“Wild animals, with true natures and pure talents. Wild animals with scientific-sounding Latin names that mean something about our DNA. Wild animals each with his own strengths and weaknesses due to his or her species.”
-Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably my favorite Wes Anderson film; its humor, whimsy and perfectly cast group of voice actors comprise
one of the most clever, heartfelt movies I’ve ever watched. Though it’s a PG-rated, animated film based off of a children’s book, the quote above has always stuck with me. In spite of himself, Mr. Fox is sly, wily and clever simply because he’s a wild animal. As a wild animal, it’s in his nature to hunt, sneak and steal in the same way it’s in rabbits’ nature to run, burrow and hop. It’s the same concept as the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog that Ryan Gosling so aptly retells in the movie Drive. The scorpion stung and therefore, killed his friend the frog simply because its his nature. Foxes, scorpions, leopards and their unchanging spots – How many adages are there in the English language that convey the message that animals act upon instinct, and animals behave the way they do because its just in their nature?
I bring this up because it reminds me of a particularly personal struggle I’ve faced for about six years. When I was a junior in college, I read a glossy pamphlet no larger than an index card that was handed to me by some grassroots, unshowered yuppie on a street corner. In summary, the literature touted the health, environmental and most obviously, animal welfare benefits to a vegetarian diet. Being not swayed, but fascinated by these arguments, I spontaneously decided to experiment with vegetarianism for a week.
I didn’t research the subject any further nor was I particularly compelled to stop eating meat for the rest of my life. I love meat. I always have. I love barbecue. I love burgers. I grew up frequenting a steak house my uncle was an accountant for during my formative years and was never unnerved by the hanging ducks and reeking fish that welcomed (and stared at) me when I’d regularly accompany my mother to the Chinese Super Market. I had no intention of removing meat from my diet for longer than seven days, and even doubted that I could abstain from it for that long.
However, the first week went by remarkably quickly. It was actually pretty easy – so easy that one week turned into a month, and eventually two years. I rarely craved or missed meat and never had trouble finding menu items at all of my favorite dining establishments. In fact, as a college student, being vegetarian was an ideal situation for practical reasons alone. Being less expensive than most omnivorous fare, saving those extra dollars for beer money was a welcome perk. And as someone who is notoriously unskilled in the kitchen, subsisting on primitive meals like cereal and grilled cheese was a pretty easy existence. Without holding any particular moral convictions against eating meat, living without it was surprisingly very doable.
I admit, every now and then I’d cheat during those two years – I’d crave the weirdest things. I’d rarely want a burger or chicken nuggets like I expected, but usually culinary oddities like sushi, lox and bagels or New England clam chowder – things that didn’t really have vegetarian equivalents in genre or texture. I was never that strict about whether my food was cooked in chicken stock or alongside other meat either – I just generally didn’t eat meat, and I was fine with it.
I didn’t eat a lot of vegetables either. People often ask if I lost weight during that extended dietary experiment, and in all honesty, I probably gained a few pounds – there is a surprising amount of food that contains no meat, but also next to no vegetables or anything of nutritious value – pizza, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, cake, pasta, ice cream and candy to name a few. Whatever the reason, I considered myself 98% vegetarian with very few qualms or slip-ups.
After those two years, I slowly started incorporating meat back into my diet. I could have stayed loyal to it if I only cared about my own well being, but eating is rarely a solo endeavor. The real reason I regressed was because it confused the hell out of my peers, and most importantly, my family. Watching my sweet mother toil and stress about what I could and couldn’t eat was painful and unnecessary, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. So when I visited my folks, I would just politely eat whatever they prepared for me. Then after I graduated, I took a job that required me to travel and I subsisted on fast food and take-out almost every day, making it harder to survive solely on french fries and fruit and yogurt parfaits.
I’ve gone back and forth with these meat-free experiments ever since – my sister acutally finds it quite funny, and it is. For me personally, being a conscious eater and citizen of the world is much more about dramatically lessening my consumption of meat rather than eliminating it all together. If everyone only ate meat every other day, or perhaps even once a day – I truly think the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, that level of societal change will never happen in our life time and Americans are getting unhealthier, fatter and greedier every day – so I’ve been internally faced with the dilemma of being against The Problem with no hopes of lasting impact or being part of The Problem because it’s a hopeless cause and meat is well, delicious.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer has been on my reading list for years; I loved reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated and have always found Foer’s wit, humor and style of writing very enjoyable. So now, nearly 4 years after it was published, I sat down and read the damn book.
This particular book struck quite a chord with me; rather than merely sharing statistics, facts and data about why we should or should not eat animals – the author looked upon the subject matter very thoughtfully and very personally. He too went back and forth between different dietary choices in his young adult years and never made a concrete decision on the matter. Motivated by the birth of his first child and having legitimate parental concern for what was best for his son’s health, Foer dove into multi-year research project to learn about how our food is produced, uncovering the ramifications of continuing to consume animal products at the current rate. Though this was a non-fiction book that was beautifully researched and meticulously edited, Foer truly made this work a story, which is probably why I identified with it so closely.
