I read an interesting claim recently: vegetarians don’t exist. That is to say, if you think you’re eating a diet which doesn’t cause the deaths of animals in order to feed you… you are mistaken. Allow me to explain.
If you eat dairy products, you are indirectly contributing to the veal industry. In order for cows to keep producing milk, they have to be impregnated every couple years. And those baby calves usually end up being tied down to prevent them from getting any exercise. Then they are slaughtered at a very young age and sold as “veal”… which South Park taught us is really “tortured baby cows”.
If you eat eggs from the grocery store, you’re enjoying the end result of a horrible process. It starts with baby chicks who are separated by gender and the vast majority of the males are chopped up while they’re still alive. The females are put into individual cages about the size of a toaster oven, where they will spend their entire lives, never being allowed out. If they are lucky (or should I say “less unlucky”) they get put into a pen the size of your living room, along with 50 other chickens and then the package proudly proclaims CAGE FREE. Notice they still are in a pen, just not in individual cages, and they still never get a chance to go outdoors. The rule is that you take the square footage of the pen and divide by the number of chickens in it and the answer has to be at least 3 square feet per chicken. A very few chickens (maybe 1%) are lucky enough to be raised with access to outdoors, and these are called “free range”. But they still started out their lives with a 50-50 chance of being sliced up, and years later, when they stop producing eggs, they generally end up on someone’s dinner table.
So, if you eat eggs and dairy, you’re contributing to animal suffering and death. But wait, there’s more. Even if you eat nothing but vegetables, you are contributing to animal suffering and death.
Consider a cornfield. Before the corn was planted there, it used to be a prairie. Lots of animals lived there, like ants, grasshoppers, mice, prairie dogs, crows, et cetera. Then, along came the plow. Some of those animals were displaced, other were actually killed by being run over by farm equipment, and some were intentionally killed to make room for the corn field. Every year, they spray the field with insecticide, which (duh) kills insects. Yes, insects are animals too. Every year, the field is plowed again, and there are bound to be at least a few mice who are sliced up by the plow. When the corn is stored, they probably put out mouse traps and poison to stop the mice from getting at the corn. We chase away the crows, or even shoot them. Even if it were possible to somehow magically plow a field and harvest a crop without directly harming any animals, not even a single mouse or a single grasshopper… it would still be true that you’re pushing the animals out of the way to make room for human food. You’re displacing them from their habitat, uprooting the food they used to eat, replacing it with human food, and denying them access to that human food.
Even if you ate nothing but nuts and berries you gathered in the woods yourself, you’d still have to admit that if you hadn’t eaten those berries then some other animal might have eaten them. So you’d still be taking food out of the mouth of another animal.
So, it all comes down to what you’re comfortable with.
The comedian Paul Reiser suggested that we eat some animals but not others based on how cute they are. He noted that we eat tuna but we don’t eat dolphins because a dolphin looks like your Uncle Murray, someone who could show up for Thanksgiving Dinner. This brings up an interesting point: we feel empathy toward some animals and not others. We feel affection for dogs, cats, and horses, but not for pigs, cows, and chickens.
If you want to be honest with yourself about what you eat, you should consider some hard questions.
#1 Does it bother you to eat the flesh of social animals who have friends and emotions (like dogs, and pigs)?
#2 Does it bother you to eat the flesh of less intelligent animals?
#3 Does it bother you if the animals you eat were treated badly for most of their lives before ending up on your plate?
#4 Does it bother you that the eggs and dairy you eat come from animals who are treated badly and end up themselves being eaten?
#5 Does it bother you that the veggies you eat involved killing some animals in order to grow it?
#6 Does it bother you that the veggies you eat could have been eaten by another animal but instead you get to eat it?
My personal answers are (in order): hell yes, not so much, definitely, yes, a little bit, and not very much.
It’s really a continuum. You have to decide for yourself just how much death and suffering of other animals you are comfortable with (and what kinds of animals). To answer the question at the top, do vegetarians exist, I think the answer is yes. But even vegans have not totally escaped the bad karma of living at the expense of others.
There’s aspect to this which I haven’t mentioned yet. Think about clearing a field big enough to grow enough vegetables to feed 100 humans. If you used that field to grow corn instead, and then fed the corn to cows, and then slaughter the cows, you’d end up with only enough beef to feed 6 humans. So you’d need a field 16 times bigger, displacing 16 times as many prairie dogs, mice, crows, and grasshoppers, (on top of the fact that the cows themselves are being eaten) and producing 16 times as much erosion and using 16 times as much water. This idea was a major part of why, around 1990, I decided to stop eating beef and pork.
For what it’s worth, I sometimes eat chicken but I try very hard to get Free Range chicken. I also buy Free Range eggs, but we don’t eat very many eggs. Once in a while, I’ll have seafood (there’s some frozen shrimp in my kitchen right now). I only eat small amounts of dairy (I put soy milk on my breakfast cereal). I haven’t eaten a hamburger or a pork chop since 1991. I call myself a vegetarian but I know the word isn’t totally accurate. It’s easier than trying to explain to other people what I eat and don’t eat. And that’s what language is all about, trying to explain things, label things, communicate things.
When someone invites me to dinner and asks if I’m a vegetarian, I say yes.