I grew up in a house with so many animals my friends has asthma attacks when they came over.
I remember a teary-eyed, five-year-old me complaining repeatedly and exasperatedly to my mom that I had Humphrey (our big black lab) hair in my underwear again!
We had multiple dogs, double-digit cats, a skunk, fish, snakes, mice (after an employee at the pet shop incorrectly sexed one of them and the two males we thought we were getting ended up as a breeding pair, we quickly ended up with literally hundreds of them), bunnies, plus the occasional rescued orphaned baby bird or some tadpoles from the pond out back that we’d raise until they were frogs and then release back to the wild.
I also grew up with several lucky rabbit’s foot key chains. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how we could have missed the irony of that. Obviously the rabbit who lost his or her foot was in no way lucky.
My childhood, like most, was also filled with hamburgers and hot dogs, Spaghetti-O’s with franks, bacon, sausage, grilled cheese sandwiches, milk, ice-cream, and though I never liked the taste of fish and didn’t particularly want to keep the ones dad and I caught while fishing on Lake Huron, I absolutely relished gutting and cleaning them while on the dock as the waves lapped up against the wooden pilings and my dad looked on with pride.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian, to help animals in any way I could. I took home every stray I ever found (hence, double-digit cats), wanting to rescue them all.
My first adult job out of college was as a rescue and cruelty officer for the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Every story I read about animal cruelty caused my heart to burst.
In my fantasies I would become a Superhero for animals, protecting them all from cruelty and suffering while seeking vengeance on those who abused such innocent and defenseless babies.
When I was about 16 someone gave me a video from PETA, one of the early undercover investigations into the egregious and barbaric cruelty which is the norm and not the exception on factory farms, where 99% of animal products originate. I could see no relevant difference between those animals and my own dogs and cats who I loved so dearly.
I gave up eating meat for two years.
And then I told myself that by then the government must have found out about this unacceptable cruelty and gone in and fixed the problem. That is what government is for, rooting out evil and protecting the innocent from suffering, right?
So I went back to eating animals for a while, until I saw another video and realized the government somehow still hadn’t righted this wrong.
I flip-flopped like this for many years, always really wrestling with myself and trying to come up with some philosophy to guide me that made sense of it all.
I searched for some way to go on eating animals and their by-products that felt ethical. I was determined there had to be a way. For many years that led me to seek out humanely raised meat, dairy and eggs.
After law school I moved to Washington DC and started looking for a job helping animals.
I applied with several animal rights groups and was surprised that they all expected their employees to be vegan. As if somehow I didn’t care enough. As if somehow I didn’t care as much as they did.
But no one, I thought, loves animals more than I do.
I just could not believe that there was no such thing as humane meat, eggs or dairy. I mean it says humane right on the label. If you can’t trust a label, what can you trust?
It didn’t make sense to me that billions of animals could be suffering in the ways the animal rights people claimed.
But their claims had made me uncomfortable, so I did my own research.
Two of the claims I found hardest to believe were that it is impossible to obtain eggs and dairy without immense suffering. Chickens lay eggs whether we eat them or not. So what’s the harm in eating them?
Well it turns out, for one, chickens don’t naturally lay enough eggs to be commercially profitable in the competitive market of present day animal agriculture.
So in order to squeeze as many eggs, and as much profit, out of a laying hen as possible, factory farms keep laying hens in as small a space as possible, confining them to what are known as battery cages, barren wire cages where hens are cramped into a space so small they cannot spread their wings for the entirety of their lives.
The cages are lined up by the thousand in windowless warehouses and stacked one on top of another, so birds on all but the top row are constantly urinated and defecated on.
Various techniques such as forced molting are used to manipulate their natural ovulation cycle so that they will produce way more eggs than nature ever intended.
Though a laying hen’s natural lifespan is five to eight years, after a year of this relentless egg production, her body becomes worn out and her bones too brittle to even stand on without breaking, at which point she is sent to slaughter.
In order to keep the system functioning, replacement chicks are constantly being bred in the hatchery, which leads us to the second inherent evil of the egg industry, including the eggs labeled as cage-free, organic, free-range or humane.
Fifty percent of the chicks hatched at the hatchery are males.
Males are useless to the egg laying industry and are not bred to be of value to the meat industry. Therefore, as soon as the chicks hatch, they are sexed, and the males go straight to slaughter. The most common methods of slaughter include maceration or gassing. Or they may simply be thrown away and left to die of starvation, chirping all the while for their missing mothers.
The dairy industry operates similarly.
Females are forcibly inseminated about once a year so that they can produce milk. (That fact alone should cause us to pause, and as Albert Schweitzer said to “[t]hink occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”)
Their babies are torn away from them soon after birth.
Cows are naturally so peaceful that many of us humans mistake their gentle demeanor for stupidity, which animal behaviorists tell us is more a sign of our own ignorance and false assumptions.
Besides being intelligent, scientists tell us cows are highly social and emotional creatures. The bond between a cow and her calf is intense, and separation is deeply traumatic for them both.
Fifty percent of dairy cows suffer from mastitis, a painful infection of the udders caused by the unnatural demand for constant milk production. The majority of downer cows, those cows that are too lame to stand or walk when they arrive at the slaughterhouse, are dairy cows, their bodies destroyed by the insatiable greed of the dairy industry who see them as no more than milk producing machines, despite their screams, their moans, and the terror in their wide eyes as they are often dragged or violently prodded to slaughter.
Like the egg industry, the dairy industry has the same problem with males, the unfortunate “by-product” of these exploitative industries.
Useless to the dairy operation, males are either slaughtered right after being taken away from their mothers, who wail and bellow as any mother would when her baby is taken away, or they are raised as veal, allowed to live another three months in a dark wooden box so small they cannot turn around and fed an anemia-producing diet because we like our meat pink.
This is what we support every time we purchase milk, cheese or other dairy, whether it is labeled as humane or not.
Ignorance really is bliss.
After doing all this research, I had a complete identity crisis.
My whole life I was always the girl who loved animals, who rescued them all, took them all home. I had worked for the Humane Society. I had aced my animal law course in law school and wanted to dedicate my life to helping animals. I was an animal lover. More than anything else, I was an animal lover!
But then, how in the world could I be participating in this brutalization? How could I be supporting what can only be described as hell for these innocent animals? I couldn’t.
That was 10 years ago, and I haven’t touched another piece of meat, another piece of cheese, another egg, or any other product taken from a sentient, emotional being who wants to live like I do, who feels pain like I do, who loves her baby or her mom like I do.
I don’t know that I love animals any more now than I did when I was still eating them and supporting this hellish industry.
But I honor that love now.
And I honor those babies now in a way I simply could not when I was still an active part of the system which torments and brutalizes them.
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Assistant Editor: Andrea Charpentier/Editor: Emily Bartran
Photos: Pixoto, Chrysta Rae