Monday, March 14, 2011

An Eye for an Eye: Compassion in the Flesh

      In a city park somewhere, dozens of ducks float contentedly in a large pond while dozens of others roam around on the surrounding grass, taking in the sun, pecking at the dirt and occasionally squabbling. One duck is far away, waiting expectantly at the curb, her head raised in anticipation, but for what? At last he arrives, zooming up on his metallic red scooter: A nice-looking gray-haired gentleman who takes off his helmet and warmly greets his feathered friend.
      They were featured in a story on the national news last week, which showed them taking their daily, amiable walk together around the lake. She looked up a him with such affection and joy as she waddled along beside him, and when he looked down at her, it was obvious that the feelings were mutual. If any other duck, or any other person, approached, she warded them off. This was her man. It was incredibly touching.
       When a reporter asked the guy if the relationship had changed him, he promptly replied, "I don't eat poultry anymore."
   He had always assumed that birds were stupid, he added. Now he realized that they were truly kindred beings.
   As a vegan, I wish that each of us had the opportunity to spend some quality time with a cow, a chicken, a veal calf, a lamb, a pig, a deer and whatever else it is that carnivores kill, gut, butcher and throw into the frying pan. 
   I wish that each of us could walk around a lake, or a barnyard, with every one of them, and stroke them and talk to them and -- most importantly I think -- look into their eyes. These are creatures, it has been shown, that form bonds, experience pleasure and feel fear, dread and pain. Maybe we should force ourselves to accept that and to live accordingly.
Butchery classes
   I know that many people would be unaffected by such an experience and would immediately head for Arby's or Burger King. Some of these people are very aware of the gentle beauty of the deer they get such a thrill out of shooting, and the big-horned sheep and the ducks and pheasants that they hoot and holler as they blow  away. I don't feel superior to these people. I ate meat and thoroughly enjoyed it for the first 21 years of my life, and when my father went hunting a couple of times, I didn't think anything of it. I sure hoped he'd gotten a couple of pheasants, though. Yummy!
   I used to fly a great deal for my work. I always ordered a vegetarian meal. As the stewardesses made their way down the aisle with their large cart, handing out the food trays, the cabin was pretty quiet except for the drone of the plane's engine. But when they reached me, and unveiled my food, there was inevitably an eruption of "oohs" and "ahs" among my fellow passengers. Their food was gray and brown and white, with perhaps a bit of pale iceberg lettuce and some cooked-to-death string beans. Mine was a stylishly arranged landscape of bright colors, varied shapes and appealing textures. It looked like a work of art. Everyone around me was leaning over, standing up, peering around the seat to get a better look. Everyone wanted to know what I had ordered. Their breaded chicken breasts with mashed potatoes and beige gravy didn't look so good anymore. If the movie "When Harry Met Sally" had been made by then, I bet there would have been a lot of people quoting the famous line: "I'll have what she's having." I assume that few if any became vegetarians on the spot, but their overwhelming reaction to the contrast between their meals and mine proves to me that some small part of us is instinctively drawn to this kind of food.
   Children seem to have a natural empathy for animals. Try telling a little kid that the burger he is eating is the ground-up remains of a cow, and he is very likely to put the burger down in disbelief, perhaps wretching as he does so. I have infuriated quite a few mothers by telling their kids this truth. They always say, "Don't tell him that! What am I supposed to feed him?" There are so many wonderful things she can feed him that are delicious, nutritious and murder-free.
   PETA has made some enemies, even among sympathizers, for being too radical in its methods and message. I don't see how you can be too radical about the mind-bogglingly vast, filthy and cruel industry that each day fills millions of  "meat departments" with shrink-wrapped slabs of smooth, rosy flesh. It's like accusing someone of being too radical about Abu Ghraib or Auschwitz.  
   The environmental rationales for eating a plant-based diet are so overwhelming that we shouldn't even need compassion for the animals to change our eating habits. 

   But I can't help feeling that to have compassion for animals makes us more human.
   I stopped eating meat in 1971, when I moved to New York just in time for a beef shortage to send prices skyrocketing.  I didn't know how to cook any meat except for hamburger. Then, as I learned more about health and nutrition, my avoidance of meat was fortified. As I explored the world of vegetarian food, I acquired an aesthetic imperative as well: Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains were beautiful. Dead flesh was not. I had been vegetarian for years before I learned enough about animals, and enough about meat production, to have moral grounds for my diet as well.
   Even then, I continued to eat fish occasionally, mainly because at that time it was hard to get a vegetarian meal in a restaurant. I didn't really think of fish as sentient beings, and it is only recently that scientists have documented social behavior, bonding and even emotion in the creatures of the rivers, lakes and sea.
   But it didn't require scientific data to take fish out of my diet. What happened was, a friend took me fishing. It seemed like it would be a nice outing, with a picnic basket by the lake and a six-pack of beer. I enjoyed myself thoroughly until I caught a fish. I held it in both hands and felt its quivering life and noticed the beauty of its iridescent scales. "Just grab it by the tail and smash its head against that boulder," my friend instructed. I was taken aback. When I agreed to "go fishing," I hadn't envisioned killing anything. I realized now that it was a necessary part of this particular "sport." But when I looked into the fish's eye, which was looking back at me because there was no place else it could look, and when I looked some more and felt my power of life and death over this lovely being, and I sensed its resignation, its patience, its utter helplessness, and it just kept looking at me with such aliveness in its eyes, I shook my head, glared at my friend, and slid the fish back into the water. 
   Eye contact is a powerful thing.