Mindfully Eating Animals (the Other 99 Percent)

Monk with Broom There is a place in the world where Jain monks carry a broom to sweep the ground ahead of them and avoid stepping on insects. I love this mental image I learned as a child, and think of it often when I’m in nature.

Sometimes I wish I were this mindful in all life, but in truth I'm more of a realist, and not the most compassionate person on earth. I've been working on that last bit for a while, but my approach is to have as much integrity as possible, while understanding that we are human, we screw up, and it’s OK to enjoy life and let loose sometimes. The trouble with this approach is you can easily get a little too loose. When in Rome becomes when in life, and things quickly devolve from there...

I believe this happened to me over the past year and half of living and traveling in Latin America. Of course I ate meat. A lot of meat. I didn’t ask where it came from, or if it was from “happy cows.” There’s not a lot of food choices when you’re traveling in the north part of Peru, for instance. Vegetarian options are pretty much: Cheese sandwich, potatoes, potato chips, rice, corn and/or salad (which by the way is lettuce and tomatoes with a piece of lemon if you're lucky).

The questions I find myself asking now, are...

Faced again with an abundance of eating options in Northern Europe, is it possible to mindfully eat an animal raised and killed for the intention of eating? Is it morally acceptable to eat animals? What, if any, conditions must be present for me to eat a piece of an animal? Is it OK to eat some animals raised and killed for eating, and some not?

I know that it’s possible to mindfully eat an animal. I just don’t know if it’s possible to claim to be a mindful and conscious person of integrity, and still eat an animal that’s been raised and killed for the purposes of human consumption. Especially if that animal has been raised and killed in a factory.

OK, so this didn't just pop out of thin air. It's a debate I've been having with myself for years, only I sort of shoveled into a ditch in the back of my mind where the bad things go. I've been reading a remarkable book by Jonathan Safran Foer, called Eating Animals, and I can hardly put it down to write this article. I've always avoided books like these -- I knew they would leave me depressed and unable to enjoy my dinner -- but this time curiosity got the better of me. I couldn't resist when I saw this one was written by a brilliant young creative fiction writer.

Layers of dirt...

Strip all the layers of self-delusion away, and you have a handful of moral questions that are really not that hard to look at or decipher.

Say you were to find a deer in the wild, dead of natural causes. You take him home, have him butchered mindfully (assuming there could be such a thing) and freeze the meat to be fixed up into burgers for the winter. Not counting potential health issues, I don’t see any problem with this.

The next question is, what if you’ve hunted your own dear for dinner — is this morally acceptable? I have mixed feelings about that, and I’m sure the conditions and the way it's done would factor in my opinion, but given the opportunity, I'd probably want to try it to see for myself ("try everything once"). I know it would be a lot better to do that once or twice a year then eat factory farmed meat on a regular basis.

Moving somewhat closer to a potentially viable situation -- at least until about 50 years ago -- take the hypothetical picture of a small farm where they raise their own animals and ensure they live a healthy life. The animals are protected and given the reign to behave more or less as their species naturally would, and they're killed humanely (zapped unconscious before they are quickly executed).

If you could get your meat from farmers like these, and you did it in moderation, I wouldn’t personally see a big problem with occasionally eating meat from these animals. That is to say, if you could TRULY verify that, indeed, the animals were treated well in life AND in their execution, I think it might be OK. I may not be totally happy with myself in this position, but I could probably look myself in the mirror and say that I am a mindful person, that I am a good person, that I can consider myself a conscious and conscientious person of moral worth.

The problem is, it’s almost impossible to find real small farmers like this anymore, let alone slaughter houses that ensure a humane execution. There are a few exceptions, and it is DEFINITELY possible to find them, but upwards of 99 percent of all animals raised for eating in the US are factory farmed.

Call them 'the other 99 percent.' 

Everyone knows that these "farms" are basically death camps, and if you watch a film about these places it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a horror film. Across the board, the conditions these animals are forced to endure through their lives, and through their executions, are unthinkably horrible. The suffering they endure from genetic bodily modifications and conditions in the factories is massive. It's an unthinkable nightmare beyond anything you could watch in the theater.

