Admitting Defeat and Eating Meat

If someone had handed me a big knife yesterday morning and asked me to kill one of the goats, I would have happily obliged. I would have killed it and grilled it and savored every bite. I was so frustrated. They had me completely defeated.

I had spent the morning moving them from the barn to a new pasture much farther away than where they have been spending the past couple of weeks. This time, I led them through the village of Belmont and into the hills a good 30 minutes away. I had spread out my blanket and was about to start reading when a man ran out of a clearing in the trees, pointed down the hill and said, “Trois chevres al bar!” I thought they were all munching away at the grass together, but I was wrong. I left the large herd and ran down the path to find the missing three. Turns out that they were really far behind, close to a house that sits on the outskirts of the village. A few kids were standing guard over them. I called to them, I yelled at them, I swung my stick around with force so it made a whipping sound cutting through the air, and I grabbed them by the horns and tried to drag them to the road. Nothing worked. They would not come. I wanted to explain to the kids that they should stand behind the goats and clap their hands while I called to them. I wanted the goats to listen. I wanted to communicate, and I couldn’t. So, after trying and trying and trying again, the kids and I started walking back to the village. I called to the goats a few times without turning around, not thinking they would follow, but figured it couldn’t hurt. One of the girl’s who was trying to help me turned around and called out, “Les chevres!” And there they were, all three of them, trotting far behind us on the dirt road. I couldn’t believe it. I decided that I would take them back to the farm instead of reuniting them with the others. The long walk back was painful. They ate the potted flowers in the village and walked slowly. When I finally closed the fence behind them and turned on the electricity, I never wanted to look at another goat again. Ever.

Of course, a few hours later, I was looking at more than 20 goats. This time Christine, Jean-Yves’ girlfriend, came along to help me move the goats from the far away pasture back to the farm. We were riding bikes instead of walking, a goat herding technique that I was unfamiliar with yet optimistic. We found the goats in the yard of the house on the outskirts of town, probably eating carefully planted flowers and herbs. Christine rode in front of the goats and I rode behind. Instead of wandering off the road, the goats stayed together in and trotted almost all the way home. We moved at a speedier pace on the bikes and the goats kept up! Having Christine’s help also made the process much smoother. And as I rode behind them, their swollen udders swaying back and forth, churning the milk that provides us with the most delicious cheese, I felt affection.

Spending these past couple weeks either with the goats in the countryside or elbow-deep in goat cheese has got me thinking more about my omnivorous habits. I have never before spent so much time with the animals that feed me. We don’t actually eat goat on the farm, but I have eaten it before, most recently in a stew at the African restaurant Merkato in Manhattan. It was delicious. Now goat is so much more to me than meat in a spicy African stew. The goats I know have distinct personalities – one goat always walks beside me and tries to veer me off track, one goat nuzzles next to me when I watch over them in the fields, and another goat is slow and anti-social, always brining up the rear of the herd. And I have learned from them. Yesterday, after my rage against the goats had subsided, I knew that I hadn’t actually meant what I’d felt. If someone handed me a big knife and asked me to kill one of the goats, when push came to shove, I don’t think I would be able to do it. Does that make me a hypocrite? If I can’t kill a goat (or cow or lamb or chicken or turkey) for my dinner, then is that grounds enough to not eat animals?

Eating meat is a very personal decision. At least, it should be. I don’t think I am alone when I admit that I haven’t always considered the animal I’m eating when I’m eating it, so there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. It’s easier to disassociate meat with what was once (probably quite recently) a living, breathing animal. Now, after spending time on farms with domesticated animals, I have and will continue to think consciously about the meat I eat. I have come to a few conclusions, aided in part by the words of Michael Pollan.

The bottom line is that I enjoy the eating meat. Not all the time, but on occasion. I know that meat is not necessary for my survival or overall well-being this day and age. It is an admittedly selfish act to consume an animal that I do not need. But, as long as I am fully aware of where the animal came from, can rest assured that it was treated humanely while it was alive, then killed quickly and with precision so it felt little pain, and respect that its life was sacrificed for the sake of my taste buds, then I will continue to enjoy eating meat. I don’t want to eat meat that was raised in a feedlot or cage, unable to roam free and overstuffed with antibiotics and feed. Yes, it will eventually die and get served on a plate, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t live a happy life up until its very last day. My decision was reinforced after reading about animal domestication in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans somehow imposed on animals some thousand years ago. Rather, domestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and –yes-their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the new relationship: The animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves in the wild (natural selection tends to dispense with unneeded traits) and the humans traded their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled live of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits and the ability to digest lactose as adults.)

From the animals’ point of view the bargain with humanity turned out to be a tremendous success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished. (There are ten thousand wolves left in North America and fifty million dogs.) It is probably safe to say, however, that chicken preferences do not include living one’s entire life six to a battery cage indoors. The crucial moral difference between a CAFO and a good farm is that the CAFO systematically deprives the animals in it of their ‘characteristic form of life.’”

Knowing happy, domesticated animals makes me wish that the meat industry in the United States were not the brutal and industrial operation that it is. On the bright side, we as consumers have the power to change it. I think Michael Pollan (who is now, for me, someone who I would want around that figurative dinner table if I could only invite three guests, dead or alive) sums things up perfectly:

“No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill and eat animals the way we do. Yes, meat would be more expensive. We’d probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.”


One thought on “Admitting Defeat and Eating Meat

  1. Annie, Pollan would also be one of my dinner table guests. His work is brilliant yet unsettling regarding our food culture. Last week I saw Clinton and Bush speak (random, I know) and Clinton mentioned tha the most important health issue in the US right now is obesity which is mind blowing since its so avoidable. I remember reading a stat from “In Defense of Food” that if you were born after 2000 in the US, you had a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes based on current trends.

    I love the point about the evolutionary arrangement that domesticated animals made. Pollan actually makes the same argument for plants in “The Botany of Desire”. I remember reading that and feeling reinforced that we still, on the whole, are failing to see our connectivity with all the other elements in life.

    Keep up the writing, its great. A.

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