As a former “animal lover who eats animals”, I can say that it was not always as clearly hypocritical as it sounds. Most vegans, aside from those who have been plant-based since birth, once fell into this category, and likely without a second thought.
You see, the world tricks you. As small children, we are taught the values of compassion and kindness toward all living things. We are told, “Don’t pull the cat’s tail.” We hear, “Be gentle with the puppy!” And we build these values on what I believe is an innate, childlike connection with non-human animals. Think for a minute about how much kids freaking love animals. Because, what is not to love about tiny, adorable creatures to which tiny, adorable humans can relate? In fact, most examples of children’s literature, television, and film are based on the adventures of non-human animals.
And most of this media presents all animals – companion, farmed, captive, and wild – in the same idyllic light. We, as children, gain a sense of security around the belief that these furry or feathery friends are living out their lives happily and peacefully the world over.
But at some point, we reach the dark age of inquisitive reality. This is the mysterious age where families believe it is time to tell their children the (partial) truth about their food, often because curious minds begin to wonder. Until now, adults have been using sneaky words to mask the true source of their meals; “beef”, “pork”, “burger”, “hot dog” (this one is doubly confusing), or even just “meat”. With the exception of “turkey” and “chicken” (which I swear I thought were just homonyms, because we couldn’t possibly be eating those cute little chicks I know and love from Easter, right?), adults don’t often willingly reveal the secret ingredient at their family dinner, which happens to be quite literally: dead animal bodies.
There is no way around this fact. So, to combat inevitable meltdowns, much societal effort has been collectively put forth to protect little humans from this truth. It’s an agreed upon cultural norm. Surely, other adults would frown upon a person who dared to speak the truth by asking children, “Alright, who wants a dead cow sandwich?” or by exclaiming, “Come and get your chopped-up bird body!”
When I consider it now, I find the fact that adults can pull off this elaborate scheme to be just short of a miracle. Not only do they feed their children dead bodies and get away with it, but they eventually tell the children…and the children accept it, under the guise that, “Everyone does it, so it has to be normal,” or, “We need to do it to be healthy” (both 100% untrue).
Even more baffling, though, is the fact that adults also must explain why we eat some animals but not others. At this point, we are exposed to speciesism, or the idea that our own species and some other species (for example, in American culture: cats and dogs) are valued over others (cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc.), and that these “others” are nothing more than commodities. (There is a whole movie about this, if you’re interested.)
And so, the collective acceptance of the speciesist ideology carries young humans through adulthood, where they will repeat the cycle with tiny humans of their own, and everyone just goes on loving their companion animals while eating the flesh of “other” animals.
And of course, for many years, I was one of those people. A self-proclaimed animal lover from the start, my relationship with non-human creatures was not unlike most children. As a 9-year-old extremely shy only child, my Brittany Spaniel puppy was, without a doubt, my BFF. He listened to my stories, and sat with me when I was upset. When he was just a pup, I protected him from the evil noise of the lawn mower, and spent endless, patient hours one summer in the garage teaching him to be a “good boy”. I would venture to guess that most animal lovers have a similar story. I connected with my dog on a level that I can rarely achieve with most humans, and he never asked for anything but love in return.
Yet, I continued to eat the bodies of animals no different than him.
In college, I began to question my own choices. If I loved animals so much, why was I eating them? Out of habit, I continued to order the 6-inch Spicy Italian from Subway. But halfway through the sandwich, I began to feel guilty and generally grossed out about the meat, so I would take it off and finish the sandwich without it.
This behavior continued until one day, a brochure with a photograph of a smiling rescued pig in it was placed into my hand on the quad. The message was very clearly, “Stop eating animals!” But my brain and my heart weren’t ready to hear it. Instead, I cut out the picture of the pig and hung it on my dorm wall. It was likely among plenty of other animal pictures, because remember… I love animals.
I suppose if I had anything like an “a-ha” turning-point moment, it would be the time when I stared at the pig picture, smiling back at me, and thought, “OMG. I love pigs.” And seriously, I do. I think piglets are the absolutely most precious baby animals. Their tiny snorts, and wrinkly pink snout, and quick little trots, and spirally tail, and sheer and utter smallness compared to the beast they will someday become – it’s all enough to make me melt into a puddle of overwhelming adoration. Not to mention, they are smarter than most dogs, and can problem-solve as well as chimpanzees, and they live extremely socially and emotionally complex lives, and they have demonstrated the ability to empathize. So when I imagined having a relationship with a pig, much like the incredibly meaningful connection I had with my dog, I thought, “That is absolutely possible.”
If I would love a pig just the same as a dog, why would I eat a pig and not a dog? More importantly, why is the thought of eating my dog so vomit-inducingly abhorrent, while I have been taught to believe that eating a pig is totally acceptable?
The logic made no sense, and my animal-loving heart felt broken and betrayed. So, I began the process of cutting meat out of my diet.
Later in life, I was able to build a relationship with a real live pig. During my internship at Farm Sanctuary, I met an adult pig named Lucas and I was drawn to him because he was the new guy on the farm and he was a little bit lonely. He was black and white, with a completely adorable and melt-worthy face. Because he hadn’t made very many friends yet, he spent most of his time hanging out alone near the duck pond. The first day I met him, he approached me, sniffed me, and then promptly plopped to the ground, rolling to his side for a belly rub. On the last day of my internship, when I went to say goodbye to him, he saw me and came barreling toward me so fast that he couldn’t stop his body when he reached me, and he knocked me right over. And so it goes with love.
From the vegan lens: So, can an “animal lover” eat animals? The truth is that I see animals lovers eating animals every day. All I can hope is that one day, they will choose to extend their compassion to all sentient beings, and not just the animals that our society has deemed worthy. Because I love, and respect, and recognize the value of non-human animals, I do not eat them. And for that, my animal-loving heart is full.