Everything would have been fine if I hadn’t told them about my hat. The meeting with my son’s teachers was going great. They like him, he’s working hard, improving, etc. Afterward, someone asked about all the animals he talks about at home, the new adorable kittens, the llama and alpaca, chickens, ducks, bunnies, etc. One of the women asked why we had so many animals, so I talked about the eggs we get from the chickens and ducks, the wool we get from the llama and alpaca, the kittens who are just pure love and entertainment now, but hopefully will hunt mice someday. At this point, the two women were nodding and smiling, probably picturing a cute little farm with cute little animals, like in Charlotte’s Web. For some reason, one of them wanted to know more about the rabbits, “What kind are they?” “Where do they live?” etc.
I heard that little voice in my head saying “Don’t do it.” But for some reason, I didn’t listen. I tested the water. “They are New Zealand MEAT rabbits.” Blank stares. “I run farm camps and my middle schoolers convinced me to raise rabbits.” Blank stares! “My students really wanted to understand the process of raising and harvesting their own meat, so we did.” Still blank stares!
I knew by now this was going to end badly, but I’d already said too much, I was committed.
I was searching for what to say next when my eyes lit on my hunting cap sitting on the table next to me. I picked up my hat, rubbed the soft fur ear flaps and said, “So we recently harvested a couple from our second litter.”
Oh boy, I could not have planned this worse. I have now strung them along in suspense about the rabbits, all along envisioning fur and puffy tails and button eyes and sweet helplessness, and now they feel shocked and misled and betrayed. Maybe they thought we were the perfect little family, and this does not fit in with their image of us.
Both women gasped in unison and put hands over their mouths, faces white, eyes wide as the slaughter took shape in their minds. I set my own mouth in preparation, looked out the window and waited out the long pause. Finally one said, “I don’t even know what to say,” the other said “That’s horrible!” I tried to explain, “OH if you’re vegetarian I totally understand, I respect that.” Silence. They both eat meat. I go into teacher mode, kind but with an agenda. “My students who eat meat really wanted to understand where their food comes from and how to raise it themselves.” One woman’s hand involuntarily raises and waves in front of her, as if to stop traffic, and says, “No no no no no. Oh no.”
Okay, now my personal hangups about privilege and hypocrisy start to boil up and I get kind of pissed. Luckily, I’m married to a wonderful man who knows me so well, sometimes better than I know myself, and before I can say more, he puts a hand on my shoulder and makes a joke, “Wait ’til you see the hats we’re gonna make out of the kittens.” And then there was this pause, wondering if we were serious, then a nervous chirpy laugh, looking at us like they just recognized us as wanted on the evening news. We stand up, smile, and walk out of the room, not looking back until we are out of the building and can finally dissolve into laughter.
My husband chides me for “going there.” He says, “You think that anyone who lives in a house should be able to build one.” It’s true, I know by now that I should not talk about this stuff to people I don’t want to risk offending in Boulder. Still, it never ceases to amaze me that well-educated liberal people who EAT meat AND talk the talk of local organic humane etc. STILL don’t really want to know how their food has actually been raised and killed. And it’s not just that they don’t want to see blood or see an animal being killed. For so many people they don’t even want to think about the connection between the meat on their plate and a living animal that was kept in a pen and killed for them to eat. For so many people, the words “local food,” “farm-raised,” “farmer’s market,” etc. has become just another status symbol or brand that says how cute, progressive, liberal, kind, open-minded and wealthy they are.
Once I told a mom at school that our first rabbit litter was just born and how excited I was to go through the whole process of raising meat with my students, what a great opportunity it was for them, and she looked at me open-mouthed and said with a slight edge of disgust, “Yes, but all those souls you’ll be responsible for!” I thought about that and said, “Yes, I want to teach about that too, the choices we make and the consequences for other living things. Ironically, being with the animals every day has actually made me eat a lot less meat. I can understand being a vegetarian more now than ever. How long have you been vegetarian?” Then she looked at me and said, with no trace of irony, “Oh I eat meat. But I would NEVER kill an animal myself.”
For awhile, I just couldn’t understand this mindset, and it made me mad that people didn’t connect eating animals with causing animals to be killed. Further, not knowing that how the animals are raised or killed is perpetuating their suffering. People talk a lot about the cycle of life and animals living free and wild in this pretty Disney way, but the real cycle of life is much messier. It includes poop and guts and love and heartbreak and blood.
My younger students, in their simplicity and honesty, have helped me understand. With my younger students, I don’t get graphic or actually do anything but pet and feed the animals, but we do talk about where meat comes from. One day a second grade girl says, “I love meat, I eat chicken nuggets and hotdogs and hamburgers, meat is sooo good.” I say, “Chickens like ours over there, rabbits like those over there, they are also raised for meat, that’s what chicken nuggets are made of.” She says, “That’s terrible. That’s so mean, to kill chickens or rabbits like them to eat them?”
I said, “Our animals are happy. They’re well cared for, they get to run around and interact with other animals. They eat great food. They have a good life. If we decided to eat them, they wouldn’t suffer, they would be happy and then they would be dead in 30 seconds or less. The animals that are raised to make chicken nuggets and hotdogs do not have a good life. They’re kept in small cages; they can’t move around. They don’t get to stay with their moms when they’re babies. They stand in their poop all day and get sick. They suffer while they are alive and feel fear and pain when they die. Even though it’s hard to kill and eat animals that you know, if you care about animals, it’s better to care for them and make sure they don’t suffer when they die. What do you think?” The little girl says, “I don’t want to eat those animals over there. I like them, I want them to live. I would rather eat chicken nuggets.”
It suddenly occurred to me that this is how most people think. This is how we have been raised, to see food in colorful packages in fun shapes as different from animals. I wish people could see that the choice to keep thinking of your food as separate from real animals is a choice made for people, not for animals, and the choice to raise and kill your own meat is a choice that is much harder for people (at least for me it is) but much better for animals. It is the opposite of being mean to them.
There is an age when kids should not be expected to face some of the harsh realities in life. The Tooth Fairy, Santa, baby farm animals that are just for petting, and magical tasty meat that just appears on their plates all fall into the same category. But there is an age where kids want to know and see and experience what’s real. In most cultures around the world there are rites of passage for kids in their teens to answer the questions and urges that arise in kids at this age. For meat eaters of any age, it’s very hard to find the balance between caring for and loving animals and also eating animals. It’s probably more common to become either callous about killing animals, disconnected from our food source, or abstain completely. To care enough to kill humanely is tough.
I’m not saying everyone should raise and kill their own meat. I’m not saying I have it figured out. I almost threw up before we killed each of the two rabbits we killed, and soon after, I decided maybe it’s not for me. I am still working through it myself. I am so happy that my boys and my students get to work through it with me. They get to see happy healthy animals and start to make the connection between animals and their food. When they are older, if they want to, I will take them to a feed lot and a slaughter house. They may decide to become vegetarians. They may decide to eat meat they know has been raised and killed humanely. They may decide to eat chicken nuggets. At least they will be making a choice.