Fifteen years ago, as we sat in a Singapore tour bus, we heard the story of how the Singapore zoo came to be. An entire generation of kids had grown up knowing chicken only as a packet of shrink-wrapped meat bought from a supermarket that would eventually turn into a delicious dish for dinner. The adults resolved to make amends for the lost connection from farm to fork.
In the past century, as we have hurtled from hunting to the local butcher to the supermarket chain to pressing a button on our smartphones for our meaty needs, the connection between killing animals to put food on our plates has become very indirect, and by corollary, deeply impersonal.
Is it thus a wonder that most omnivores (or as we Indians like to call them, non-vegetarians) are actually lapsed vegetarians?
It should also not be a wonder that most vegetarians are likely lapsed vegans. Why?
For the simple reason that, just as omnivores don’t think of themselves as actually killing for their food, vegetarians don’t think of themselves as willing collaborating cogs in a dairy industry that’s rife with animal cruelty.
In the early days of my vegetarian- to vegan transformation, I was curious to learn more about carnism, a term coined by an evangelical vegan.
Carnism is a phenomenon that seems to accord preferential treatment for certain animal species. Preferential, as in they are placed in an “exclusion list of sorts” when it comes to eating them.
Dogs reign on top of the exclusion list and it’s easy to understand why. They are man’s best friend after all.
Big animals that are on endangered species lists or in zoos are also safe. Safe for the simple reason that there aren’t enough of them to go around.
Beautiful, playful and intelligent aquatic animals like dolphins have first world NGO saviours – saviors that have successfully lobbied against their decimation.. to the economic distress of fishing communities in the Indonesian archipelago.
Do all intelligent animals make it to omnivore exclusion lists? Not quite. Intelligence is a necessary condition but the sufficiency criterion also needs to be met. Would you have suspected octopuses to be intelligent? Fascinating article one and two for bonus credit. The octopus eating world needs to know this.
Horses are another species that have enjoyed strong and consistent protection by homo sapiens for time immemorial. In many ways, horses (like dogs) have been man’s best friend.. getting dragged into battles and marathon journeys, though a little less willingly than dogs I reckon.
Cows in India (thanks to a strong religious tradition+narrative) enjoy a protection status that very few cattle species enjoy in this modern world. The Indian buffalo, while being the cow’s cousin, gets butchered a lot more easily. Both cows and buffaloes are severely exploited due to Indians’ massive proclivity towards dairy based products.
The pigs got an unexpected break in the 8th century when they were deemed persona-non-grata as a dish on the dinner table. I suspect, by now, the rest of the major world religious adherents have compensated for this selective bias.
Which brings us to the last farm animal I want to talk about – goats. No special religious narrative to save them, not cute or cuddly by any stretch of imagination, and downright glum looking (adjective given by a carnivore friend). In short, no savior.
Pet owners and birders – how are they related and why am I dragging them into this post?
What turns omnivores into vegetarians (or vegans) in their adulthood ? There are many trigger patterns of course but two of my two birder friends offer a clue on one of them. Garima, who’s been a full-time birder for 8 years, turned vegan several years ago. My colleague (DK) describes the cognitive dissonance he felt as he became an avid birder “as I started enjoying watching all those beautiful birds in their natural habitat, I could no longer bear the thought of eating them or their ilk”. So he turned vegetarian.
If an activity that brings you in close proximity to birds only 3-6 times a year can effect such a powerful behavior change, wouldn’t pet ownership have perhaps a similar (maybe larger) behavior change? I must add that there’s absolutely no danger of an omnivore->vegan epidemic! Behavior change is just too hard.
Extracting relevant bits here..
The 325 study participants were found via food-focused social media pages — including group pages dedicated to vegetarianism and veganism — and were surveyed about their dietary and lifestyle choices, as well as their childhood pets. Questions focused on what type of diet participants followed, types of animals they had as children, their relationships with childhood pets, and their feelings about animal exploitation.
Interestingly, the study discovered people who had a variety of animals growing up (meaning, they had cats, rodents, farm animals, or other cute critters — not just dogs) were more likely to adopt vegetarianism or veganism as adults. In addition, researchers found the more types of animals someone had growing up, the more likely they were to abstain from a wider range of animal products (like dairy and meat, rather than just meat) compared to folks who grew up with fewer pets. Participants who reported having an abundant variety of childhood pets were also more ethically opposed to factory farming, animal testing, and other forms of animal exploitation than those participants with a fewer variety of childhood animals.
“It seems as though individuals who had different types of pets more easily empathize with farmed animals, or those used in research,” Sydney Heiss, a UAlbany graduate student who co-authored the study, said in a press release. “For example, someone who had only a dog may have difficulty feeling empathy for a cow, whereas someone who grew up with farm animals may be more attuned to characteristics that are shared across all species, and therefore, better able to empathize with all animals.”
The study indicates that growing up with a variety of pets seems to play a large role in a person’s choice to refrain from eating animal products later in life, and from using products made from animals or their byproducts. But, the researchers also found that being close to your childhood pets is another determining factor in adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. Julia Hormes, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at UAlbany who worked along side Heiss on the study, concluded in the press release that, “Past research has suggested closeness to a childhood pet is the key factor that predicts increased empathy and vegetarianism in adulthood. Our findings suggest that there may be more than one pathway to vegetarianism in adulthood — the number of pets in childhood, ethical concerns towards animal use, and level of vegetarianism is significant.”
Closing note: the academic article abstract can be found here. Couldn’t find a “Free download PDF” link anywhere.
Closing note#2: a few months after I wrote this post, over lunch with some Yahoo alumni I watched two folks – one a renowned wildlife photographer, the other a dog owner turned dog whisperer assiduously chow down on fauna food. Had I known them a little better, would have mentioned this study. Oh well – there’s next time.