Why Do We Call Some Animals Pets and Some Animals Dinner? A Flexitarian Considers Meat.

I was all set to write about how no-kill shelters are better at encouraging adoptions with suggestions for helping your local shelter make the switch. Then I saw the bumper sticker. “Why do we call some animals pets and some animals dinner?”

That bumper sticker is not an unusual sight in my town. We’re home to one of the most famous vegetarian restaurants in the United States. And the percentage of vegans and vegetarians is higher here than in most places (6% of the local college students practice vegetarianism/veganism while less than 2% of the United States general population does). So wrestling with choices about what to eat is a regular part of my existence.

Why Should We Think More About What We Eat?

  1. Trying to make ethical decisions is part of being human. If we don’t struggle with the hard questions in life, we’re not exploiting all the wonders of our humanity. And I believe that considering whether some animals are pets and others are meat is a big decision, worthy of the greatest philosophical minds.
  2. Large-scale raising of animals for meat degrades the environment in many ways. Did you know that cows and pigs contribute up to 18% of global warming? And that the methane from their manure traps heat more effectively than carbon dioxide?
  3. The way most animals are raised for meat is cruel. Puppy mills are not the only places where animals are treated like money-making commodities and prevented from having any kind of normal life.
  4. Factory farms produce food that is “icky.” Poorly treated animals get sick more often and require antibiotics. Their manure pollutes the water which is then used to irrigate our spinach (remember last year’s salmonella scare?). I believe the recent recalls of pet foods and the tragic deaths were just the logical result of food production from a factory system instead of a farming system.

Do I Really Need One More Thing to Feel Guilty About?

No, of course not. Guilt is one of the least-productive emotions ever. But without wallowing in guilt, we can make decisions that will have an effect in our lives even if it doesn’t change the world (at least not right away).

Ok, I’m Listening. What Are You Proposing?

  1. Think. What do you eat and why? Come to the conclusions that work for you. Keep an open mind and be compassionate toward people who make decisions different from yours.
  2. Express gratitude. If you choose to eat meat, be grateful to the animal that gave its life to nourish you. Some hunters I know are very reverent–they express their appreciation to the animals they kill.
  3. Learn more. Yes, I know. You don’t want to see nasty videos of confined chickens or the inside of a slaughterhouse. That’s why I think the Farm Sanctuary website is so effective. Farm Sanctuary is a rescue organization for livestock animals. They have lots of hopeful stories about animals rescued from bad lives who have found new homes. If you keep digging, you will find plenty of information about meat production to make your flesh crawl. But you can learn a lot without being confronted with gory videos that make you shrivel in despair before heading to McDonalds to eat a Big Mac while sobbing.

That’s very general. Are there specific things I can do?

Yep, here’s what you can try if you eat meat, are a vegetarian, or a vegan.

  • Meat eaters – If you always eat meat, experiment with different meals. Try vegetarian lasagna or my favorite recipe, Chilean Butternut Squash. Or try food from other cultures where meat is used as a seasoning instead of the main ingredient. Try meat that is locally raised on small farms in your area instead of on factory farms.
  • Vegetarians – Experiment with veganism by eliminating all animal products from some of your meals. Cheese lover that I am, I find this tough. But Indian, Chinese, and Japanese cuisines are a great place to look for inspiration. Also try to eat with the seasons, appreciating what’s available to you now. The butternut squash recipe above is a great way to use a vegetable that stores well over the winter.
  • Vegans – Share your story here. Aleksandra of Love and a Six-Foot Leash left some thoughtful comments about becoming a vegan on my post about Ethical Purchasing that was another inspiration for writing this post. Are there other vegans reading? What led you to veganism? Do you have any favorite recipes? Have you found the choice to give up animal products hard?

Ok, you spent all this time telling us what to do. Do you always meet your highest aspirations? And just what is a Flexitarian anyway?

That’s fair. First, a flexitarian is defined as someone who generally avoids but occasionally eats meat. I also eat eggs.

