery…a little artificial leg here, a plastic duck bill there, and if necessary, wheels attached to it – anything is better than dead. ‘No, I couldn’t do that!’ Well, what good is that to a cat in pain, run over by a car? It is sometimes such an ‘animal lover with clean hands’ who drives on. I know those types who say, ‘How can you possibly shoot a roebuck?’ But where does that fur coat, that snakeskin bag, come from? She doesn’t care. You also mustn’t bother her with stories of where real cutlets and chicken breasts come from. She has never struck one animal.”No matter how bloody and miserable the driver's responsibility to brain a raccoon with a tire iron, wringing the neck of bluebird, or snapping the spine of a house cat is, it must be done.
Doing so has left me shaken up for days. I once came upon an eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) that someone had run over. The shell was cracked and internal organs had been forced out of the gaps, but the turtle struggled on, attempting to make it to the other side of the road. Familiar with basic turtle anatomy, I realized that this reptile was doomed. I did what had to be done. I cried while doing it. If that makes me less of a man, I could care less.
It may seem illogical to some readers that I can be a compassionate, ethical person and a hunter. Indeed, there is some conflict. As a result, I hunt less with each passing year (maybe seven times in the last two years) and I've become more interested in pursuing only those quarry I know that I am likely to kill cleanly. Deer and other ungulates, for example, are animals that I am comfortable continuing to hunt, as my rifle marksmanship is good. As my shotgun ability continues to decline (the less often you do it, the worse you become), bird hunting becomes less tenable. I loathe knowing that I may “knock down” a bird and be forced to chase the terrified duck, dove, quail, pheasant or goose to end its life in a brutal fashion. Yet I also realize that death via disease, starvation or “natural” predation is equally awful. Such is Nature’s way, but few of Nature’s actions contribute to real degradation of the environment, even if they can sometimes pose a threat to biodiversity.
(1) If the animal seems as though it is not seriously injured, please take it to your local veterinarian. Having worked in a veterinary clinic, I know that most good vets are excited to have curious patients brought to them. During my short time at the clinic, we received a hawk and an owl that had been struck by cars. Both recovered and were eventually released.
Photo credit: a.sanpal.co.jp; no credit given on site