As a child and through my teens and 20s my meat eating was fast, copious—gluttonous even—and absolutely thoughtless, totally reflexive. Growing up in a suburb of Syracuse, New York, around cats, dogs and mobs of grey squirrels, I had only the vaguest, most abstract notion — when I had any notion at all — of a connection between the delectable hamburger patty on my Burger King Whopper and the cow or cows it had once been, or between the crisp, golden, expertly and scientifically flavored fleshy bits of the mountain of Chicken McNuggets that I plowed through with abandon over the years and real, living chickens. It wasn’t a matter of callous disregard, it was one of utter ignorance, a profound inability not only to connect the dots but to even see that there were dots to connect.
However, if you look a little more deeply than my eating habits, if you dig down to the level of my emotional relationship with animals from the time I was an early single digits child into my 30s, you find seeds of compassion, kindness, care, and love sprouting over and over again, tenaciously going through abbreviated life cycles of germination and death, alive much too briefly for them to take firm root. Those tender sprouts were quickly snuffed out by the depth of my ignorance, and the intensity of the self-reinforcing bond between eating meat and my identity: I was a meat eater, and to embark on the deeply introspective and difficult task of calling into question that identity was then simply not in the cards. Yet, it cannot be denied or ignored that those sprouted seeds were there, if only long enough to send static electricity-like jolts across the craggy canyons of my subconscious, where they left their marks like handholds on a cliff face.
The other thing you find when you look more deeply at my feelings and emotional intelligence during those years is a rudimentary sensibility around an as yet inchoate belief in the sanctity of all living things. When I was 12 years old I watched with a visceral feeling of sadness the slow, agonizing death of a little robin. With its eyes wide open, it gasped its last breaths. Blood pulsed out of the hole in its throat where my friend Joe had enthusiastically shot it with a bb gun. As the bird slowly died, Joe energetically paced around it with a white-knuckled grip on the gun stock, and spoke about his shot as if it were a triumph, with a puffed-up, exaggerated bravura. I had wanted to pick up the blood-soaked bird in my hands and stroke its head and softly whisper to it in an effort to usher it gently into death. Instead, I stood stock-still struggling to hold back the tears that were welling up that I absolutely did not want Joe to see.
In my very late teens, perhaps my earliest 20s, while visiting the Philadelphia Zoo I experienced a brief, but intense connection with an adult male lion. He had a rich, full mane, and up close was incredibly big. He had been taken out of his relatively large and enriched outdoor enclosure and placed on display in a barren cage barely bigger than himself just outside of the lion pavilion to entice and excite visitors into touring the pavilion, as a store clerk might set up a display of a few pairs of shoes or a set of golf clubs to attract shoppers. I stood just a couple of feet from the cage, standing as close as I could get without stepping over the battered, thin steel chain, flecks of white paint still clinging to it here and there, that ran in drooping arcs between stout steel poles around the cage to keep spectators at a safe distance. I gazed into the lion’s eyes, and somehow having caught his attention he returned my gaze. We looked into each other’s eyes — into each other, I believe — for a brief, but lingering moment, until a tremendously sad, pathetic thing happened. The lion shifted his head ever so slightly and broke our eye contact, but clearly kept me in his frame of vision, and then he very purposefully and slowly squinted his eyes half-closed twice, the classic feline body language of social/hierarchical submission. Bonded empathetically to the lion by the first moments of our gaze, I was immediately overwhelmed with sadness and a deep feeling of longing and loss. The lion’s confidence, his unimaginable power, his grace, his awesome majesty — his very lion-ness — were gone, utterly. I had communed with a weary, broken soul, bereft of spirit, and the intensity of the experience shook me dramatically. Practically with tears in my eyes and a heart so heavy I could barely carry it, I turned away from the lion and walked directly out of the zoo. I have never, and will never return to another zoo. I do not need to experience the palpable ruination of tattered souls like his ever again.
Ten years ago, I became a livestock farmer, more or less impulsively after having been informed about the twin horrors of factory farming and industrial slaughter two years before. When I first found out about them, I had immediately become a vegan, but for a number of reasons, including a lack of conviction on my part and a lack of socio-cultural supports and ready-at-hand infrastructural supports like the vegan options at restaurants and in supermarkets that abound today, I quickly failed as a vegan. By the end of three months, I had dropped 15 pounds off of my already lean frame, and I had become disillusioned by the vegan diet, so I went back to eating meat. However, the veil had been lifted, and I had been moved by seeing, by bearing witness to, even if only third hand through undercover videos, the reality of where the meat on my plate came from — some animal, not an abstraction, but a real living animal, an individual with a complex, rich life experience had been (often brutally) killed, gutted and carved into pieces. I felt that the only way that I could eat meat with a clean conscience was to raise the animals myself and have them slaughtered as humanely as possible.
