I want to be a veterinarian but not at the expense of animals

The "food animal" courses insult my conscience.

By Cary Tennis
May 21, 2008 2:19PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I need your help fairly urgently. I am about to start my fourth year of vet school. This means I have made it through three years and am down to the home stretch. The problem is that I have just started a six-week rotation in "food animal" medicine and surgery. This is a required block in clinics, and one I have been dreading since I got accepted to vet school.


I guess I need to point out that for me, animals are not food. I have been vegan or vegetarian for many years now. My initial decision to try to give up eating and using animal products came from looking a cow in the eyes, and seeing pain and suffering there, and realizing that I didn't want to contribute to that. I know it goes on. I know that no matter what I do, it will continue to go on. I am not naive enough to think that the factory farming industry will magically go away if I am vegan. I do know that for me, morally, I can't contribute to an enterprise that systematically, and as a matter of course, tortures animals.

The problem is that right now on this rotation, I am seeing the horrors up close every single day. I won't give details because I know how shocking it can be to hear about that stuff. The information is out there if you want to know about it. Worse than just seeing, though, I am expected to participate in the actual procedures, and I don't know if I can make it through the six weeks. I am only on day four of approximately 42 days and I am already barely able to make myself show up each day. If I miss a day, or refuse to participate, they will have the right to fail me, and the past three years will have been for nothing.

Getting accepted and getting through vet school has been really difficult. And I think I am going to be a good small animal veterinarian (if I can get through this) someday soon. But right now I am stuck. I feel like I really can't participate in some of these activities, and some of the things I have seen already are haunting me. But I also feel like I am very close to being done with school, and that I can't let one rotation stand in the way of my true calling. At some schools, people who want to practice small animal medicine do not have to do any farm work; unfortunately, I am in the Midwest and actually in a tiny minority (of two, as far as I can tell) of students who have strong feelings against some of the practices that go on in relation to farm animals.


So, to get to my questions:

1. Can you suggest any coping strategies for me to get through each day of the rotation? I have tried to meditate, tried to "Zen it out," and it is not working because I end up feeling like a hypocrite. My understanding of Zen is that I would choose to do what is right and refuse to do anything I find morally repugnant. If I do that, I might get an F, which amounts to being kicked out of school. Is it more important to stand up for what I believe in (no matter the consequences), or to get through this any way I can so I graduate and go on to help animals in the future?

2. Given the context I am in -- Midwest farm country, conservative -- can you suggest a way for me to approach my professors or the administration to determine if I have any options in terms of opting out of certain procedures? I am not optimistic that they will have anything more useful than "suck it up" to say to me, but if you can think of anything that might be persuasive it would be worth a shot.


Thanks in advance for any help you might have.

Dear Vet,

I am sorry I am late in replying. I delayed because I knew I could not fix it. But I am giving up on fixing it. Today I am just going to tell you how I feel. Today I am just going to answer your letter and do the best I can. Today I am just going to say that I have seen so many seemingly hopeless situations turn around and come out well that I believe yours can too, because you are starting from a virtuous awakening of conscience; I believe that your love of animals and your sensitivity to their plight will in the end result in more good than harm. Your conscience pushes toward compassion; such pushes toward compassion are sometimes all we can accomplish in a world full of knives.


What? that niggling voice of despair asks. Is this wisp of virtuous smoke all we can hope for? Can we not hope, for instance, to overturn the systems of power that result in animal cruelty and war?

I do not know. I have been reading a little piece of "America Is Hard to Find: Notes from the Underground and Letters from Danbury Prison," by Daniel Berrigan, which I found in the short-lived Literary Guild's paperback series "Works in Progress" -- this one in Number 7, from 1972 (the one with an advance piece of the screenplay of "Play It as It Lays," by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne). (The book "America is Hard to Find: Notes from the Underground and Letters from Danbury Prison" was published by Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.)

Let me just copy this one paragraph for you: "The American psyche cannot become the fraternal instrument of world change until it has undergone its dark night of the soul. I do not mean this statement to be mystifying or abstract. Quite the contrary, I mean something quite simple; Americans have not only been alienated from world spiritual developments by runaway technology, they have been a vast alienating force in most of the Western world. Moreover, in the Third World, the vicious circle in which they are caught at home (the engineering of an inhuman future) has widened into a system of military and economic control and repression. Spiritually isolated from the strivings of men everywhere for justice, decency, and the goods of the spirit, America could only export those dark obsessions which go by the most euphemistic and deceptive of names: the American way of life ... As I write this, newspapers are filled with the account of the celebration of 'Earth Day' in America. The news is to our point; blows struck in mid-air, accomplishing nothing. While America continues fervently to pollute and destroy the environment of millions of helpless people abroad, and expands her eastern war into Laos and Cambodia, a nervous call goes forth to 'save our country's environment.' A more absurd deflection of true purpose could hardly be imagined ... But to the vast majority of Americans, discouraged by the inadequate political gestures of the past years, and desperately seeking some ground to stand on, the 'Earth Day' was a sunny and simple hour of relief from the cruel winter solstice of their discontent. Any issue is better than none."


