Vegetarian or Vegan

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I’m a vegetarian, that is: I don’t eat meat but I do consume animal products like milk, milk products and eggs. A vegan, on the other hand, eats neither flesh nor animal product. A vegetarian should not wear leather (I do … I was given a leather belt years ago and it seems a waste to discard it), a vegan would certainly never wear leather, a product formed from the skin of a slaughtered beast.

To the militant vegan, I am worse than a meat eater, because although I subscribe to the idea of animal welfare, I still participate in the exploitation of animals. I enjoy yoghurt and from time to time, grilled cheese. I am also partial to blue vein cheese since reading that scientists researching the blue mould discovered it to be a powerhouse of beneficial bio-medical compounds, ones that protect the heart, arteries and brain. My body says yes, but my mind is full of hesitation.

There are close to 7 million dairy cows in NZ and let’s face it, they pay the bills. Besides producing some 18 billion litres of milk every season, they are a major source of meat protein. Every year these several million cows give birth igniting the lactation process. Male calves are a by-product and some are kept for rearing into beef but most, along with undersized and unhealthy females (quality females are kept as replacement dairy stock), make up the mega bobby calf cull. The 2013-2014 season saw around two million four-day-old calves being turned into veal, sausages, meat patties and pet food.

As for mum, her life is fast and hard.  While she is offering an economic return she is well-cared for, but the moment she falters, she is dog meat. A cow can live for 20 years; the Kiwi cow averages 5-7 years. Besides pet food, she makes a profitable hamburger.

But she’s just a dumb cow?

I began my working life on the family dairy farm. The attitude was appalling and I look back on my education with a degree of horror. I am ashamed of the harm I caused on the road to my enlightenment and I especially regret the Camel Incident.

She was a unique beast, named for her height and posture. I always thought that by cow standards she was a genius. She could open the gates precisely designed to be cattle proof and she had no fear of the electric fence. The method of the NZ farmer is to start putting aside pasture in late summer so that by winter there is a surplus of fresh feed to sustain the herd through winter when grass growth is at its slowest.

The paddock is divided in portions by a strand of electric wire of which the cows are totally in awe. Not her – she knew that a whole paddock of fresh grass was for her and her alone, all for the price of a couple of uncomfortable shocks.

She decided that we were friends and every time she saw me she rushed over to a bunt, a cuddle (this is a creature that weighs close to a tonne and is more than capable of crushing a man), a tickle and a good cleaning. The cow tongue is rough and smelly, her saliva copious but her affection real and heart-felt, to the point of procreation. I learned to be very wary when she was on heat. The affections of this massive beast were frightening. Imagine an avalanche trying to mount you.

She was fat, unproductive and troublesome. She had to go.

I begged for her life, but Dad insisted, “That’s the way it is, any exceptions will only cost us money and set a bad example.” Most cows need to be forced onto the truck but she ambled up the ramp, ever curious, looking for adventure.

An hour later she was at the works and her life at an end. I lost faith in the farm after that but it wasn’t the trigger for my vegetarianism, which had come years before in a way I can’t adequately explain.

I was standing in line with a group of Hindu boys out from Fiji for a Kiwi education. It was a Catholic boys’ school and the fees these boys provided helped to pay the bills. Regardless of the economic benefit they allowed, they were treated with disdain; preached about Catholic truth and were directed to the end of the line in the dining hall awaiting special meals. This is where I found myself one night, late and at the end of the queue watching these quiet boys receiving their meals, mixed veges and a few deep fried potatoes. It was sparse and there was no meat. I had never seen such a thing. When my turn came I asked the cook about this strange dinner. “Hindus are vegetarian,” he said, cigarette dangling from his lips (it was the 1970s), “they don’t eat meat.” A light went off in my head and I said without further thought, “I’ll have what they’re having.”

I didn’t go full on vegetarian right away, it was a process, but a genie had awakened in me and there was no going back. Chicken, beef, sheep and pig were right off the menu but fish took a little longer. This went south after I read an article on fish intelligence. It seems that by large they experience pain and pleasure on a scale discernible enough to rate alongside whales, dolphins and octopuses and I could not eat a creature that enjoyed living.

I explained to animal rights campaigner and vegan Lynley Tulloch that when I eat cheese I give a thought for the cows that sacrifice so much for my sustenance. She tells me this is a cop out and in a way she is right. I do it salve my conscience because I do feel guilty.

I could give up dairy but I don’t want to. If I could source affordable, sustainable and readily available product I would.

