“If we start thinking about farm animals as sentient creatures, we may have to change the way we live.” – Tracey Stewart, Do Unto Animals (141).
Are you willing to do that?
Animals bring indescribable joy and meaning to my life. Everyone knows how important they are to me. I want to go to veterinary school and work with animals, because I want to dedicate part of my life to animal welfare. I love all animals, but I am partial to a few species, including cattle. I love cattle. They are beautiful, breathtaking and downright cool — they have the ability to digest cellulose. Humans cannot do that. That is cool. During my second semester of my senior year of high school, I embarked upon an independent study in which I learned about the cow’s digestive system, particularly how the microbiome of bacteria in the stomach allowed the animal to digest cellulose. The study ended with giving a presentation at my school, open to anyone, explaining the design of the ruminant stomach, the microbes living there, and how grass diets and corn diets affect the stomach.
In the fifth grade, one of my classmates, as part of a project about Native Americans, brought in rabbit stew, a traditional recipe. At that time, I had a pet rabbit, Fluffy. I did not want to eat the stew, because the rabbit in the stew could have been Fluffy’s brother. After that moment, I thought about all other animals and decided I did not want to eat them either, for the same reason. I became a vegetarian.
I was a vegetarian for a long time. Then, in my sophomore year of high school, I signed up to go on a school trip to Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee — and I knew that on our itinerary were lots of famous food eateries, meaning fried chicken and BBQ. I had already been rethinking my vegetarianism, and I definitely wanted to eat southern meat delicacies. I had always been okay with other people eating meat. It was part of the natural human diet. I always thought that people could eat less meat, but I really was okay with it. I had originally become vegetarian because I did not like that fact that we killed animals in order to eat meat. But after a while, I realized that I thought it was okay to eat animals. If we stopped eating animals, wouldn’t the ecosystems go crazy? Plus, human bodies are designed to eat some meat. I then started thinking, “Well, if I think it’s okay to eat meat like this, why don’t I put my money where my mouth is and eat meat the way I think humans should eat meat?” So, on that Tennessee trip, I ate Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, a pulled pork sandwich from Central BBQ, and a fried chicken salad at the Loveless Café. It was awesome. But, after that trip, I decided to eat only humanely and sustainable-y raised meat. I explained this to my family, who went on to coin the term “eco-beef.”
I ended up eating vegetarian most of the time, especially at restaurants and family gatherings. Luckily, my family has never eaten a lot of meat, and I had roughly six years of practice as a full-time vegetarian. I made sure to have my parents buy grass-fed pasture beef and free-range chicken. I never really went shopping for it myself. That is not to say that I do not trust my parents, of course. But I never took the initiative to get involved with my food in that way.
When I came to Santa Clara University (SCU), I did not know much about the meat at the dining hall, so I did not order it. Even though Bon Appétit, SCU’s catering company, assures students of its commitment to humanely raised meat, I was never really sure enough to feel comfortable ordering it. I naturally started eating less and less meat until I was practically a vegetarian again.
This class made me decide to go back to full-time vegetarianism. Jonathon Safran Foer’s Eating Animals made me truly realize how horrible the factory farming system is. It also made me think. I have always thought about the animal and its pain (during life and at killing), and then the meat. They were very separate, though. I always knew that meat was animal flesh — obviously. Yet, in a way, I did not really think about it. I realized that, even if it was the happiest cow and had the greatest of lives, I still felt uncomfortable truly thinking of the meat on my plate as an animal. The concept of humans consuming meat still sits comfortably with me. I just realized that I personally did not want to eat it if I could not truly think about the meat on my plate as animal flesh, instead of simply “a burger” or “a meatball.” I was not truly conscious of what I was eating, and what it meant, and I decided that until I could do that, I did not want to eat animals.
Young adults like SCU students frustrate me when they fail to be thoughtful, when they fail to truly think, and when they fail to care. It occurs in various spheres of my college life existence, but it troubles me most when innocent animals are mistreated as a result. Ignorance and apathy continue to enable animal cruelty and violence. The issue is that people choose not to think about the animal’s feelings — precisely because it makes the person upset to some degree — instead of considering why it makes them uneasy and seeking to improve what obviously irks them.