For the next 10 years or so, I raised pigs — and other livestock — to be killed so that people, myself included, could eat their meat. During those years, I delivered about 2,000 pigs to the slaughterhouse. While raising animals for slaughter over those years, I had a series of crises of conscience, like this one that I recorded in a single sentence on my blog in April, 2011:
This morning, as I look out the window at a pasture quickly growing full of frolicking lambs, I am feeling very much that it might be wrong to eat meat, and that I might indeed be a very bad person for killing animals for a living.
And, for nearly 10 years without fail, I met every crisis of conscience with a satisfactory rationalization, no matter how deeply the crisis cut.
In June 2011 I made a trip down to New York City to visit the butcher who purchased most of my pigs. During my visit, I decided to help “break down” the pigs that I had brought with me. While I was working, I bent down and opened a box of offal — organs — and later I wrote this about what I had found inside the box and how it affected me:
When I opened the box, I saw a jumble of soft hearts and bloody tongues. I am not sure why it happened. I have no idea what it was about seeing the hearts and tongues like that — after all, I have watched my pigs be stuck with a knife and have their blood gush out onto the floor, I have watched them skinned, have their feet cut off, and their bellies sliced open and their innards come tumbling out, I have seen them cut up into retail cuts — but when I opened that box and saw that jumble of soft hearts and bloody tongues I was physically and emotionally overwhelmed. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Suddenly, through unfiltered, raw emotion, I felt, quite frankly, like a cold-blooded murderer waking up to the reality of what he had done. I almost threw up.
The first tongue I picked up nearly buckled my knees. With the tongue in my hand as I slowly placed it in a cryovac bag, I couldn’t help picturing the pigs as they had been when they were alive, the same pigs that were hanging lifeless on gleaming, stainless steel hooks behind me.
And then I thought, What have I done?
I continued to ask myself that question over and over again as I worked. I was as far from being able to resolve a crisis of conscience as I had ever been. I was reeling. And then, as if the universe intervened on my behalf, the butcher, who was talking to a customer, a young, neatly dressed woman with short, wavy blond hair, pointed to me and said to her from behind the counter about 15 feet away from where I was working, “That’s Bob, the farmer who raised these pigs.” The woman, a little surprised it seemed, turned to look at me. We made eye contact. She took a step toward me and said earnestly, “Thank you so much for what you do,” and then after a moment turned around and walked out of the shop. The thick paper bag, imprinted stylishly with the butcher shop logo, with thick, tightly woven handles that swung casually by the young woman’s side as she walked was filled with pork chops and bacon wrapped in salmon-colored butcher paper. I watched the bag through the shop’s floor to ceiling display window swinging slightly back and forth until the woman disappeared around a corner.
The young woman’s thanks had been so earnest that it steadied me. I stopped reeling. I had my answer. What I had done, I had done for her. I had given her an opportunity, an alternative, a way to opt out of the factory farming and industrial slaughter systems. I had also given the pigs wonderfully rich lives, and made sure they were killed quickly and painlessly. I had nourished that young woman — body and soul. Being reminded by her of what I had done nourished my own soul. Warmed by the shared hearth of our commitment to conscientious omnivorism, the crisis ended, and I went back to work, seeing not deeply unsettling soft hearts and bloody tongues, but the freshest ingredients for delectable pates and terrines.
The powerful resolution to that almost insurmountable crisis proved durable. For the next few years, I raised pigs for slaughter without another serious crisis of conscience. I stayed focused on providing the pigs with the best lives and deaths that I could give them. As I matured into an accomplished pig farmer, I became proud of what I was doing.
On Jan. 27, 2014, my pig farming life as I had come to know and enjoy it came to a swift, jarring end.
As I made my way around the farm on that cold morning, moving from group to group of pigs, with about 30 pigs in each group, I found that all of the pigs were healthy; the feeders were all in good working order; and the ice in the water tanks was breaking easily with just a couple of blows from the sledgehammer that I carried with me on the tractor.
It was a perfectly ordinary day, until I had an incredibly intense experience while starting to take care of a group of pigs. The experience lasted only for a single second, maybe two, but it was so extraordinary and powerful — one might rightly call it a mystical experience — that at its end I resolved to change my life completely.
Just a second before the experience, I remember hearing very acutely and unusually loudly the sound of the snow beneath my boots as I walked toward the pigs. When it is below 10 degrees Fahrenheit something about the physical properties of snow changes, and instead of just flattening out with a dull squish beneath one’s boots, it very distinctly and crisply crunches. It is as if the snow has lost its elasticity and its molecules are being ground against each other. All that I heard was the crisp crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow as I walked. Off the beaten path the snow was deep, so I was looking down at my feet as I walked to keep from accidentally straying off the path into the knee-high snow. When I got to the edge of the pigs’ fence, I looked up at the pigs, and was swept up immediately into the experience.
