I don’t really want to be a vegetarian.
I don’t eat much meat, but I really like the occasional bacon double- cheeseburger grabbed at the Burger King drive-through, meatballs on my Papa Gino’s Papa Platter, the just-past-rare steak from Chip’s grill. And how can I give up the traditional holiday meals? Turkey at Thanksgiving, corned beef at the Porthole Pub on St. Patrick’s Day, ham or lamb at Easter, pork with sauerkraut “for luck” on New Year’s Day.
But it bothers me, the way animals are treated. I now buy only free-range chicken eggs and get meat from the farmer’s market at a booth where I’m told the cows live happy lives in the meadow before humane slaughter. I don’t object to humans eating meat, that’s what it’s for – I just want the meat to be treated well on its way to my plate. So I find what I call “a happy turkey” for Thanksgiving and “happy pig” for New Years at Whole Foods, where the treatment of the animal is rated at the meat counter; I’ll be looking for another happy pig for Easter this year.
Yes, Chip thinks I’m crazy: he lets me pay the additional cost.
But I’m not happy enough myself since Chip’s vegetarian sister-in-law sent me that “First Sunshine for 752 rescued hens” video from Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary website.
There’s this chicken farmer in Australia, who a few years ago decided to take his hens from their tiny cages and let them roam free in a fenced enclosure. In the video, Cinderella the Hen is lifted from the cage and placed on the ground in the sunshine. She slowly, almost disbelievingly, stretches her legs, then her wings; scratches in the dirt; lifts her face to the sun; makes a nest in the brush and lays her eggs. Yes, there is emotion-inducing music in the background. And it may be my imagination that the last scene shows her smiling. But I can’t argue with the slogan of Edgar’s Mission: “If we could live happy, healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?”
I got caught up in the “healthy lives” issue some 20 years ago, when I had an emergency hysterectomy. As I left the hospital, I was given a prescription for Premarin, a hormone-replacement drug used to ameliorate the symptoms of sudden menopause, as well as protect women from bone loss.
I balked at this, arguing that taking the drug was unnatural. The young doctor agreed that “yes, the natural thing is to die now that nature no longer has a use for you.” Sarcasm works with me, so I took the drug for 10 years, but someone eventually told me what it is: Premarin, from pregnant mares.
I went online and learned that the mares live long (often 20 years or more) but brutal lives, repeatedly impregnated and, for most of their pregnancy, confined in stalls that prohibit turning around or comfortably lying down, as their urine is harvested. This didn’t seem possible, so I went to the drug company website, then Snopes.com, looking for rebuttal. I didn’t find it.
Still, I wanted strong bones, so I continued to take the pills, until I needed emergency lung surgery for a rare carcinoid tumor and was told I could die if it had spread. As I prepared to possibly meet my Maker, I thought I’d have trouble explaining my participation in the abuse of those mares. I decided that if I lived, I’d stop taking Premarin. And I did. My lungs and bones are fine now, and so is my conscience.
Other women might have to make other choices, but I’m told that there is now a synthetic hormone replacement that doesn’t require horses in restraints. So on to the poultry.
We have wild turkeys in our yard. They like it here not only because the squirrels toss them seeds from the birdfeeders but also because we have a mowed meadow yard full of bugs and roots instead of pesticides. It’s a joy to watch them live the life of a turkey, strutting and preening, interacting with each other, roosting in the trees. When it thunders, the males herd the females and youn’uns into the bushes, then line up to face the thunder and gobble in unison as they prepare for battle with Zeus. I can’t imagine stuffing them into a cage until it is time to stuff them with bread. Of course, when they get aggressive with me in the spring, they risk immediate beheading with the wood-pile axe, but that’s another issue.
Yes, some farmers who experiment with free-range poultry often feed the local foxes, coyotes and fishers until they move their livestock into a safe barn, which is still better than cages. I don’t have room here to tell you about factory pig farming. Or cattle crowded into pens, hearing those ahead of them being slaughtered as they wait their turn.
I don’t want to be part of this anymore. I won’t be a true vegetarian, like those who won’t eat “anything with a face.” I’ll try to make sure the fish I buy weren’t crammed into a farm-pen, though it’s always been tough being a salmon, grabbed as they swim upstream by grizzlies and eagles. I’ll happily eat deer that’s been hunted to cull the herd and prevent mass starvation. And yes, you may see me in a weak moment eating a hot dog or steak. But mostly, I’m going to try to have a happy, healthy life without causing unnecessary pain to the animals I eat.
Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and an Eagle-Tribune columnist.