In the summer, it’s easy to be a vegetarian. I have a square foot garden in my front yard and a wonderful farmers’s market a short bike ride from my house. Fresh produce is abundant, affordable, attractive, and delicious.

In the winter, I find things tougher. I don’t care for sweet vegetables much and most of what stores well over the winter is sweet. And as the days get short and gloomy (my town has a comparable number of cloudy days to Seattle, Washington), I find myself craving meat. Chicken soup makes an occasional appearance although I try to buy meat that is outside the conventional factory farm system. But when I go to a restaurant or someone’s home, all bets are off. I try to eat lower on the food chain, but that’s about it.

I often fail at meeting my highest ideals. But one bad decision doesn’t have to be the end of trying.

And as much as I admire vegans, I can’t imagine giving up cheese. But I’m always willing to try so links to good recipes in the comments section are very appreciated.

Time to Bring it Home, Pam

Although I’m certain everyone reading this loves animals, we don’t often talk about what this means for our dietary choices. This is a hard issue. And I hope people are willing to consider their choices with kindness and compassion toward themselves and others.

Please share your thinking on this.

I’ve been lucky to have very thoughtful and kind people visit Something Wagging This Way Comes and I’ve never gotten nasty comments. But I know that some people become defensive and mean when their ideas are challenged. And some others become self-righteous and judgmental. You don’t have to agree with me but you do have to play nice. So remember, I have a delete comments button and I know how to use it.

This is a blog hop for Blog the Change for Animals. So hop on!

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  1. oh Pam!! What a wonderful, wonderful writing choice you’ve made…and so beautifully put. “Some we love, some we hate, and some we eat” covers this topic – it’s this vegan’s favorite book. Your blog is just as insightful – battling with our own code of ethics is part of being human. Challenging ourselves to be better with the freedom to come up with our own definition of “better”.

    Thank you for posting on this issue – I’ve read it twice already and will be sure to revisit later.

    As always, it’s been a pleasure :)

    • Thank you, Erica for your kind words. I was really scared to write this post because this topic doesn’t come up much among pet bloggers. And I’m certainly not satisfied with all the dietary choices I’ve made so far–

      Some We Love… is one of 3 different books on the topic that made it into our library recently. I haven’t yet read any of them–I think I have a bit of denial going on here. But I’ll take your recommendation the next time I’m at the library.

  2. Awesome post! Actually, all of your posts are terrific. I must say this is one of those things I struggle with. I gave up red meat decades ago, but poultry, fish, and seafood are still in my diet, though not often. And, then there is Sadie who eats fresh food including fresh bison, turkey and beef. Well, I do my best to buy meats for her and poultry for me that are raised humanely and are not part of the big-ag business. And, given the mess fish and seafood is in—over fished, full of toxins—I’m eating far less that I used to. I think about Mark Bitman who recommends being a vegan “before dinner.” That’s a start. And, of course, Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” was most interesting in exploring these issues. I like his dictum “eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.” I despaired over eggs and cheese until I found a local dairy where I can buy raw cow’s milk (legally), raw milk cheese, and eggs from chickens that have the run of the farm. Still…..tis a dilemma.

    • Yes, it’s terrible that something as basic and wonderful as eating has become so challenging. And much of the concerns I have are the result of practices that began in my lifetime–especially the “green revolution” and the policies of Earl Butz in the Nixon administration.

      Eating shouldn’t have to be so hard!

  3. The elephant in the room. You are very courageous to bring this up. I don’t think I am quite yet.

    I have been struggling for a little while now with my meat-eating ways. It doesn’t sit right with me at all and reading this gave me a heavy feeling in my heart. I like the term flexitarian – it is something I am striving towards and the way I think would be ideal for everyone. For the most part, I admit this with all the guilt in the world, I just push aside my incomforableness. It’s easier, my husband does the majority of the cooking in our house, and he is a big meat eater. To acknowledge my growing uncertainty would potentially stir stuff up, would ruffle a few feathers in my household. He knows how I feel, I think, but I always let him convince me to just let it go.

