I decided to become a vegetarian nine years ago. At the time, I was living and working in Atlanta, GA, and I had just adopted a special-needs dog, whom I named Hamilton.
My sweet, but demanding and somewhat helpless, Hamilton was blind from birth — his big, almond-shaped eyes were permanently cloudy, and a vet would later tell me that his optic nerves hadn’t formed properly. Despite their opacity, Hamilton’s eyes were incredibly expressive, and I could always tell when he was scared, happy, upset or in pain. As his surrogate mom, I never wanted my sweet doggie (my baby!) to experience any pain. I quickly developed a simple set of verbal cues to alert Hamilton to hazards such as curbs, stairwells, doorsteps, tables or chairs.
But Hamilton’s sensitivity to fear, pain and the unaccommodating human world also alerted me to my own unsettling inconsistencies. If we are all God’s creatures, and if He saw fit to make much of the world’s fauna into sentient beings, then who was I to be cruel — to inflict upon them fear, pain or suffering? Especially because I did not need to. In our modern world, do any of us really need to? And, most disturbingly to me, what sense did it make for me to love, protect and care for the well-being of one of God’s creatures when it was just his lucky lot in life to be born a pet, rather than prey?
I could think of no good reason to treat my dog any differently than a cow, pig, turkey, alligator, tuna or fruit-fly. Am I not called to respect life? Even the dreaded and terrifying spider deserved my compassion and pardon. Flushed with righteous indignation directed at mankind’s general cruelty, inhumanity and smug confidence, I gave up eating meat, poultry and fish and became an advocate for compassion.
I am still flush with that same indignation. But it’s complicated. And I struggle daily. For example, I eat eggs and dairy products. I do it for nutritional reasons, and for convenience (it’s tough to be a true vegan — they should be lauded for their hard work and dedication). I do it also to be polite, to keep my eating habits from becoming a burden to others. (Have you ever hosted a dinner for vegans? Or attempted to dine out with a vegan friend? It’s not easy for restaurants, or meat-eating hosts and hostesses, to be accommodating). I source my eggs and yogurt thoughtfully, paying premiums for locally sourced or cage-free eggs and inspecting labels to detect and reject hidden gelatin. But really, I’m still complicit in that which I despise.
Upon moving to Indiana this summer, I have come to experience a new, uniquely-horrific torment, perfectly-tailored for me as a daily test — or, perhaps, taunt.
On my morning and afternoon commutes between Huntington and Fort Wayne, I encounter at least one, but usually two or three, trucks hauling livestock. Seeing their distinctive cages causes my pulse to race, my breath to quicken, and a mixture of rage, sadness, disgust and despair to wash over me.
If the cages are full, I dread the pending horrors in store for those unfortunate creatures at the slaughterhouse — small, pink snouts stick out innocently, sniffing through the holes of the cage — and I imagine the fear each one will feel when waiting in line to die, soon thereafter. It seems obscene for me to empathize so intensely — then to arrive to work and immerse myself in my daily routine, only moments later. But that’s what happens.
If the cages are empty, I know the grim work is done. Or about to begin. Again, I imagine fear and distress, and again, I move on with my day.
I encounter these livestock trucks daily now that I come to Huntington to teach every Monday through Friday. Sometimes, when I see the trucks approaching on route 24, I check anxiously to see if their cages are stocked. But more often I look away, like a coward.
Dr. Kate Brown is a professor of political science. This column reflects the views of the writer only.