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I spent the dying days of August boating and fishing at an old friend’s lakeside cottage in Ardoch, Ontario. One morning, the rising sun licked my face awake and I wandered barefoot across grass and down a wooden dock to splash in the lake’s cold, crisp stillness. After coffee I lazed in the sun and took the boat out for a spin. Later, I bombed down Highway 509 in a little Honda truck, terrorizing drivers and passengers alike with the kind of city driving they’re not used to seeing on a stretch of country road where passing motorists still wave at each other. I loaded up on supplies in nearby Plevna, a tiny roadside village with a grocer, liquor store and tackle shop (a taste of things to come), then cruised back to the woods. It should have been a wonderful time, but veganism was eating me alive.
The original 30-day experiment was now nearly two months behind me. So far, it had taught me vegan food was perfectly edible. Sure, there was less tearing and gnawing at things, which the carnivorous beast inside me missed, but meals were generally nutritious and tasted good enough. Some were even delicious. I felt great and had lost some 10 pounds. I was still trying to stick to a mostly vegan diet, but was finding myself breaking (strict, alienating, unreasonable?) rules here and there. Environmental and land use questions around meat-eating still lingered, but for now I was battling ethical dilemmas and an unhealthy preoccupation with suffering and death.
“Is that bacon? None for me, thanks,” I said to no one in particular over lunch.
“Why not?” asked a friend of mine while strumming some chords on a guitar.
“No, it’s not. Bacon is delicious,” the man deadpanned, egging me on.
“Yah, but don’t you feel like an asshole killing and eating animals when you don’t have to, given so many cheap and plentiful plant food options?”
“Do you think the grocer sells avocados?”
“Oh sure. They’re right next to the arugula,” barked the musician with a big sarcastic grin.
And so it went.
If I had to blame anyone for my growing social isolation–eating now joined reading and writing as a mostly solitary pursuit–it would be Australian humanist, philosopher and long-time vegetarian Peter Singer. His writing on utilitarianism, particularly his 1979 book Practical Ethics, influenced me more than all the piety of hardcore vegans and blood and cellophane of activists preaching the Meat Is Murder sermon.
In the book, Singer doesn’t think humans should get carte blanche to slaughter everything in sight out of hunger or boredom simply because we’re at the top of the food chain. He doesn’t even assume, contrary to most, that human lives are inherently worth any more than those of monkeys or pigs or even rats, based on a moral principle he calls the “equal consideration of interests.”
Singer’s argument, put simply, is that all sentient beings (those capable of experiencing pleasure and pain) have basic interests. And if we want to consider those interests equally–equality being a good thing in the same way racism and sexism are bad things–we should extend equality to animals.
“If animals count in their own right, our use of animals for food becomes questionable–especially when animal flesh is a luxury rather than a necessity,” Singer writes in Practical Ethics.
“Eskimos living in an environment where they must kill animals for food or starve might be justified in claiming that their interest in survival overrides that of the animals they kill. Most of us cannot defend our diet in this way.”
So, getting down to bacon… if avoidance of death and suffering is one of the key interests to be considered, then how can you, dear conscientious eater, justify eating a BLT for seven greasy minutes of masticating pleasure? Singer says you can’t. You’d need to be a damn fast talker to successfully argue your interest in bacon (and its benefit of taste) trumps a pig’s interest to avoid suffering and death (death being as large a cost as they come, since it also extinguishes all future interests).
This is the kind of stuff I was thinking about out on the lake when I should have been fishing. My fellow anglers were growing sick of my homilies. The worms bled slime, dirt and guts when we pinched them to pieces and threaded them onto barbed hooks. I dirtied the pages of Practical Ethics with their insides, hoping for some insight. At one point a neighbour’s kid, looking to be helpful, ran up with a frog he had caught and jammed a hook through its eye socket, helpfully baiting my friend’s rod.
“For the big bass,” said the little sadist through a proud smile before running off.
That was the worst part, the baiting. After that, it was all shiny lures and worms soaring through the air, floating still as if forgotten, then hooked on something heavy, the rod thrashing and bending into beautiful parabolas. One memorable and furious tug-o-war was cut short by roaring laughter when the angler, reeling in an impossibly taut line and licking his lips in anticipation, instead towed the boat to an unseen snag and into a mass of weeds.