    Not sure if I am ready to make any big changes – my diet is pretty poor as it is – but I would like to get to a point where the only meat or animal product I ever eat was at least produced and raised ethically.

    Ugh, thanks for this uncomforable feeling, at least. It’s a step in the right direction. Maybe I will skip my ham sandwich today.

    • I mostly wrote this post to address my own ambivalence with the issue. And the line about feeling guilty enough to go out to McDonalds and sobbing over your Big Mac? That’s not a joke. I sometimes do such stupid things when I get overwhelmed by ethical dilemmas.

      I don’t really believe that any positive, long-term change comes out of guilt and discomfort. So be grateful for the wonderful cook in your house and someone to share your meals with without stressing too much.

      Oh and a great birthday present for a carnivore? How about a couple of grass-fed steaks from a steer that lived a good life on a small farm? (Eaten with gratitude, of course.)

  4. Your posts always offer something to think about! I like that about you! :) I’m not sure I’m ready to go vegetarian just yet, but it’s a thought!

    • Thanks! I guess I feel the need to stretch my brain a bit since I’m in such an ecstasy of puppy loving hedonism most of the time. Life can’t be all fun, huh?

  5. I think we do the best we can at particular times in our lives. We can always do better — and it’s something to strive for. Although I gave it up for a while, I don’t see eating red meat — in small quantities — as being worse than eating chicken or other flesh, including fish, if they’re raised/caught without cruelty, which is the biggest issue to me. Where I draw the line is a good question. I figure what’s good enough for Temple Grandin is good enough for me… but do I check? Not really.

    And then there are the economic issues. I turn a blind eye to things I don’t want to deal with when it’s inconvenient.

    I too applaud you for dealing with a difficult issue. Got any hate mail that you deleted? You can tell us in private.

    • I’m a big believer in doing the best we can at the moment. And that’s why I decided to forgive myself for eating meat in the winter instead of being very strict with myself until I cracked up and did something really over the top to make up for the stress.

      And I certainly relate to the desire to turn a blind eye. I have actually said to myself that I’m just not ready to deal with all the ramifications of eating seafood. Every time I see a list of “good” or “bad” fish, I want to jump out of my skin. I’m tired of everything being hard.

      And no hate mail to delete. The blessing of small readership?

      Whatever the reason, I’m really thankful for the range of opinions thoughtfully expressed.

  6. Thanks for this post… I’ve struggled with this issue myself, and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. Definitely gave me more to think about – I have tried to reduce my meat consumption and become more of a flexitarian, but it’s not as easy as I wish. I’m working on it. I do try to buy humanely raised meat when it’s at all possible.

  7. Hi! Have you read “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer? It deals with a lot of the issues you talk about. You may like it. I’ve been a strict vegan twice in my life and now I’m not sure what I am, but there are certain things that I just absolutely refuse to eat. I find it hard to draw that strict of a line, so I agree with the term that the other commenter (and you) used – flexitarian. I don’t really think you have to call yourself anything, just do the best you can. And yes, the cheese thing is hard!!

    • I haven’t read that book but I’ve added it to my list.

      Of course, if I don’t ever get off the computer, I’ll never get to read a real live book again.

      Thanks for adding the perspective of someone who has tried different approaches. I think it’s good for folks to consider that different approaches may work better at different times.

  8. I am a flexitarian as well. I try to eat mostly vegetarian meals and only eat meat occasionally. I try to buy local & buy in season. I grew up on a small dairy farm in VT. I have always known fresh (raw) milk & fresh eggs. I have helped raise and then slaughter chickens, cows and pigs on the farm. I’ve also planted, weeded and picked every vegetable that grows in VT. I still struggle all the time with choosing to eat meat.

    • Because I don’t think of death as quite as terrible as a horrible life (ask me again when I’m on my deathbed if I still think that way), I’m not strongly opposed to eating meat on principle. My ethical concerns are mostly about the way animal products are produced in this country.