Are those not beautiful words? And do they not express our moment as well, some 35 years later? And do you not fall into that same category of moral objectors of which Berrigan was one -- a person whose conscience alone is her guide, who must invent the political methods she will use because each new moral challenge comes with its own political setting? And may I just say, to read the early writings of Daniel Berrigan today is sort of breathtaking?

Here is Berrigan talking about Catonsville -- the incident in which he participated in the burning of draft papers, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison, of which he served 18 months: "We tried to offer one direction at Catonsville. We wished to declare an end to the era of good feeling between our Church and the war-making state. And since we had no power to promulgate such views (those in authority were quite content with the flourishing state of the alliance) we took the matter into our own hands. We invaded the Sanctuary of Caesar, dragged out his paper idols, and burned them to ashes.

"Fire and ice. Play with fire, land on ice. There were no exemptions from that law, even for clerics. Rejoice with us. We have won our point; the era of good feeling is over. The government is furious with priests and nuns, it finds us 'a serious danger to the security of the United States.' Such was the judgment, straight-faced, of the Justice Department in its effort to foil a nun recently.


"So great a power, quaking in its boots before so few? Neither guns nor blockbusters, not antipersonnel weaponry nor contingency plans, nor Vietnamization, nor tiger cages, nor Song My, nor public lies -- only a few Christians, nonviolent in principle, fed up with bad news, striving to create in their own lives good news for others -- the formula is very old, it might work once more. In any case, we tried."

So there is a point at which one sees that one must act.

In the way of acting according to conscience, I wish I could say I was halfway as good as Daniel Berrigan, or even as good as you, dedicated to life and its preservation and supremely revolted by the carnage the rest of us live with daily and partake of. I mean, I would not eat my own dog. But if I was really hungry ... do you always know what's in the stew? How can you be sure? So I go home and I have a conversation with my dog. I say, look at what they're doing every day out there. She shrugs. She says you know how it is. It's dog-eat-dog.

I'm just not all that good is what I'm saying -- compared with how good one might be. I'm not as good as I can conceive of being, that's for sure. I can conceive of being a pure being of conscience. Imagine that. Imagine being a pure being of conscience. A beacon. A beacon so pure it blinds people and makes them leave the room.


Me, I wear blinders all the time so I can walk through the slaughterhouse without fainting or throwing up or slipping on the floor. But if you don't have the blinders, I can't give them to you. You can't unsee what you have seen.

You know, reading Berrigan, I'm thinking that those of us who would like to push society toward a kinder, more inclusive and less warlike future must seek that line between conscientious resistance and outlaw status, between acquiring power within the culture in order to reform it and being corrupted by it. And, like Berrigan, we make it up as we go along. I mean, look at me, for heaven's sake. What kind of life is this?

I can only say that this is the crucible of conscience. This is the way we learn how far we can go along with what is asked of us, and where we draw the line. We learn where we draw the line by drawing the line. And what is the process we go through? We talk with others. We study. We pray. We write. We read. We take our pulse as we walk the killing floor and we ask, Whose pulse is that beating under my fingertips on the tender inside of my wrist? Is it mine, is it an animal's, or is it the heart of the world? Whose voice cries out in fear of the knife? Is that the voice of the world? Is that my voice? How do I know?

In short, I salute you, because your problem is not a selfish one but one of conscience. I do not know what you can do. I only know that you must listen to the voice of your conscience and seek to understand the blind and blinding forces that drive us. You must get used to certain facts. You must get used to the smell of death. You must get used to how the life comes into the room and goes out of the room. We are in power and not in power. We are somewhere among the whirling knives of time.


It only reminds me how weak I am. I can neither change the policies of the slaughterhouse nor contain my own hungers. I can stare into the giant eyes of a cow and forget. This I can do because I belong to the world of whirling knives and exigencies. Remember how you looked at all the unhappy adults and thought you would never be like that? Remember how you got accepted and began, and how it slowly changed your mind? Now you have come to the line you cannot cross. If you cannot cross it you cannot cross it.

You see what has happened here? I am so tired of trying to fix things. This is not the advice column proper. This is just my love letter to you. This is just me saying I wish that your kindness ruled the slaughterhouse.

You can still live a good life. The world needs your kindness at least as much as it needs your veterinarian skills. It needs your kindness maybe more.


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