Despite the entertainment, I was losing my mind. Animals were being made into everything from adhesives and air filters to vitamins and wallpaper, and nobody seemed to give a shit except Peter and me! For everyone else, ignorance was bliss.
Meanwhile, I didn’t know what to eat. Existential questions swam through my head: Do buffalo dream of another day on the pasture? Can chickens ever feel fulfilled? Do fish feel pain? What happens to race horses that don’t run fast enough? Do cows ever volunteer to become steak outside the pages of comedy novels?
Alexandra Reid heard of my growing madness and offered to help. We had studied biology together at UBC a decade earlier. I’ve always remembered her as a bookworm, animal lover and meat eater. And whereas in my heart I knew I wasn’t going to be a biologist even as I shook the dean’s hand on convocation day, Reid fell in love with academia like she did with her pet animals. Her current home includes two cats, assorted fish, 20 non-venomous snakes, 25 turtles and a pet crow she found as a baby–the crow was meant to be a temporary lodger until it fledged, but it learned to talk instead of fly, so she kept it.
Reid tore into a doctorate in veterinary medicine and, hungry for more, is now working on a PhD in comparative pathology at the University of Guelph. I got her on the phone in Guelph and she blew my baby vegan mind:
“I’ve never been a vegetarian or vegan,” she told me plainly.
“Because it doesn’t save animal lives, so what’s the point?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. She laughed a confident laugh and took a deep breath. As a meat-eating veterinarian, she had defended this point before.
“If you’re not eating animals, they still suffer in the wild. I’ve looked at carcasses of hundreds of wild animals and they often die horribly and they die in a lot of pain. I’ve seen birds that are unable to fly starve to death; I’ve seen deer that are walking on a maggoty leg until they just can’t go anymore.”
“Domestic animals only exist because we utilize them. Otherwise there would be no beef cattle, there would be no domestic poultry, there would be no domestic pigs. And wild animals only exist so we can utilize them. If people didn’t want to hunt ducks, there wouldn’t be as much wetland conservation as there is. If people didn’t want to sport fish, there wouldn’t be the improvements in water quality there have been. If people don’t want to hunt deer they don’t conserve forest land. So if we don’t have a reason to use animals, I don’t think people will ever conserve them or care about their welfare.”
“OK, but would eating a vegan diet at least save the wild animals?”
“Look at what agriculture does: it removes enormous tracts of land, it removes habitat for hundreds if not thousands of species across the world. They tend to be smaller animals, animals people don’t really give a shit about. People get really upset about pigs because they’re friendly and intelligent and personable, but frogs die in droves around the world for soy and corn and no one really does anything because it’s inconvenient. [Agriculture] kills off the insect biodiversity we need to sustain the food system as we understand it. You remove habitat from migratory birds as well as pollinating species and you remove habitats for bats.”
“Maybe you’re not directly eating those animals, but you’re killing them none the same. And that’s just a problem with agriculture as we have it set up right now.”
With that, she had to go; her partner was pulling sausages off the grill for dinner.
That conversation happened weeks after my brush with madness in cottage country, so it wasn’t much help to me as I sat there on the lake, the only one in the boat with a bag of books. The sun had set and the light was fading. I stared at the last page of food authority Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. After pages of praising the virtues of eating mostly plants, here was Rule 64: “Don’t be afraid to break the rules once in a while.” (I later learned Singer called himself a “flexible vegan” in a 2006 interview with Mother Jones and said ethical eating wasn’t really about strict laws, but about being conscientious whenever possible and accepting that sometimes “there are going to be compromises.”)
Then the fish started biting.
Back on shore, three of us stood over two fat pickerel splashing in a plastic pail next to a bonfire. Nobody moved for a long time. Then one of my friends, the bacon-loving guitarist from earlier, handed me an ax head. It was cold and heavy. I felt my breathing quicken and my pulse pound in my ears. I reached in and grabbed the slippery pickerel with both hands, squeezing it tight. I felt its sharp gills sweeping my palm, hard and cold and heavy. A beautiful, aggressive beast, even out of water. I laid it down on a stone and bashed it with the blunt end of the ax head.
Then I beheaded and cleaned it and then baked it in lemon, salt and pepper on a big iron pan I threw straight into the fire. When the fish was golden and crispy, I dived in, tearing out the spine of the roasted carcass, then scraping the meat off the charred skin with my bared teeth. We ate in silence, chasing each juicy bite with bread and beer. There was nothing left to say.
Banner Images by Jesse Donaldson