      I think taking responsibility for our choices is really important. It’s a normal part of traditional farm life but something that most Americans have gotten away from. I know people who love meat but can’t buy a whole chicken because it reminds them that their food was once alive. Packaged as “parts” is no problem.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. Great topic, Pamela. I have spent a ton of time reading about factory farming issues, which occasionally end up in my blog posts. My personal perspective is that I’m not against eating meat, but I am adamantly against our factory farming system and do what I can to stand up to it. We purchase pastured eggs from the Farmers’ Market, as well as pastured beef and chicken. Yes, it’s more expensive, which means we don’t eat nearly as much as we used to (another benefit), but when it comes to our food, we pay up front or we pay later. There is no cheap food.

    Thanks for the topic.

    • I saw an interview with Earl Butz recently (the secretary of agriculture under Nixon who was responsible for the era of “cheap food”). He was genuinely proud of how food is so much cheaper today than it was in 1970 and that families are spending a much lower percentage of their income on food.

      I appreciated his sincerity but I don’t see how spending 10% of our income on HoHos and Oreos is better than 20% of our income on fresh bread, meat from a local farm, and fruit from the nearby orchard.

      And yes, there is definitely no cheap food. We pay for it in recalls, environmental damage, and health problems.

  10. What you eat is of course a matter of choice. I was an ovo lacto vegetarian for about 10 years and reverting back to an “omnivorous” diet is due to personal reasons.
    You did post some good “food for thought” here. Joke aside, I personally doubt that if some of us stopped eating meat would bring an end to butcher shops and farms. If anything, it would give us the peace of mind and guiltless conscience that you mentioned.
    As a side note, I’d say don’t worry about cheese. It won’t harm the animals, maybe just take away their calf/kid’s milk.

    • I’m not sure I believe there’s any such thing as “peace of mind and guiltless conscience.” We’d just find something else to stress over. : )

      I do think that small changes add up over time. Although my community is described as 10 square miles surrounded by reality, the individual choices of people here have provided a living to small farmers that provide a strong counterpoint to factory agriculture.

      Even so, you’re right that how we eat is a matter of choice.

  11. Good post and definite food for thought (pun intended)! My household is big on dairy, eggs, seafood, but our busy lives mean not many groceries and not a lot of meat. Even eating out, I stick to seafood, but can’t say the same for the husband.

    However, when I say we’re red meat free (generally), I’m referring to us – the humans. The dog is raw fed (5lbs/day – he’s a big guy), so our deep freeze is packed with all sorts of beef, pork, bison, chicken, turkey, fish, etc.

    I’m not interested in digressing your thread into a raw v. kibble debate, but as a dog owner I think it’s an interesting conundrum: our ethical diets v. the diets of our pets.

    • I agree that we could start a whole new conversation about feeding ourselves and feeding our pets. I know that in several years of providing a hand-prepared diet for my dogs, they definitely ate better sometimes than I did.

      And I’ve known some people who insisted their pets keep vegetarian diets. Apparently dogs can manage this somewhat but it can be a serious health problem for cats.

      I think that strict dogmatism about anything isn’t usually the best way to go.

  12. What an interesting post. I started thinking about this more when I was younger, as a friend of mine was a vegetarian. People should definitely make informed decisions about things…whether they cut out all meat or not.

    I love the title of your blog by the way!

    I have information about a Cutest Pet contest on my blog if you wanna check it out!!


    • Wow, Lauren, you have a lot going on at your blog. And you still manage to show up for class? :)

      Luana is beautiful BTW.

      Thanks for stopping by and for complimenting the name. I’m pretty proud of it but I find most people don’t get the Ray Bradbury reference.

  13. Thanks for this beautiful and thoughtful essay. What a nice way to present the conflict that so many of us face. As the vegan mentioned in the post, I thought I should chime in with some of my own experiences and how we got to where we are, food-wise.

