The other day we visited friends upstate in New York, and my wife set it up so we could visit a sanctuary for animals in the same neck of the woods. I had no idea what I was in for, hadn’t given it any thought. I suppose I’d expected a petting zoo. It was a tidy arrangement of barns in a tucked-away little valley, and after paying at the front desk we joined a tour of a dozen other people. Our guide took us from the chickens to the ducks to the cows to the goats to the sheep to the pigs; and she was a radical. Her speeches were a litany of the atrocities that the livestock industry commits against our innocent four-legged brothers and sisters for money, one horror after another, from dipping the ducks’ butts in boiling water to pull off these lovely soft feathers you’re feeling right now, to leaving sheep to freeze on the ground when they’re feeble, to tearing the babies from the milk cows and imprisoning them in this device so that they would get no exercise and spoil the veal. The sanctuary had a veal-calf cage there as an exhibit, as they had a galvanized steel farrowing device that a sow is placed in before she gives birth.
We learned that free range is a myth devised to make poultry more edible, that the milk you drink has pus in it because the cows are sick, and that the farm near us that we thought was developing humane methods of slaughter to help small farms across the region is a hive of butchers in blood-spattered clothes from which the sanctuary has liberated several sheep…
I say again, Our guide was a radical. She believes that the conventional eating habits of human beings are immoral and disgusting, she feels more commonality with grass-cropping beasts than with money-hungry humans, and she said triumphantly that the black and white bull named Willy had changed more people’s diets than any other “being” at the sanctuary. I’m sure she is a vegan. One other member of our tour said, “Go vegan” at the end with a fist pump, though others wore down and leather jackets, and seemed to have arrived with the same false assumption that I had.
The tour filled me with a kind of despair. It seemed to me that the guide was as righteous as I and my friends are about the occupation, that she feels herself as marginalized as we have felt ourselves to be. And as we tell ourselves a story about how a grassroots movement is going to win everyone else over some day, and meantime the mainstream toils in ignorance and we toil in the light, she and her friends must tell themselves a similar story. I was silent throughout the tour, didn’t confess to any of my dietary sins, was pleased to see that my belt was hidden and my shoes were canvas. It seems likely that my wife and I will change our eating habits somewhat because of what we learned on the tour, but not entirely. The truth is we don’t trust our guide’s judgment. Her red lines are not ours. Her deck seemed stacked.
And again, that’s where I feel some kinship. Driving away, our friends said that they admired the guide’s dedication to a lost cause. She will surely convert a lot of people in her life, maybe make some headway. Hers is a long struggle. Her deck may be stacked but you can’t really argue with the bottom line: eating meat entails great cruelty. And humane farming is to her what liberal Zionism is in the eyes of an anti-Zionist– it’s worse than the hard original, because it would sanitize the inhumanity and provide cover for it so as to prolong its existence. She would rather people see the true face of the business.
I’ve said before I’m a reluctant radical. I don’t want to be alienated from the main body of humanity. I don’t want to be righteous and always-right and sanctimonious. Because I’m as bad as anyone else. I live on ethnically-cleansed land, I have money in the market. I have a liberal’s trust in civilization to evolve, to come up with more and more progressive norms, and I’d rather be in the corps than the vanguard. My wife says my issue is different from our guide’s; that people are streaming into my camp. But maybe that’s just what we tell ourselves; and visitors are polite with us, and can’t wait to get away. And I should accept my role as the sanctuary guide has accepted hers, without apology.