In this season of giving thanks, I have been thinking about my sister, who, at the age of fourteen, decided she didn’t want to eat animals anymore. At the time her decision, executed on Christmas Day, struck me as a monumental sacrifice, for she forsook not only the holiday turkey, but also the stuffing and gravy. At eight, I couldn’t find it in myself to be so magnanimous. Fortunately, that was not the end of the story.
Over the next several years, I noticed as Julie continued to eschew not only turkey, but also chicken, meat loaf, and hamburgers and hotdogs. She made do with the rice or potato and vegetables we had at dinner. Sometimes I envied her for being allowed to supplement her meal with a salad or extra broccoli, but I wasn’t quite ready to forego hamburgers or my mother’s excellent creamed chicken.
When I reached the age my sister had been when she stopped eating animals, I engaged one of my favorite teachers in a conversation about one of his pastimes, hunting. My family had a dog and a couple of cats, and I had always enjoyed watching the birds and squirrels in the yard. When my teacher asked me to explain the difference was between his eating venison and my eating a cow, I thought I had a ready answer: the cow is born and raised to be turned into beef patties.
From a distance of many years, I can now forgive my youthful conceit: the arrogance of thinking that someone born into good fortune deserves a better life than one who took her first breath in desperate or impoverished circumstances. Just as all children deserve the best life possible, a calf born to a cow on an intensive dairy farm deserves the same chance to bond with her mother and play in the sun as a fawn born in the woods.
In every important way, cows, dogs, and deer—as well as chickens, chickadees, and catfish–are equivalent: they feel pain, they care for their young, they want to live.
In our world in which invitations to consume meat, eggs, and dairy products fill our indoor landscapes, becoming vegetarian or vegan requires an intentional process. I’m grateful to my sister for setting an example of kindness and courage—kindness for the animals she did not want to eat, and courage in taking an unprecedented stand in our family. I’m grateful to my teacher also for making me question my assumptions and see my own behavior in a new way. It was thanks to him that I realized that if I loved a dog or could not abide the torture and slaughter of a deer, it did not make sense for me to eat part of a cow my family had indirectly paid someone else to kill.
Although I wish I had stopped eating animals when I was eight, I can find compassion for my younger self, as well as for others who didn’t have a sister like Julie. People make changes in their own time.
Recently I had dinner with a group of old friends. For the first time in our years of getting together, I asked them all to consider ordering only vegetarian foods. I was concerned they would find my request annoying, but I wanted to be myself with them, not pretending not to mind that they were eating lamb or duck. For that, too, I can thank my sister: she declared what felt important to her, and didn’t let anyone tell her any different. The restaurant offered so many vegan dishes that my friends all agreed to share several vegan plates among us. I like to think that some day, they will experience some gratitude for me for nudging them along a path they might not have chosen for themselves, but will be glad they took.