Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Evolution of a Vegetarian (Part 1): Why I Became a Vegetarian

"So, why did you become a vegetarian?" Like most other vegetarians I know, I have been asked this question many times since I've stopped eating meat. I don't mind the question, of course, but lately I've been thinking about whether a more appropriate question might focus less on the impetus of my vegetarianism ("why did you become a vegetarian?") and more on why I have remained one for nearly six years ("why are you a vegetarian?"). It's not that the reasons have dramatically shifted so much as they've evolved. My thinking about vegetarianism is more expansive, more complex now.

(The second most common question is about exactly what I do eat, so I'll get that out of the way upfront. I'm not a vegan, but I am a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. That means I don't eat meat, poultry, fish or anything made with them. Dairy and eggs are okay, but more on that in Part 2.)

Ok, let's start with the first question. Why did I become a vegetarian? Around the holiday season six years ago, I was registering for courses for my last semester of law school. I had to fulfill a writing requirement, so I wanted to opt for a seminar that would allow me to research and write about something engaging, something different, something that would hold my attention longer than secured transactions... When I read the description of an Animal Rights Law class in the course catalog, it gave me pause. It seemed "out there" to me at the time, and the fact that the law school was offering the course for the first time in its venerable history (gag!) created quite the stir on campus. I had never given much thought to animal rights, but I did have a dog for the first time in my life. My compassion for animals blossomed with the faithful companionship that I shared with my pup. I never would have considered the class if I didn't have her. In a way, then, I guess my dear dog (rest her soul!) is the reason I became a vegetarian. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though.

Having signed up for the course and after enduring some raised eyebrows about my choice, I showed up to the first class in February 2000 without any preconceived expectations. The professor was Steven Wise, a practicing animal rights lawyer and author who waded through the political landmines of teaching Harvard Law School's first-ever class on animal rights law with great aplomb. His first assignment for the hodge-podge of students (some dedicated animal protection or environmental advocates, some interested students without a particularly well-organized set of thoughts about the role of legal protections for animals, and a few snarky right-wingers who would sign up for a course just to argue their point of view) was a thick binder of background reading compiled from a variety of sources. Over the weekend, I settled in on my loveseat, with my dog's head resting on my lap, and cracked open the binder. Good Lord! Professor Wise was pulling no punches here! He had assembled a history of factory farming complete with photos of artificially big-breasted chickens stacked atop each other in cages piled high to the rafters of huge coops, descriptions of the imprecise science of killing a cow for meat when the original stunning fails, depictions of pigs living in small wooden pens where they were unable to move or nurse their young. It was not for the faint of heart. And it didn't exactly make you want to enjoy chicken pot pie for dinner. After reading about the factory farm system for hours, I had the most basic of reactions: my stomach can't handle meat tonight with those pictures dancing in my head; veggie stir-fry it is!

When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I still wasn't ready to eat meat. It just didn't feel right. I walked my dog over to the local dog park to frolic, and a question occurred to me that was striking in its simplicity. If I believe that my dog can feel pain (which I was sure of after watching her recover from a painful hip surgery earlier that year) and the thought of her suffering makes me distraught, how can I abide contributing to the pain and suffering of another species of animal just because I don't share the same kind of emotional attachment to it? As long as the factory farm system continues, I thought, I really don't want to contribute to it. I dropped my dog off at home, walked to the bookstore, bought Becoming Vegetarian to bone up on the nutritional aspects of not eating meat, and called my parents that night to announce that I wasn't sure if I could meat again. But it turns out I was sure -- I haven't had meat since then.

So the reason that I became a vegetarian was quite specific and based on a visceral, compassionate reaction (one that I didn't expect to have, by the way): the treatment of animals at factory farms is morally wrong. As we all know, when you take an action that challenges the status quo in some way, some view it as a great opportunity to test the logic of your philosophy. I was quite unprepared for the barrage of questions intended to pick apart any lack of coherence in my reasoning. The most frequently asked follow-up questions: (1) Farm animals are raised to be eaten. That's their purpose. Don't you agree that humans are at the top of the food chain? (2) Do you wear leather? How is that any different? (3) Why not just buy meat that is not from factory farms? (4) So you don't eat sushi? What about scallops? How about calamari? Oysters? Mussels? Please don't tell me that you won't eat the crab dip!

I didn't have answers at the ready for these types of questions; I just didn't want animals to suffer because of my eating habits. Why was my diet being analyzed, sometimes by people I didn't even know very well? Why did this decision cause others to foam at the mouth in the hopes that my reasoning would be discovered to be faulty? In time, the answers came to me and my reasons for being a vegetarian broadened and became much more complex. Stay tuned for Part 2: Why I Am a Vegetarian.

(It's worth noting here that while I had always enjoyed eating meat, I also really liked every vegetable I had ever tried and a wide variety of foods (i.e, I'm not a picky eater) so making the shift to a vegetarian diet wasn't as difficult for me as I think that it can be for others. It also helped that the madgeneral was off "kickin' it" in Albuquerque at the time and not around to plea for my special meatloaf recipe. Which was damn good.)


  • At 10:18 AM, Blogger Laurie said…

    I eat meat and poultry (not factory-farmed) but I have enormous respect for those who choose not to, for whatever one of the many reasons. You go, girl.

  • At 3:01 PM, Blogger breadchick said…

    I've often thought about moving to a more vegetarian lifestyle. Maybe I'll get there as I have been eating less meat the past few years. I admire you for choosing a lifestyle that fits your needs.


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