    My husband and I originally gave up meat for lent one year, thinking we had reached a point in our lives when we were ready to really do something challenging for once. It was not an easy switch initially, and to deal with our cravings, we started reading about animal agriculture and all of the animal welfare concerns with our current system, plus the human and environmental externalities. We read a lot. The funny thing was, the more we read, the more we realized that come Easter Sunday, we were not going to be celebrating by eating a ham or a turkey dinner. If anything, we wanted to celebrate WITH the ham or the turkey. At a farm.

    What really made it final was hinted at in the title of your blog post: how can we treat our own dog as a family member, but then support a system that does such cruel things to other mammals? Most people who have not really investigated are not aware that average farms do things to pigs and cows that would be considered an animal cruelty felony if done to a cat or a dog. This didn’t sit well with me. And once I found out that pigs, for example, are more intelligent, more affectionate, and more capable of forming strong bonds with others than a domestic dog (even my own child / pit bull Chick), I knew that I probably wouldn’t be eating pork again. To me, it doesn’t matter how good bacon tastes, it’s just not worth supporting cruelty against highly intelligent and gentle creatures.

    The switch to veganism was more gradual and less easy to explain, and I won’t go into great detail (because as you pointed out, not everybody is interested in the harrowing details of farm animal agriculture). But ultimately, we went this route partly because egg-laying hens at big farms probably suffer the most of all farm animals, and partly because of the externalities associated with the egg and milk industry (if you have the stomach for it, look into what happens to the male calves born of dairy cows, and what happens to the male chicks born of egg-laying hens). There are many wonderful small farms out there that are doing everything right, and we have considered making principled exceptions to our veganism. But in the end, isn’t it more complex to understand the exact sourcing, practices, philosophy, and record of a specific farm than it is to just draw a hard line? And while blue cheese or souffle might be delicious and abstaining might hurt a little, will it hurt as much as what happens to animals that make those foods possible?

    I agree wholeheartedly with somebody else’s recommendation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals.” As a highly skilled, creative, and thoughtful novelist (not journalist, activist, or other), Foer wrote a beautiful, sensitive, touching, and thought-provoking book about his own journey from omni to veggie to omni to veggie, and finally to “mostly vegan.”

    Not everybody will draw the same conclusions that we did, and I think everyone should make their cost-benefit analysis. Some people can be omni with a clear conscience and a rested heart, others cannot. All I encourage in my own friends and family is that everybody research, learn, and reflect as much as they are comfortable, and think about whether their habits are in line with their beliefs about suffering and the kind of world they want to live in. Thank you for reminding us all of this.

    follow our foster: loveandaleash.wordpress.com

    For recipes, I recommend the Post Punk Kitchen (www.theppk.com) and VeganYumYum (www.veganyumyum.com). The latter has a few great “cheesy” recipes that can satisfy that melty cheese and cream craving :)

    • Thank you for taking the time to share your evolution of thought. I found it very interesting that your initial decision came out of a lenten practice but that the education moved you in a whole new direction.

      I live in a rural area where many of the farms surrounding my city are either entirely vegetable producing or include sustainable livestock practices. But a few miles up the lake we see the “doghouses” in which veal cattle are kept for entire short lives. It’s a startling contrast. And that’s just what can be see driving by at 55 mph.

      I appreciate what you’re saying about the difficulties of analyzing every source as opposed to drawing a hard line that you can live with consistently. I think I may spend too much time trying to make fine distinctions instead of taking a strong stand. I’ll definitely consider your words.

      And thanks for the recipe website recommendations. The avocado/wasabi salad dressing on the page at Vegan Yum Yum got my mouth watering! (But avocado isn’t grown locally and blah, blah, blah…. I’m doing it again!).

      • Pamela,

        Like I said, I think even by slowing down enough to reflect on this, you’re making a big difference. And it does take a lot of thought. I think living in a small community where you can get to know your local farmers and know that they are faithful to the environment, the animal welfare, and to fair employment practices, your decision is much more complex (or does that make it easier?)