50 billion chickens alone worldwide are processed through factory farms. That's 50 thousand million birds.* I don't know if this puts things into perspective or not, but a billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age. We're acting as though we still are.

Getting Real

Have you ever spent time with a chicken? They may not be the smartest animal in the world, but they sure have personality! I was one of the few people in Los Angeles who grew up with chickens and ducks in my backyard, and I loved them. Apparently they have pretty smart brains too! Scientists have discovered that bird brains are actually a lot more complex then we previously thought.

For my part, I always found it strange that we'd be eating chicken for dinner, while one of our pet hens was clucking and pacing outside the window. I learned to push that out of my mind, though. Mom's roasted chicken and potatoes...yummm! (Mama is actually a strict vegetarian now and I love and respect her for it, and boy could she cook a mean chicken, but her veg'n food is even better!)

Since my teen years I’ve fluctuated between part-time vegetarianism and “conscious meat eating” — meaning, I try to avoid it, unless it’s really inconvenient, or I’m feeling particularly uncaring or depressed, or someone offers me something particularly tasty-looking and it’s free -- how could I turn that down?!

I’ve tried a strict raw plant-based diet briefly, and that didn’t last long, though I felt pretty damn good! At my best I've been able to stick with vegetarianism for long stretches of, say, 3-6 months....

When I have gone to eating meat, I’ve tried my best to only eat “quality” meat — that is to say, the kind of stuff you buy at the Whole Foods Market that provides the somewhat comforting sheen of being made from animals who probably haven’t suffered that much.

The truth about this supposedly wholesome meat, though, is the animals DO suffer — alot. There’s different degrees of suffering and treatment, of course, and certainly there is a chance that free range and organic chickens have experienced a slightly better life and execution than those of KFC’s chicken suppliers, but there are a number of reasons why this minimized suffering is really just a bit lesser, if at all.

This is a HUGE discussion, and there’s no way I can even begin to touch on the moral considerations, and the huge range of problems caused by factory farmed animals and industrial fishing here. It’s bigger than I can get into in this writing. Read the book Eating Animals -- which by the way is the source for most of the facts in this article, and is heavily researched and annotated from highly reputable industry and government research -- for a poetic, philosophical, and in-depth examination of the subject.

I really just want to raise the question from the perspective of a mindful, conscious life, touch on some of the major problems I see, and share my own process.

I believe this is one of the biggest issues of our time -- up there with industrial agriculture and the disappearing bees, malnutrition and starvation in developing countries, clean water and human trafficking -- and it’s one that we certainly have an ability to directly control. I hope that we can solve this problem in our lifetimes, because to understand it's out of hand and continue on as before, is to directly fund the torture and genocide of millions of animals, and the destruction of our planet.

It sounds absurd, I know. But it's true. It really is that simple.

Do you love animals and eat them too?

Of course it's possible! I've been doing this for years. I'm not saying you have to stop eating animals cold turkey to be a good person. I'm saying we need to get real about how these animals are being treated, and what we're willing to stand for and support in our lives. 

You're a good person -- you recycle, and you treat people kindly for the most part. You try to vote with your dollars when it's practical, and when it feels right.  How long are you willing to wear blinders on what may be the most important global issue you can directly impact in your life every day, for the sake of a tasty and convenient meal?

Scientific studies and government records have shown that 39-70 percent of chickens in retail stores are infected with E. Coli, and these statistics do not exclude organic and antibiotic-free brands. According to a Consumer Reports study that included these brands, 83 percent of all chicken meat is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase.

Due to the genetic manipulation of factory farmed animals, and the conditions they live in, the animals cannot stay healthy and thrive. They are fed antibiotics in all their meals, whether they are sick or not. So, we're eating these animals, pumped up with antibiotics, teaming with sickness and bacteria, and carrying the karma of a life of suffering, and we’re wondering why kids today are allergic to so many foods, getting sick all the time, and depressed or suffering from ADHD?

So many of these flues and illnesses could be avoided by switching to a primarily plant-based diet. Dozens of official studies and scientific fact-based projects, like the film Forks Over Knives by my consulting clients, have proven and brought to life the fact our meat consumption is literally killing us. Instead, we’re doubling down to create super viruses!

