Saturday, October 3, 2015

Ethical Veganism

By Michael (I use graphic language in this post, so if you are eating at the moment, I recommend you read some other time.)

Yulia and I were walking to the bus stop in Yulia's grandparents' village one foggy morning. As we were walking I heard a sound I had never heard before. I could only describe it as a distant roar. It would roar for a few seconds and then stop. Then it would start again.

I asked Yulia what it was, and she didn't answer. I asked again. Nothing. It was a day or two before Easter, and I put two and two together. A pig was being slaughtered for the holiday.

We continued walking and the roaring continued. It had been screaming in agony for several minutes now. Tears welled up in my eyes. The sound vibrated through my ears. It was not dying of old age--this was the sound of a strong animal. It knew it was on its way out of this world. It didn't want to go, and it wasn't going quietly. This animal fiercely wanted to live.

We got to the bus stop and the screaming continued. The tears were hot in my eyes. "Why don't they just kill it already? Put it out of its misery!" I couldn't take it anymore. What the hell were the people who did that doing at that moment?? Sitting in their house? Standing there and watching? How could they??

*     *     *

I feel that sharing this story is the least I could do for that animal, and I hope some good comes from such horror.

Admittedly, my telling of the story has been filtered through my emotions. I don't know what the pig felt at that time. I don't know if it actually knew it was on its way out of this world, but that's what I heard in its shrieking.

I understand that emotions and feelings are suspect in this hyper rational world we live in. I understand that we need to question our biases in the search for truth. But I don't think it makes sense to completely sideline our feelings either. Try to understand what they are telling you. If hearing an animal scream makes you cringe, maybe something is not completely right--especially if you are the cause of that screaming (If you hear an animal scream, and it does not make you cringe, maybe something is not completely right either).

If you want to objectively know how pigs are slaughtered around here--no emotions, no subjectivity, this is how: a knife is pushed through the pig's chest and into its heart. As I described, death is not instant.

*     *     *

Yulia and I want this blog to be positive and inspirational. I tell this story to hopefully bring some good into this world.

I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I'm only going on because I hope my words will inspire other people to think. Do you really need to celebrate a holiday by making an animal suffer like that? There are literally thousands upon thousands of other things you could do to celebrate being with your family. Read a book with your niece. Teach your nephew how to ride a bike. Push your cousins on a swing. Ask the elderly people in your family to tell you a story from 60 years ago. Help out grandma in the kitchen. Why does the celebration have to involve an animal screaming in agony for half an hour? Why does it have to involve killing at all?

*    *     *

I guess there's actually an argument against vegans now that claims that plants can feel pain. The article, smugly titled, "Nice try, Vegans: Plants Can Actually Hear Themselves Being Eaten," describes how a certain plant releases mustard oil as a defense in response to vibrations that mimic a caterpillar eating leaves. Even though this is not the conclusion of the study, many people have concluded on their own that plants can feel pain and are conscious.

To anyone who believes this, I have one question: If you actually think plants feel pain, are you going to change your life in any way in accordance with those beliefs? If you think the solution is to eat meat so that you don't incur pain on plants, remember that livestock are fed plants. You have to kill a lot more plants to feed the animals than you do if you just fed yourself with those plants. Then you have to kill the animal.

My guess is that no one is actually bothered by the suffering of plants. Rather, some people use it as a counter argument to ethical veganism--specifically, the belief that one should incur as little pain as possible. I'll be honest. I don't want to hear it. Don't compare a sheep who still tries to run away while laying on its side in a pool of its own blood after having its throat cut to me picking berries in my backyard. That sheep is making motions like it wants to run away because it does want to run away. Don't pretend they're so stupid. Animals know they are being killed when they are slaughtered, and they fight fiercely for their lives. When chickens are taken off the trucks at slaughterhouses, they hold onto their crates so tightly that their feet are sometimes ripped off their bodies (source).

If you want to compare that to me picking dried up beans pods off dried up vines in the fall, then this is your reality check. It annoys me to no end when people stop using common sense and make half baked arguments using the aegis of scientific studies to justify not changing their behavior, especially when the stakes are so high.

There are many more comics like this at

These two vegan athletes have a YouTube Channel, Vegan Bros, in which they critique both vegans and non-vegans alike. In this one they compare hurting plants and animals.

*     *     *

I've talked about the suffering that a pig from a family homestead went through, but animals in slaughterhouses face unimaginable torture. I don't use the word torture lightly here. I recently read an article from the Los Angeles Times, "The Cruelty Behind Your Ballpark Hotdog," which documents botched slaughters and other animal rights abuses. There is an anecdote about one pig, for example, that was not immediately killed by a stun gun. Since there was no spare available, the metal rod had to be pulled from the pig's head while it was still alive in order to reload it. If you comfort yourself by pointing out that this is an anomaly (the article makes clear it isn't), then consider what happens day to day in animal agriculture. It is common practice to cut the testicles out of baby pigs without anesthetics and grind up male chicks alive (or suffocate them in plastic bags) in the egg industry.