The pigs and the space around them were glowing deep gold. Waves of what I perceived to be energy were emanating out from them in all directions. When the waves reached me, I was wiped clean as they flowed over me. The particulars of my life vanished instantly, followed immediately by my identity. I no longer had any sense of myself as an individual standing in a frozen field surrounded by 30 pigs. I found myself nowhere and everywhere. I felt what I can only call my “energy body” begin to stir. Then I felt — and even saw in the waves — my energy body, which I believed to be my very being, move away from me and merge with the energy bodies — the very being — of the pigs. I felt, saw and knew in that instant that the pigs and I — despite our radical difference, our complete alterity — were interconnected, so deeply interconnected that we were one continuous being. I felt a momentary, intense vibration as this all sunk in. And then, with much less fanfare than one might expect given the intensity of the experience, it simply ended, as if a light switch had been flipped. I found myself standing inside of the pigs’ paddock, surrounded by 30 pigs jostling around me, eager for their food, with those just underfoot biting at my boots. The pigs weren’t glowing. There were no waves of energy. I was I. And the pigs were the pigs.
And yet, while apparently nothing had changed, in fact, everything had. I could no longer feel it or see it, but I could remember what it looked like and how it had felt, and more important, I understood clearly “the message” as I have come to think of it.
Pigs, the things that I had been having more or less casually killed for nearly 10 years, were not things at all, they were beings, as richly and profoundly as I myself am a being. As beings, we were equals, more than equals. Their being and my being — all being — was continuous. My being did not end and the pigs’ being begin. My being was always already the pigs’ being and the pigs’ being mine.
The implications of the message drilled down easily to the deepest reaches of my understanding. I resolved on the spot, without a moment’s deliberation, to quit pig farming and stop eating meat of any kind (a year later I also gave up dairy and eggs, becoming a vegan).
I have always been an open-minded person, but only on the rarest of occasions have I ever been a spiritual one. I have never found questions of spiritual being terribly interesting. Today, however, that has all changed. Spiritual being is not anymore a question that might or might not be of intellectual interest or curiosity because it is no longer a question at all. I had, no matter how fleeting, a direct, lived experience of unmediated spiritual being, and the resonant power of that experience blew me wide open: In the merging of my energy body with the energy body of the pigs, I felt and saw the motive force of the universe in the radiant flash of a microsecond. I felt and saw unconditional love pulsing — waving — through an infinite complex of pathways interconnecting a universe of beings.
Until that experience I had been living quite contentedly in a world where small farmers like I raised happy pigs outside where they grazed and played on verdant fields. And, in that world, on every happy pig’s fateful day, they were killed expertly in a small-scale, slow-paced slaughterhouse where I think one can rightly believe that they had no experience of dying.
However, when I returned from that mystical experience I found myself face to face with an incredibly powerful idea that I could not rationalize away, that I could not scoot around with mental gymnastics as I had all of those previous crises of conscience, that I simply had to acquiesce to: Happy pigs are indeed real — there are many thousands, tens of thousands of them out there — but happy meat, the fundamental tenet of conscientious omnivorism, is a total myth.
Believing in the idea of happy meat requires one to believe that the happiness of happy pigs stretches from their carefree happy time getting fat in grassy fields through their final, short walk along a terribly unfamiliar, deeply unsettling grooved concrete-floored kill chute, through the jolt of high-voltage electricity as they are rendered unconscious, to the painless bloodletting resulting in their deaths.
The requirements for belief in the idea of happy meat, however, do not end at death. One must believe also that the happiness of happy pigs is transcendent. The pig’s life ends at its death, but not its happiness. By a well-guarded secret of some mysterious alchemy, the happiness residing in the consciousness of the happy pig transcendentally survives the happy pig’s extinguished consciousness and is transfused intact into the porky flesh of the now dead happy pig, leaving us with happy meat — with absolution. We can eat the happy, porky flesh of the dead pig with a conscience clear.
Just for the sake of being thorough, it should also be noted that believing in happy meat additionally requires that one completely obfuscate a most profound reality of meat. Meat arrives on our plates by the exercise of the highest, most extreme, and terrible violence one being can commit against another — when one human commits such violence against another human we call it murder, and we revile it, and we go to the most extreme (often barbaric, murderous) lengths to punish those who commit it. Killing a happy pig by electrocuting it, then plunging a sharp, stout knife into its neck to the hilt to sever the major veins and arteries so that the pig’s blood, brightest red, gushes out in a volume unimaginable until the pig is dead does not make happy meat. Such an act, being the highest, most extreme, and terrible violence one being can commit against another, and also by a perhaps unlikely wisdom drawn from the childhood mountain of McNuggets from the robin from the lion from the truncated happiness of pigs, makes murder.