In a piece reposted recently on E Magazine’s online version, blogger Ethan Goffman wrote that his two cats have turned him into a vegetarian – or at least a non-mammal eating vegetarian. After living with cats for the past few years he’s come to appreciate their affectionate purrs and impressive leaps, among other endearing qualities. As warm-blooded mammals they resemble us in many ways and so, Goffman concludes, if he could never eat his cats then how could he possibly eat an equally warm-blooded cow?
On the one hand, as a cat lover and companion to Phoebe – a highly intelligent, playful, verbal, affectionate and curious 16-year old tabby with radiant orange highlights – I understand completely. Phoebe is (yes I’m going to say it) part of our family. She’s a presence and a personality and never lets you forget that that she’s either (a) bored and needs some playtime (b) hungry and needs some novel tasty morsel or (c) lonely and needs some quality lap time. Phoebe and her needs are not to be ignored, and in our household we happily oblige.
On the other hand, as someone trained in biology I thought, huh? Cats are the ultimate carnivore. They, like their wild counterparts, live by eating other animals. Their skull, teeth and digestive tract have evolved to do so. And domestic cats can be downright cruel about it. The predatory instinct is strong even when they’re not hungry and they do indeed catch live mice just to play. I’ve seen my beloved Phoebe fling mice into the air with a swipe of her paw just as she does the fuzzy catnip toy we get her each Christmas.
Goffman and other vegetarian writers argue that carnivorous animals, for all their intelligence, don’t have the capacity to be moral. It’s not that they’re immoral, but rather they’re amoral, and so they get a pass. Humans, on the other hand, have not only the capacity but the obligation to be moral. Inflicting a painful and premature death on another sentient being is immoral. Therefore, because we humans don’t actually need to eat other animals to survive, we shouldn’t kill them for our food.
“So where does that leave me?” I wondered, not for the first time. How do you define “need”?
Four years ago I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis (IC), a poorly understood chronic condition also known as Painful Bladder Syndrome. Like a never-ending bladder infection, it causes pain and the urge to urinate frequently. It can be debilitating for people who suffer from it and indeed, for the better part of a year after I was diagnosed it dominated my life. For me, the only thing that brought relief was changing my diet. Most modern foods (yes most) make IC symptoms worse. I learned that I could reduce and temporarily eliminate my symptoms by removing those foods from my diet completely. This is no small feat – I challenge readers to check out the list of “bladder friendly” foods on the Interstitial Cystitis Association website. The universe of safety when you have IC is astonishingly small and hard to explain even to loved ones. My shorthand description was that I couldn’t eat anything with flavor. What was left to me was plainly cooked meat, fish, poultry; (some) steamed or raw vegetables, and plain starches such as rice, potatoes and oats. Most nuts, cheeses, fruits, soy products, sauces and condiments (among other things) set off a flare.
I lost eight pounds in three months on a frame that had no more than that to lose. It was the monotony really. It took time to learn how to be creative with such limited ingredients and actually enjoy food again. Given that, one could argue that I “need” to eat meat. But even before the IC I knew I did better on animal protein. For years I had lived as a quasi-vegetarian, first to accommodate college housemates and later out of habit and a preference for meatless dishes. But as I began my professional life in my mid-twenties, it became apparent that I just wasn’t making it through the workday.
“You need more protein,” my mother said when I complained about crashing in the afternoons and feeling hypoglycemic on the commute home. I was not one to readily heed my mother’s advice, but she had been trained as a dietician and so I thought it was worth a try. I switched from lunchtime yogurt and salads to protein-packed sandwiches and felt the improvement. Yes beans and tofu were a preferred part of the repertoire, but as time wore on I added more and more animal protein to my diet and increasingly felt more energetic.
So does all that make the pain and injustice of a premature barnyard death okay? Where does one draw the line? Perhaps with a painful chronic condition, some would compassionately concede. But what about simply feeling better and more energetic? Is that allowed? What if being more energetic allowed me to accomplish more at my job as an environmentalist? Is it okay then? And how far does our human morality extend to our nonhuman dependents? I once worked with a woman who fed her cats vegetarian cat food as part of her humane lifestyle. All I could think was, “what an inhumane thing to do to your cats.” Her cats were clearly surviving, but were they thriving? Which is worse: feeding our obligate-carnivore cats vegetarian food or feeding them meat that we consider immoral? (The May/June 2010 issue of E Magazine touches upon this as well.)
All of which leads to a kind of existential question prompted by the wild counterparts to our cruel domestic cats: Entire ecosystems function because some organisms (that is carnivores) kill and consume other organisms (that is herbivores). In short, the entire biosphere works because some animals kill and eat others. One really can’t define it as cruel (they are in fact amoral), but it does look painful and often premature (can anyone say baby wildebeest?). And so calling it immoral for people to kill for food kind of seems like dissing the system. Maybe most of us don’t need to kill for survival. And unquestionably we should be humane in whatever roles we play in the life and death of sentient beings. But to suggest that we should be removed from this larger system, or that the system is fundamentally wrong suggests a certain amount of hubris and a distressing tendency to separate ourselves from the natural world. One could argue that this is the larger fundamental problem.
There are many strong environmental reasons to reduce or eliminate meat from one’s diet. Livestock consumes tremendous amounts of water, land and forage compared with other food crops. Concentrated animal feedlot operations (so-called CAFOs) are recognized by humanitarians and environmentalists as inhumane, ecologically-inefficient pollution factories and rightly so. But is it really better for me to buy soy from Brazil than pasture-raised beef from my local farmer? What about the tropical forests destroyed to plant the soy? Or the carbon dioxide emitted in transporting it across the hemisphere? How does that compare with the methane released by the cow down the road?
Perhaps the only thing truly clear is that in a complicated world with multiple trophic levels, few things are black and white.