It is also common for cows to be skinned alive at slaughterhouses. The video below describes how at one facility the first 10 cows slaughtered each morning are particularly susceptible to this because the owner doesn't allow time for the cows to be fully bled: "There is pressure to start dismembering the cows right away and not lose money by slowing down the production line." This is an everyday occurrence in Kosher and Halal slaughterhouses because the animal is not stunned. If it is not completely bled in time, it will still be conscious as the scalper begins to pull the skin off its body.

I didn't know what was going on with the animals I ate for a long time. No one had ever shared the information with me. Even after I learned what was happening I didn't go vegan overnight. But it got me thinking, and once things got lined up in my mind, I realized that going vegan was the only conclusion that made sense.

I understand that just because it makes sense to me doesn't mean that it will automatically make sense to you, so don't let me convince you. You need to convince yourself. You need to take responsibility for yourself and your actions. I think if you go veg' because of this post or because you watched a couple of videos, you will not have a strong enough foundation to continue long term.

So take the time to learn about the world around you. What is acceptable to you and what isn't? Only you can answer that. For a long time eating meat was acceptable to me. I went vegetarian when I was 18, then went back. I was off and on for several years. Grass fed beef caught my interest the summer before I met Yulia. I had a bacon sandwich the first time I went out with Yulia and continued eating meat for the first two months after we started dating (though I stopped eating meat in front of her). After that, the two of us were ovo-lacto vegetarians for some time, though we gradually started to cut that out of our diet. I've been on a vegan + honey diet for about a year now.

Yulia has been vegetarian and/or vegan for eight years (and off and on for four years before that). When she met me she actually went from vegan to eating more eggs and dairy, but since then she's stopped.

This is what makes sense to us right now. We're not writing this to judge you, and we're open to the idea of changing if we see a better way of living. Our eyes are open. If we see some good in what you're doing, we'll notice.

*     *     *

In this post I just covered the ethical aspect of veganism based on causing as little pain and killing as possible. There's a lot more to talk about, and future posts will deal with those topics (I'll have to turn this into a series).

I realize Yulia and I aren't strict vegans, but veganism is the movement we most closely identify with, so that's why we chose to go with that for the title. For the sake of simplicity, I will continue to use the term, but you should know that we keep bees and haven't thrown out our old leather shoes or wool slippers (though we don't buy leather or wool anymore). We also have a down comforter that Yulia's grandmother gave us. It was old, so we had the feathers cleaned and put into a new sack (again, we don't buy new down products anymore). We have two cats and a dog. Our cats would have been drowned as kittens if we did not take them into our care, and our dog was homeless when she appeared in our backyard. We encouraged her to leave when she first arrived, but she literally had nowhere else to go, so we're doing our best to give her a loving home.

We mainly focus on life at our home in this blog, so I centered this post on our own experiences. There's obviously much more that can be said, so in no way consider this blot post comprehensive.

To get started, see the pages I linked to above.  If you think you can handle it, watch the film, Earthlings. I link to it reluctantly because it is by far the most upsetting, violent movie I have ever seen. The images and sounds are nothing short of medieval, yet they were filmed in our time. In the future, I think people will see the things we did and shake their heads at what primitive savages we used to be.

*     *     *

I don't think Yulia and I have a large vegan audience. I assume most of our readers eat a standard diet including meat, dairy, and eggs and wear leather and so on. And I know that we have a lot of friends and family who read this blog who are not vegan. We still want to be friends with you, and we do not want a divorce from our families. We write about this because this is a large part of our lives. Unfortunately, we live in a world where this is not the norm. Outside of our home there are few spaces where we are not bombarded with animal products. When I go to the bazaar I see sellers shoeing flies away from the cuts of meat on their tables. From the street I see pig's heads hanging in butcher shops. When we shop for shoes, we have to ignore most of the shoes we see because they are made from a cow's skin (forget the euphemism). Yulia and I can't even sit down at the table with our own family without having to see and smell meat (though our parents are open to eating what we eat when we're together, and Yulia's grandparents even had a vegan Easter with us last year--no questions, no complaints). But this blog is our little space on the internet, and we want it to reflect our own thoughts and opinions. If you don't like what you're reading here, move on. We'll deal with having less page views because of it.