Directly linked to factory farms, these super-influenza viruses are unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Another killer flu pandemic is on its way. The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said simply, “we know another pandemic is invitable...it is coming.” Conservative estimates from the WHO range from 2 million to 7.4 million people who this coming influenza pandemic will kill. Considering the relatively small number of victims of super-viruses such as the H1N1 “Swine Flu” that came from factory-farmed pigs, and the recent H5N1 “Avian Flu” mutation from factory chickens (that killed 60% of the nearly 600 people who were reported infected by it), we've been lucky so far.

We have no idea what we're up against.

“I only eat fish.”

Earlier this year at the Galapagos Islands I finally came to understand the real beauty of the ocean — why I love it so much, and why it calls to me.

How many people have you met who will only eat fish, as though it's somehow better and less karma-free? I once thought so too, until I found out what was actually happening in our oceans. Just because it's healthier and feels better, doesn't mean it is better.

The ocean is a whole 'nother beautiful world. If you’re ever snorkeling or diving in a sheltered reserve or ocean paradise like the Galapagos, you will understand what I mean — it is FULL of the most beautiful and marvelous sea creatures you could ever imagine. Everywhere in the ocean there are schools of all manner of fishes, sharks, sea lions, whales, dolphins, manta rays, everything and anything you can imagine-- it lives in there.

I don’t think you can say that these animals have any less humanity in them then we do. After swimming with sea turtles and sea lions in the ocean, I can assure you they have the most wonderful, vibrant, and amazing spirits and personalities ever!

"Shrimp are OK though, they're small and convenient to eat, and they're YUMMMY!"

When industrial fishermen go trawling for shrimp, they actually catch on average more than 20 times the amount of other sea creatures in their nets. "Bycatch." Do these creatures survive? Maybe some do, but most sea animals drown when they cannot move. The vast majority of what is tossed over is dead already or on its way out. Nice work -- that's more than 20 pounds of sea animals you just killed for one $6 bag of Trader Joe's frozen jumbo shrimp!

Suddenly that Shrimp Scampi don't sound so yummy, huh?

I'm sorry, but this is the truth, and sometimes reality bites....

Take Tuna...dolphins aren’t the only bycatch victims, it’s DOZENS of species of sea animals they catch along with tuna, in lines and nets that stretch for miles and miles and miles. More than 145 species of sea animals are regularly killed gratuitously while catching tuna. This is not the exception, it's the industry norm. These industrial fishing operations can sweep up 50,000 pounds of sea animals in one go. Go bycatch!

Are you a lover of sea animals and the ocean too...? 

The situation has gotten so bad that scientists are predicting the total collapse of all fished species in less than 50 years. As reported in Eating Animals:

"Our situation is so extreme that research scientists at the Fisheries Center of the University of British Columbia argue that ‘our interactions with fisheries resources [also known as fish] have come to resemble...wars of extermination.'"

Look, the problems are massive, and we cannot ignore this anymore. Our demand for inexpensive meat and seafood is killing the planet and decimating entire species of animals. It's a war on animals, and a war on the planet.

But, let me leave the obvious health concerns and planetary destruction aside for a moment and return to the core of the question...

Is it possible to kill and eat an animal, and still be considered a mindful, conscious person?

Yes, I believe it is. It's absolutely possible, but it's not easy. I love animals, and I love the earth. As it turns out, industrial animal farming is the number one cause of climate change, making a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transformation in the world combined. That's just not OK.

I'm supporting the 1%

The truth is here now, I cannot turn my head and continue living the lie any more. I'm supporting the (less than) 1% of farmers who are doing the right thing, and treating their animals humanely, and not spilling a large part of the 80,000 pounds of toxic animal sewage produced per second by the other 99% of farmed animals in the US, into our waterways and everywhere else imaginable.