Ignorance has become a defense mechanism, and it is a shame. The world would look immensely better if everyone were mindful of their emotions, their thoughts, and their choices — especially when avoidance or ignorance results in hurting others, our environment, or even us. David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech in 2005 called “This is Water,” and the speech particularly resonated with me — so much so that I bookmarked it on my Web browser. My essay features this speech because of common themes of awareness, consciousness, and purpose, which is what I argue people need to practice more. Wallace suggests, “‘learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience” (Wallace 3). One of the key pillars of my own education is social responsibility and finding meaning in what I do. I argue that other young adults, especially SCU students like myself, need to search for the same kind of meaning through mindfulness and consciousness. It is especially important when, off in the distance, thousands of animals that are suffering could be relieved of that pain with a little more care, awareness, and thought from the world.
Factory Farming Relies on Cruelty
As my peers’ essays can support, the factory farming model, a cruel and irresponsible way to grow and harvest animal products, dominates today’s animal agricultural system. In this model, animals are seen as “biofactories,” as machines with mechanical parts to be tinkered (Warkentin 84). The industry breeds cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and other animals for maximum productivity — meaning more meat for fewer resources and less energy. Animals are packed into small spaces and fed unhealthy diets because it fattens the animals up quicker. It does not matter if the cow cannot properly digest cheap corn; the farmer will just give the cow antibiotics until the cow reaches slaughter weight, and then what the cow ate does not matter. Most cows, among other farm ruminants, are “incapable of natural movement” because of the size to which the farmers grow them. They also experience more respiratory and heart issues (Benz-Schwarzburg and Ferrari 30). In this way, sick animals have become more profitable (Foer 111). To me, this model, which relies on sick and suffering animals, is cruel and unacceptable. Nonetheless, most of the meat we eat comes from these types of situations. Dr. Chad Lavin, a professor at Virginia Tech, writes, “the factory farm promised greater efficiency, higher crop yields, and more predictable commodities markets” (Lavin 72). Not many people would consider their consumption a matter of sacrificing animal welfare for greater quantities of cheaper meat. Unfortunately, this is the case. In order to eat like we do, animals will suffer.
Frank Reese is a farmer at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch specializing in turkeys. His turkeys are different, though — they are “heritage” turkeys. The terms “heritage” and “heirloom” refer to breeds known for qualities such as stronger immunity, greater genetic diversity, “legendary flavors,” and rarity — some even teetering on the “brink of extinction” (Kingsolver 90-92). Heritage breeds are similar to wild, natural turkeys in terms of their “sense about foraging, predator avoidance, and reproduction,” and generally are adapted to particular environments (Kingsolver 92). Americans consume 400 million turkeys each year, and more than 99% are one breed called the Broad-Breasted White (Kingsolver 90). These Broad-Breasted Whites are the “sick animals” that Reese talks about in Eating Animals. Ninety-nine percent of American turkeys cannot fly anymore. Ninety-nine percent of American turkeys cannot reproduce on their own (Foer 111). According to Krysta Vollbrecht, the donor relations coordinator at Farm Sanctuary, most farm animals are created through artificial insemination, not just turkeys. Species who cannot reproduce on their own, whose bodies and lives have been refined to “accommodate profit maximization,” will go extinct (Vollbrecht). We have treated animals like commodities and have manipulated them as we see fit — fit for our stomachs and wallets, not fit for the animal and future generations.
Brief Thought Versus Being Thoughtful
During an interview, one SCU student said that he feels bad when he sometimes thinks about meat as a previously living being. For him, though, the meat eventually goes back to being food or nutrition. Instead of being a fish, “salmon is the protein” or Omega-3 fatty acids. Many students reported being able to eat meat again because they forget about the animal or are distracted from the idea of it. Some admitted to being unhappy eating meat when they thought about the animal or its experience of pain, but they reported “forgetting” about it and eating the meat anyways. This routine “setting aside” of the topic angers me because it allows injustice to continue. These SCU students have numerous opportunities to stand up for animals — the issue lies right at their fingertips. Sadly, “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about” (Wallace 1). Each individual needs “simple awareness,” as Wallace puts it — “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us” (Wallace 8).
However, achieving this “simple awareness” is much easier said than done. As Foer points out, very few people see or interact with animals, making it easier to forget about them. Never having to face the individual animal makes it easier to put the discomfort of eating it on the back burner (Foer 101-102). In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan, a well-known meat writer, calls to the reader’s attention that there is a “foundation of ignorance and lies about the most basic question of nutrition: What are people eating?” (Pollan, 76). That should be an easy question to answer, but of course, like most basic questions, it is in fact quite difficult. For instance, Foer mentions the term “veal,” which can “help us forget about what we are actually talking about,” which is a baby cow (Foer 45). Ordering “veal” sounds a lot better than ordering a baby cow, does it not?