        If animals on big farms were treated now the way they were a few hundred years ago (raised with care, allowed to pasture freely and grow at their own pace, and slaughtered with respect and precision), I think this would be a very different conversation. I would love for us to get back to that world, but we also must remember that hundreds of years ago, meat was a rare treat, not a two or three times per day indulgence. We have such a large hunger for meat (as a culture), that it would be impossible to satisfy everybody’s demand for meat and low prices in a humane system. Treating animals with care and compassion takes much more land than concentrated feeding operations, and we quite simply don’t have enough space to continue our meat eating habits at their current level while abolishing cruelty. So we can’t have it all. I think this is the main crux of the difficulty.

        Pamela, if you’re interested, I will send you an email with some specific recipes that I really like (if you care to try them). Just let me know.
        Again, thanks for this thought-provoking post.

        Talk to you soon,
        follow our foster: loveandaleash.wordpress.com

  14. Well…a different view here, but not combative! I sincerely believe we are meant to eat meat, just as some other creatures. I have read many a health article, including those written by experts who are generally progressive and modern in their thinking, that suggest vegetarianism may be fine for some folks but not for others – medically/biologically/physiologically speaking. I for one know I require meat, and red meat at that. What I think is the real issue is the current state of affairs of our farming industries (actually fishing as well!), and the lack of proper treatment of those animals that are raised for the purpose of meat. If we were to treat these animals say, the way the Native American Indian did back in the day, or even as the family farmer did, I don’t think there would be such concern.
    I differentiate between various types of species and breeds, and between various types of animals as well. There are domestic animals, there are food-source animals. BOTH should be treated with the dignity, respect, humane and healthy manner we would want for ourselves. Let’s get on the industries to change their methods and practices, that’s what I say. It doesn’t always have to be about the almighty dollar, if we force them to change.
    Thanks for your post – I’ll bet you had a few sweaty moments while writing it! lol It takes a great writer to know it deserves to be written, and to have the courage to publish it. Kudos!

    • CindyLu,
      I appreciate that you are a meat-eater who is noncombative towards those who choose not to eat meat. Thank you.

      I am a vegetarian/vegan who struggles to define what I’m okay with and what I’m not.

      Your point about treating our animals with dignity and respect is exactly the statement I am trying to make with my own food choices. Many meat-eaters have chastized me for my choices but really all I want is for people to respect that an animal has given their life for us. If I could guarantee that an animal was treated with respect through their entire life, I could possibly eat meat again.

      That emotional connection to the animal is important – being part of nature instead of controlling it.

      Again, thank you for your mature and respectful contribution to the discussion :)

  15. I think you’re so courageous to bring up this topic. Are we hypocrites if we rescue animals, but then eat meat? What is a food-source animal vs. a non-food source? Pigs are incredibly smart, and cows are wonderful animals. All of this is a struggle with me. Actually, chickens are considered the most mistreated mass-produced food fare. I’ve been vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian. I have watched all the awful documentaries. Guilt is a big thing. I think we should be open and have access to this information, and do what we think is best for our planet and health. We should strive for humanely treated farm animals, just as we strive for pets being humanely treated and respected.

  16. I struggle with this all the time and appreciate your request to just try and do better, without judgment or criticism. Thanks for the squash recipe too. Here is a link to a Chipotle Squash recipe we tried (and loved) for Thanksgiving. It’s not vegan or even low fat (butter, cheese, cream) ! but it’s very yummy! Enjoy! http://nshoremag.com/firstclass-feast/ scroll down to see the recipe.

  17. Thank you for this post. Great topic and I loved the format – it beautifully served your open and engaging writing style. I also really enjoyed the thoughtful comments and replies. I starting eating vegan two years ago (as of yesterday, I just realized!) Here’s a tip for those vegetarians whose sticking point is cheese (that was me for years!). Try Daiya cheddar or mozzarella-style vegan shreds. (http://www.daiyafoods.com/) Daiya is tapioca-based, melts just like cheese and has that rich texture and taste sensation that puts cheese at the top of so many of our favorite foods list.

    -Chandra at Daley’s Dog Years


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