He discusses the culture, history, tradition and meaning of food and the social and emotional implications of sharing meals with friends and family members. Furthermore, he takes a philosophical approach on many issues that make readers second guess their beliefs. If Americans love their cats and dogs so much and give millions of dollars to the pet industry, why don’t we ever think twice about eating other animals? The thought of torturing said dogs and cats or eating them is abhorrent because they’re our pets. NFL quarterback Michael Vick even served time for his dog fighting escapades – but pigs and chickens can be pets too, and just because they just happen to be delicious, it’s okay that we eat them, and we don’t seem to mind that their treatment and slaughter is unsanitary, violent and sometimes sadistic beyond belief.
I think it’s important to note that this book is less about whether it’s wrong for humans to eat animals. After all, animals eat animals. If you really think about it, some animals technically eat humans. This book is more about unveiling atrocious factory farming practices – how this irresponsible system is destroying our planet, diminishing our health and not to mention, not only killing our animals – but making them suffer. Humans have engineered them into unnatural genetic mutations that produce optimal meat and lay the most eggs with limited amounts of space, light and feed. We rarely consider the terrible working conditions of employees in the slaughter house or the amount of pollution factory farming produces – quite literally, animal shit that gets sprayed into the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, but it’s the machine that is capitalism, which is why it depresses me when I think about it.
I think that’s the hardest part for us humans to grasp – we don’t think about it. We don’t think about how the animals we eat are raised, transported or slaughtered. We also don’t think about how deformed and disgusting they are in the current system; some chickens and turkeys can’t even walk because they’re so grossly overfed. Most factory farmed animals can’t even reproduce naturally anymore, which is probably the most sobering contradiction to evolution there is. Humans have literally altered some species to the point where they can no longer continue existing without our help. It’s like playing God in the Jurassic Park model – we have such control over other living creatures, yet act so indifferent towards their welfare.
My hope for the world is a sea change in how we control our intake of animal products. For example, Foer profiles several responsible, sustainable farmers who love their land, love their work and absolutely love their animals – even if they are raised for slaughter. Unfortunately, these heroes are the Davids to the Goliaths that are factory farming corporations, and unlike the Biblical tale, these underdogs are losing the battles. Being humane stewards of the earth is a principal almost all religious and political belief systems agree on, and the way our country raises animals is contradictory to all of the progress we’ve made. Factory farming is no longer about feeding the world; it’s about making money (and making people obese, asthmatic and allergic to things), and I’m having a hard time reconciling not necessarily my beliefs, but what I know is wrong with the food I love to eat.
Sure, it was easy being a vegetarian the first time around, but I’m not a college student anymore. I’m an adult and I live in a city with a flourishing food culture, and I love food. I love trying new restaurants. I love going out to eat with my friends. And *sigh* I still love meat.
I’m sure you’re wondering why my obsession with Fantastic Mr. Fox has transformed into an unexpected diatribe about my personal dietary dilemmas and the horrors of the factory farming system. Perhaps, it’s because I can’t quite determine whether humans are really that different from wild animals. Is it really our nature to tamper with nature? Is it natural to pump ourselves with man-made chemicals and hormones? And is it really in our nature to torture other living things that clearly have the capacity for intelligence, emotion and creating social hierarchies? We’re supposed to be intelligent and civilized, walking upright, speaking language and twiddling our ever-dexterous opposable thumbs. So if we are such evolved creatures, how can we consciously keep consuming animal products so thoughtlessly and irresponsibly? Or at least how can I after reading 350 some-odd pages of compelling truths about eating animals?
I’ve never been a radical – liberal yes, but never extremist. Sometimes, I associate PETA more with terrorism than activism in the same way I group pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics in a similar bucket. What I’m saying is – I will probably never completely stop eating meat. I highly doubt that I could ever go vegan. My mom would probably very easily talk me into eating her unapologetically greasy Asian stir-fry, and I couldn’t imagine Thanksgiving without watching the Cowboys with my dad followed by a wonderful tryptophan-induced nap. But I can tell you, I will always know in the back of my mind how disgusting my food really is and I can tell you that I’ve never had a harder time separating the source from the end product than I do now. For now, I’m going to focus on eating meat much less – perhaps, never preparing meat for myself or for others.
I don’t want to label myself as a vegetarian because I’m obviously going to be a terrible one. Again. But I do want to be a conscious, informed and socially responsible omnivore (or pescatarian or lacto-ovo what have you) – and I can only hope that one day my eating habits can influence the behaviors of others, or even the world, and lead to less guilt and regret.