The paragraph I went vegan

2023-01-09 (updated 2023-01-10)

The question that I usually get asked the most about going vegan along with "What food do you miss the most?" (cheese!) and "Is is it hard?" (yes) is "What made you decide to go vegan?"

It's a question I have struggled to find a pithy answer to, but it is a fair question, and of a similar ilk as questions I am sure I have asked to others with different habits than mine.

My usual response is that it was a book that put me over the edge, specifically Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I describe to them that contrary to whatever the title might make you think, it's not a book that shames you for eating animals, but rather a nuanced and rather lamentful consideration of the costs of not eating animals. The title is a double-entendre of the fact that we're also eating-animals: animals who build traditions and bonds around our food. Friendships and kinships are in large part forged at the dinner table, and it's almost hard to imagine being close to someone with whom you have not yet shared a meal. I tell them that Safran Foer is known as a fiction author, and that Eating Animals is not just a persuasive book - it's also beautiful narrative of the human condition.

All of this is true. But it's also not a complete and honest answer, because I know exactly at what point in the book I realized that I could not go back to eating animal products again, the exact paragraph. And though Eating Animals as a whole is nuanced, the paragraph in question is about as graphic of an account of a slaughterhouse as you could imagine. And though the book in general does not try to shame people out of eating meat, it's hard to not feel shameful after reading it. Like one of Safran Foer's fiction books, the account is extremely loud and incredibly close. This might of course be the intended effect, a book full of feints and jabs with a concealed upper-punch. It certainly put me down for the count.

The paragraph in question is in fact a quote from another book: Slaughterhouse by Gail A. Eisnitz. Eisnitz spent years investigating the conditions in America's slaughterhouses and interviewing the people who worked in them. The conditions she found were horrific and it's in an interview with a worker in a slaughterhouse for pigs that we find the paragraph in Eating Animals:

Down in the blood pit they say that the smell of blood makes you aggressive. And it does. You get an attitude that if that hog kicks at me, I’m going to get even. You’re already going to kill the hog, but that’s not enough. It has to suffer.... You go in hard, push hard, blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. Split its nose. A live hog would be running around the pit. It would just be looking up at me and I’d be sticking, and I would just take my knife and — eerk — cut its eye out while it was just sitting there. And this hog would just scream. One time I took my knife — it’s sharp enough — and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my hand — I was wearing a rubber glove — and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn't know whether to shit or go blind.... I wasn't the only guy doing this kind of stuff. One guy I work with actually chases hogs into the scalding tank. And everybody — hog drivers, shacklers, utility men — uses lead pipes on hogs. Everybody knows it, all of it.

The acts of the slaughterhouse worker above are undoubtedly wicked and inhumanely cruel, and yet they're not as uncommon as we'd hope. One survey of slaughter plant employees at 25 U.S. and Canadian facilities between 1975 and 1987 found that employees at 32% of the plants displayed "[a]cts of deliberate cruelty on a regular basis", with a further 12% demonstrating "[r]ough handling occurring as a routine practice". And these were during announced audits - it's hard not to imagine conditions being worse at times when the plant was not being audited.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

Joyas Voladoras, Bryan Doyle

As children, I think we understand that animals are special, that they are living beings sharing this beautiful world with us. Most children would be horrified if you pointed out that the meat they were eating came from an animal. They'd know that it's wrong to keep a cow continously pregnant, to separate them from their calves right after birth just so that we can have milk. As we grow older, we build up defences and justifications about which animals we can eat, and what types of lives they should live before we slaughter them.

And sometimes, the brick wall comes down in an instance with no hopes of ever rebuilding.

For me the wall came down from a paragraph about a hog just sitting there, looking kind of stupid.

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