There is a retired couple in the deepest darkest Wairarapa who have created a cottage industry from a cow they rescued. She became fallow, and a fallow cow produces no milk. They bought her from the farmer (she was waiting to be sent for slaughter), offered her care and lots of quality feed and she got pregnant again. Years later she is the backbone of a small herd, an outcome almost unheard off the in NZ dairy system. Sadly, their cheese is priced way beyond my means.

Veganism and vegetarianism are not new phenomenons. There have always been a minority who have urged their fellows to act more thoughtfully toward those creatures over which we have dominion, the most notable being the Jain, a religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. The Jain faith, once the dominant religion of the Indian sub-continent, dates back some seven centuries BC, giving some indication of how old the animal rights movement actually is. More closer to our own time, Mohammed, the founder of Islam, urged a more compassionate attitude toward the beasts that toil and provide for us.

Some people see past the conditioned norms that tell us that animals are lesser and not subject to the same feelings that humans are. Cutting edge neuroscience, informed observation and Facebook are teaching us differently. The latter in particular is a veritable goldmine of videos showing us pigs, dogs, cats and goats playing, bonding and doing goofy things. These videos that remind us that emotions like love, joy, and the need for companionship are universal traits, ones not confined to the human sphere.

In 2011, an estimated 58 trillion chickens,1.4 trillion pigs and 300 million cattle were slaughtered internationally.

Pigs are smart and rate better on intelligence tests than dogs, humanity’s erstwhile best friend; and cattle, while they may be incapable of operating a digger or driving a laptop, possess emotional qualities not a hundred miles removed from their human masters, but what about chickens?

Chicken was the first meat I happily gave away. Unlike a carefully butchered joint of meat that bares little resemblance to the creature it is carved from, the chicken maintains its complete shape and form after slaughter and all I could see (this is before my vegetarianism), was bone, sinew and bits of blood, all of which caused me some degree of unease, a hint of the latent and as yet undiscovered proclivity within my nature.

But it’s just a chicken?

The orthodox view is that a chicken is a pretty basic kind of intelligence, again an assumption that is not borne out by the latest research into bird intelligence. Okay, so maybe chickens don’t rate as high as the clever crows of New Caledonia or parrots like the kea, but they are clever wee beasties with reasonably complex emotional lives.

I did not realise this when my wife turned up with two red shavers a couple of years back. Katie and Christina became a subject of intense fascination as they followed me about and around the garden, scratching and pecking and speaking in sympathetic tones that spoke of reassurance and contentment.

Because they were so thoroughly rough on the garden I decided to build them a run. It was as large as your average backyard (big enough, I thought, to satisfy their wandering nature), and built to contain.

Their first hours locked away were consumed by investigation as they poked and prodded for a way through the defences. Within two hours they were out, thus setting the pattern that was to follow. For every gap I bridged, they found another escape route. Despite my best efforts I have never been able to imprison them as intended.

Chooks are creatures of habit. They leave their perch at a precise time in the morning and return to it at the same time every night. At 6am it is their habit to enter the house through the cat door and seek us out in bed. They like to cuddle up close and chat for a while before going about the routine of their day.

The other thing that amazed me about these remarkable girls is the way they quickly established a hierarchy within our larger family of cats and guinea pigs. The cats were left in no doubt who ruled the roost and to our immense surprise they became the guardians of peace, tolerating none of the occasional cat fights, rushing into conflagrations and quickly and assuredly prising apart the warring parties. How could I ever consider even eating these girls? I wouldn’t and I couldn’t because I love them, and in their own way, I know they love and more importantly, trust me.

I have come to the conclusion that my mysterious vegetarian proclivity is based on my natural empathy toward all living creatures, my choice and not one I care to impart on others. I am a pragmatic kind of non-meat eater that accepts that not everyone feels as I do. My only wish is for a more enlightened attitude toward the creatures that serve us. Here I quote Temple Gradin, a mildly autistic animal behavioural scientist whose special talent is her ability to see the world from the point of view of the animals she studies. Her work has revolutionised the design of slaughterhouses, making them more “compassionate” toward the beast walking towards it demise.

She says: “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”

I will leave the last word to Tommy Lee, drummer with Motley Crue and occasional meat eater, who said in a recent interview with me: “We do some pretty shitty things to animals and it isn’t right.”

Animals slaughtered worldwide 2011:

Chickens: 58 trillion

Cattle: 300 million

Ducks: 2 trillion

Pigs: 13 trillion

Goats: 430 million

Turkeys: 3 trillion

Sheep: 517 million

Biggest meat Consuming Countries:

1. Luxembourg 136 kilograms per capita.

2. United States 125 kilograms of meat per capita.

3. Australia 121 kilograms per capita.

4. New Zealand 115 kilograms per capita.

5. Spain 110 kilograms per capita.

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