The Loss of a Pet, Animal Rights, and Vegetarianism

Posted by Sherry Colb

Some time today, at this site, you will find my column for the week.  It describes and assesses the importance of a Vermont Supreme Court case in which the plaintiffs are asking for loss-of-companionship emotional-distress damages from a defendant who shot their dog to death.  I consider the claims of some within the animal protection movement that a victory for the plaintiffs would be a "gateway" victory for the status of animals.

In this post, I want to explore the meaning of a different sort of "gateway" that many proponents of animal welfare embrace:  vegetarianism.  Some people who oppose the slaughter and torture of animals within the food and clothing industries decide that instead of (or perhaps preliminary to) going vegan, they will go "lacto-ovo vegetarian" (which means a person who consumes plant-based food plus dairy and egg products).  As a matter of numbers, there are many more lacto-ovo vegetarians than there are vegans, and most vegans (including yours truly) were once lacto-ovo vegetarians.  My question here is why?

One answer is that people view vegetarianism as a compromise.  In his new book, Eating Animals, for example, Jonathan Saffran Foer provides compelling accounts of individual and statistical realities that make a strong case for veganism.  Yet he became a vegetarian rather than a vegan (despite saying on Ellen that if you truly care about animal cruelty, the first product you will give up consuming is eggs).  When asked why he is not a vegan on a vegan blog, he responded that he is transitioning to veganism.  Since he is not ready, for whatever reason, to give up all animal products, he will give up flesh for now and maybe give up dairy and eggs later.

Another answer I have heard is that what people most oppose is the killing of animals for food and clothing rather than the exploitation of animals.  Therefore, since flesh necessarily comes from an animal's death, it seems logical to give up eating animal flesh as a first step.

The problem with both of these answers is that the distinction between flesh, dairy, and eggs is illusory and false.  To produce milk requires a mammal to become pregnant.  In the dairy industry, cows are inseminated regularly on a "rape rack" (an industry term, not mine), after which they become pregnant and give birth to baby calves.  Half of the time, the calf is male, and male "dairy calves" are killed for veal (because raising them to "adulthood" is not economically worthwhile, given that their flesh is inferior to that of "beef" cows).  Once "dairy" cows are "spent," moreover, they are slaughtered and turned into hamburger meat.

Analogous to the dairy industry, the egg industry breeds "food" chickens and "egg-layer" chickens.  The latter, when male, are not worth the trip to the slaughterhouse to the farmer, so they are killed on the day they're hatched.  Male chicks typically die of suffocation after being discarded in plastic waste-bags or buried alive, or they die of mutilation after being thrown fully conscious into a wood-chipper.  The egg-laying hens often meet the same fate once they are "spent."

In other words, if one cares only about not funding slaughter, then the decision not to eat flesh but to continue eating dairy and eggs is morally no more sensible than a decision to eat only short cows but not tall cows.  If one were to write a book eloquently describing the horrific treatment and slaughter of animals, it would be laughable, of course, for the book to end with a statement that the author just could not contribute to all of that death and suffering anymore and would from now on consume only the flesh of short cows.  A compromise ordinarily must be at least coherent if it is to represent a meaningful step in a positive direction.

What if someone really wants to do something about animal suffering but feels unready to go vegan right away?  Is there really no compromise that is better than nothing?  Well, I did not say that.  I said that ovo-lacto vegetarianism is no better than nothing, because it causes as much death and possibly even more suffering than omnivorism, if one is consuming the same quantity of animal products but merely switching from including flesh to increasing dairy and eggs, as many lacto-ovo vegetarians do.

What is better than nothing?  Taking actual steps toward veganism by consuming fewer and fewer animal products over time.  If you ordinarily eat eggs and sausage for breakfast, eat something else -- vegan pancakes or vegan French toast or oatmeal or tofu scramble -- for breakfast.  With that meal, you have reduced what might be called your "torture and slaughter" footprint.  With a switch from eggs and sausage to eggs and cheese, by contrast, you have done nothing whatsoever for animals.

Gateways can be useful.  Reading a book about animal rights (like Gary Francione's Introduction to Animal Rights:  Your Child or the Dog?) can open one's eyes to the "moral schizophrenia" that afflicts human beings who defend the consumption of animal products while claiming to oppose unnecessary animal cruelty and killing.  Going vegan for a meal or two a day can represent positive steps on the road to going vegan.

But some gateways lead nowhere.  They are the moral equivalent of getting lost and getting comfortable in the place where one is lost.  Ovo-lacto vegetarianism is, unfortunately, a place where many people get lost.  And the proliferation of "vegetarian" products that contain milk protein and eggs is a testament to how very many people who sincerely want to "do something" for animals have gotten lost in just this way.

Is my own experience a counter-example?  After all, I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian, and now I am a vegan.  I don't think so.  I was also an omnivore for many years, but I do not view that as a "gateway" to veganism.  I view my vegetarian period as a distraction, during which I could pretend -- like so many ovo-lacto vegetarians do -- that I was doing my part.  I similarly do not experience my having been a lacto-ovo vegetarian as in any way facilitating my switch to veganism.  When I stopped eating flesh, I started eating a lot more dairy, including especially pizza.  I remained in that "lost" state for years before I finally stopped, and I found that within days of switching, I could not imagine what kept me a lacto-ovo vegetarian for so long.

Though it may sound counter-intuitive, I find that being a vegan is easier than being a lacto-ovo vegetarian was -- I do not experience "cravings" for animal products, as I in fact did experience as a lacto-ovo vegetarian (perhaps because consuming animal protein just makes you crave more animal protein).  And yes, I get plenty of protein (probably much more than I need).  It just doesn't come from a processing plant where people torture and stab sentient and screaming beings to death, one by one, day after day, to satisfy consumer demand.