Many small family farms are still doing it right, and you can find them at the farmer's markets and other unexpected places near you, if you just dig a little deeper. You CAN pay a little more for taking part in taking another sentient being's life, and supporting their humane treatment before and during death. You might even find these farmers in unlikely places, like Niman Ranch, which is supplied by 700 small family farms. I'm not going to say that these guys are God's gift to pigs and cows, and they certainly use practices in raising their animals that cause suffering, but compared to the industry standard they are absolute angels.

Is this the best way? Not by a long shot. I know that being a strict vegan -- eating no animal products whatsoever -- is way better, but I'm going to try to find a middle way that works for me.

I know that I cannot eat factory farmed animals or industrially fished seafood anymore. I know also that it will be extremely hard to refuse a meal from a friend or family member who has worked hard to create something for me that includes an animal from these sources, but I will do my best to stand by my principles.

I believe in being impeccable with my word, and with my karma, so I am sitting with this, and I am committed to this. I don’t know what to do about eggs and dairy products, I know that the suffering from these are equally great. I am considering this further.

I DO know that any meat I buy will be direct from the small farmers who can be found in Farmers Markets and other unexpected places. The fish will have to come direct from small fisherman, and this can usually be done if I’m living near the sea. (I guess that's one advantage of being able to live almost anywhere I choose in the world, so I'm looking hard at where that's going to be now, and I'm going to factor these principles in.)

// Life is Harsh

Sometimes you have to draw the line between “us and them,” such as when it comes to defending your home and food from single-minded little insects. There’s a necessary survival instinct, and a turning away from the truth that happens naturally in life — a self-driven numbing. It happens when we're forced to put up with the harshness of life, or protect what we love, and put up barriers to feeling. The survival instinct kicks in, and the morals go out to pasture.

The problem with this self-numbing and survival-driven approach is that it easily begins to spread into our lives, and the lives of those around us. When in Rome...

It's easy to become numb and put on blinders. It’s up to us to take responsibility and awaken to the truth of what we're bringing in the world -- the legacy we're leaving behind -- and change the flow.

When I was a young boy I used to love killing ants with a magnifying glass, or torching rows of them with a can of WD-40 and a match. It was cruel, yes, but I didn’t feel anything for the little creatures. Of course, I was just an ignorant kid, I didn't know better. Years of experience and cultivating mindfulness has brought me to appreciate the real value and beauty of these little guys. I would never torture bugs now, so why would I continue to torture animals?

That's essentially what I’ve been doing throughout my life when I've chosen to eat animals while turning a blind eye to where they came from.

That one big ant writhing in pain and burning under the sun's magnified ray my first time, that glorious summer afternoon spent torching innocent bugs, that day when we tried to find salt to pour on a slug, but ended up using powdered soap from the school bathroom when we couldn't find any -- they're all symbols for the blind ignorance of careless youth. More than that, though, they remind me of awakening from a life of living with blinders on -- all those times when I let the challenges of life get in the way of really looking at what was in my sandwich.

All this time through my taste for meat, my need for convenience, and going with the flow of what everyone around me was doing, I was causing so much horrible and unnecessary suffering, and contributing to the destruction of the world. It cannot be sustained anymore.

Eating only animals and fish who I am certain were raised and killed humanely, with minimal ecological impact, and eaten only in moderation; that is my commitment. I don't even know if it's possible to eat a fish or animal without causing unnecessary suffering, and maybe I'm delusional, but that's my solution for the time being. It’s a far cry from that image I loved from childhood of the lone Jain monk sweeping the road ahead of him, and I'm not patting myself on the back for this, but I think it's a start.

I am driven to live a life in alignment with my heart and soul -- it's a core tenet of my existence. Are you also?

What are you doing about this problem? Are you going to ignore it, or are you going to try to do something about it for yourself, and for your children, and for the planet?

I think I know what the answer is for me now. What about you...?

Please let me know what you think, what you're doing or not about this problem, and who or what you're supporting. You can find me on facebook, or via the email list.

Satya Colombo

*The majority of  statistics in this post are from the book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, which contains a far more in-depth look than I could ever hope to reach in a 3,000 word article. I cannot recommend this book enough -- for vegans, meat eaters, and everyone in between. Any other stats were found from legitimate sources with a simple Google search. 

monk image credit