Challenging though it is, the easiness to overlook does not condone the forgetting. “If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” says Wallace, “you can choose to look differently,” which is what college students especially need to do (Wallace 6). Young adults wield a power unlike any other, but in order to use that power effectively, we have to “consciously decide what has meaning” for ourselves (Wallace 6).
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them…” — Wallace (7-8).
That is what a lot of college has been about for me: learning to think and to think deeper, practice social responsibility and help others. It is about “the work of choosing,” as Wallace puts it (Wallace 4). In my mind, education is not just to have or to get, but to use, apply, and enjoy. It breaks my heart when college students admit to and accept their ignorance or apathy. Because we are fortunate to be going to college, and we should take advantage of that gift and use it for good. We are imperfect humans and bound to slip. Yet when we make the decision to forget and avoid the moments that trouble us, we turn our cheeks and miss the chance to make a kind, meaningful choice. And choices are powerful tools that we, as students of Santa Clara University, often fail to use effectively due to lack of mindfulness or sheer apathy.
I see this a lot on campus, especially with politics. It’s interesting when voting then comes up. I registered to vote in 2015 — I was so excited, because I can now participate in my own government. I have a valuable, smart, compassionate voice, and, yes, while I am just one little voter… at the same time, I am one voter, and I personally think I am a good voter for the United States to have participating in its government. Plus, there are plenty of people out there who do not have a say like this in their government. We live in a world where having a vote like this is a luxury. So I am going to use it for good.
While I was excited to vote, no one else seemed to be. Annoyingly, they would chuckle when I talked to them about how excited I was. I was miffed by their lack of excitement, but I soon realized that it would get worse. For instance, I ran into my friend in the student union building after I had just picked up my official ballot material from the post office.
After saying hello and such, I expressed how cool it was that I got election mail. He chuckled.
“Aren’t you excited to vote?” I asked.
“No, not really,” he replied. He then told me that he probably wasn’t going to vote.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I don’t care enough,” he admitted.
That hurt me, honestly. “You realize that not voting is basically a vote for Trump if he wins? And I know you don’t like him!”
“Yeah, I don’t care.”
“And if you don’t vote, you can’t complain if you’re unhappy with the outcome. And it could be Trump! If you vote, you have the right to complain. If you don’t, you just can’t.”
He chuckles again. “I don’t care.”
I just could not understand him and why he did not care. Here was a chance for an educated and intelligent voter to participate in our government, but he wasn’t, because he did not care.
Two of my other friends alluded to the fact that they really didn’t like any of the presidential candidates and that they might not vote. I told them the same things I told my other friend I mentioned. I don’t know if they understood what I was saying or not. One of these friends told me about another student who supported Trump because he did not like any of the candidates but thought that Trump was the least bad. And it’s hard for me to say this, but I would rather have someone vote for a guy like Trump (if they truly think he is the best candidate) than to not vote at all because there isn’t a perfectly suitable option.
It all goes back to being educated, but more importantly, being aware and purposeful. All the education in the world will not do much without thoughtful and conscious citizens. And that does not mean it is easy and perfect and totally awesome. When is it ever? “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out,” says Wallace. “It takes will and mental effort” (Wallace 8, 6). I do not have much practice, but so far, trying to stay conscious is exhausting and challenging — but worth the effort. The alternative would involve a lack of meaning, of which I simply do not see the point. Plus, I would like to think that, if I keep doing my best to be aware and conscious, perhaps I will grow stronger and build endurance of thoughtfulness.
It is one thing to be ignorant. It is another to not take initiative. Inaction is most disappointing to me. I am not at college because I should, or because I can, or because my parents want me to be. I am here to learn and grow and do something about the issues I care about, like animal welfare. My education is pointless to me if I cannot enjoy it and use it to be a better world citizen, to enrich my life with meaning, and to care for others — especially cows.
“To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Benz-Schwarzburg, Judith, Arianna Ferrari. “Super-muscly pigs: trading ethics for efficiency.” Issues in Science and Technology (Spring 2016), 29-32.
Cullen, Dave. Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009. Print.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. Print.
Lavin, Chad. “Factory Farms in a Consumer Society”. American Studies, v. 50 (Spring/Summer 2009): pp. 71–92. JSTOR.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.
Stewart, Tracey. Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better. New York: Artisan, 2015. Print.
Vollbrecht, Krysta. Interview via e-mail with author. 2016.
Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” 2005. Web.
Warkentin, Traci. “Dis/integrating animals: ethical dimensions of the engineering of animals for human consumption.” AI & Soc (2006), 82-102. Web.