If you want to understand the world as we see it, imagine if I stuck a knife into our dog's chest, and she screamed so loud that you not only heard it as you walked by our house, by that you could even hear it ten minutes after walking by. In half an hour, after she finally stopped wailing, I would take our electric saw, cut her head off and display it so that people walking on the street could see. If anyone got offended I would remind them that she wagged her tail and had a happy life. Plus, this is a world in which people eat dogs. It wouldn't be against the law, so you couldn't do anything about it anyway. Then I would cut her body into little pieces and eat it in front of you, knowing that the very idea of this disturbs you. I would take the small pieces of her body that no one would otherwise eat (like her cheeks, heart, and anus), stuff it into her own intestines, and feed it to my children with mustard and ketchup as a fun snack food. I would boil her bones and use the broth as a base for vegetable soup and be surprised if you wouldn't want to eat it. I would raise more dogs and let them run around the streets of our village, so that they poop everywhere and make a lot of noise. When it rained, the poop would get wet and turn into mud. When it was dry that poop would turn into dust and fly into the air whenever a car drove by. I would also buy dog meat from the store and tell you that it is cheaper than buying rice and vegetables even though rice and vegetables are less expensive than dog meat. I would make fun of you and call you an elitist yuppy for not buying dog meat. After eating this way for a while I would get chronic constipation and constantly get "the bug that was going around" (even though you would never get it). I would talk about how hard it is to be healthy and lose weight. If you ever questioned me I would tell you that the world is a brutal place and that you should stop being so naive and get used to it.

This is the world as Yulia and I see it.


  1. That was some heavy stuff. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Definitely heavy. It's hard for us to think about, let alone write about.

  2. You are thinking, ponding, and evolving your ethics as you learn and experience. Which is good. More people should do this. Getting back to basics, living on the land, and simplifying life certainly helps. Being open to ideas is essential. In my humble opinion, having a personal code of applicable personal ethics for others (both human and non-human) is more important than worrying what others might think about your views and personal intellectual thinking and life journey.

    So, not wishing to impose on your space on the web, I first ask: Are you interesting to read a long commentary on this post, not in an attempt to change or alter your thinking but to give another prospective, from the personal life journey of a professional biologist, ecologist, conservationist and someone who has been a vegetarian for 25 years? (I was a vegan for 18 months, and found it was just not right for "me").

  3. Yes, that's fine. We're curious what you have to say!

    1. Thanks for the thought space. I had to break it up into more than one reply due to length limits.

      Let me thus ruminate on this topic here by simply concentrating on just a tiny iota in your post, and one said almost in passing: avoiding wool.

      You did not elaborate on why you avoided wool, but I assume the reasons may include:

      Ethics is a lot of things. For some it is an agreed or professional code of conduct. Some say it is decision to do less than allowed but more than expected. Which in many ways requires one to make oneself fully informed on a topic, from all angles, to make an honestly informed decisions for oneself. Various forms of ethics and ethical thinking have pervaded at different points in my education, professional life, and personal life. Each has presented ethics from a different perspective. For example, I was the house mate for years with a Buddhist, and even some of that wore off. Especially the concept of the eightfold path and its three divisions: Wisdom, ethical conduct and concentration. I am not a Buddhist. I am not trying to pass on a religion. Just using this in part to develop my thesis here.

      The eightfold path is somewhat a misnomer to western thought, as it it not per se designed to be linear (path as linear is more a western thought tradition), but the path and divisions of the path do have some bearing on the interconnectedness of the Buddhist thought. For example, one may have the right intention (Intention of harmlessness), but is one sure to have the right path (acting in a non-harmful way)? These are the two issues I consider often in life. And finding the right path may be difficult, non-intuitive and may require a bit of work, research and concentration on my part to really elucidate and illuminate.

      For example, you may be actually able to buy ethical wool:


      Potential ethical options exist (or, maybe not..... since I do not know the details of your ethical decision on this matter -- but even if wrong, lets work with the assumption that this business can produce wool to a theoretically acceptable ethical standards). So is "no wool" for ethical reasons maybe simplistic? The right intent perhaps, but did that necessarily lead to the right path? To get to the right action takes from the above division of seeking Wisdom, and "wisdom", in this modern world, may just be a little extra Internet search away.

    2. Part 2.

      And here I now also enter as the professional biologist, ecologist and conservationist, a role where I often find myself needing to take a longer, wider view: does any intention of harmlessness actually result in acting in a non-harmful way, or maybe does it result in the complete opposite? It is a difficult professional question I am confronted with a great deal. This often requires research to answer in any meaningful way. I should apply my professional training to seek "Wisdom" if possible.

      (Side note: for example, touching on this issue is a thought piece regarding another topic - Recycling - was recently published in the New York Times, which may make one question the dogma of recycling:

      Allowing myself to even further cherry pick just one issue of my already limited topic of wool-versus-no wool: the list of wool alternatives for clothing, which may not be so great as alternatives (i.e. good intent, but wrong path?).

      Considering some:

      - Cotton: Non-organic cotton has been stated to use about 16% of the world's pesticides. Even with organic cotton, this crop uses a great deal of land and local water resources, as this is a thirsty crop but one which is often grown in dryer climates. Land and water taken for cotton production destroys ecosystems and habitats; for example the diversion of water, including for cotton growing, has caused significant impacts to the Aral Sea's ecology, environment and human populations:

      - Synthetic fabrics: Mostly from petrochemicals. Ecological impacts from petrochemical drilling, refining and product production are well documented. A polyester shirt may have missed being instead part of an oil slick from the Deep Water Horizon spill by just a few days. And as the shirt it may have resulted in displacement of indigenous people, local pollution, resulted numerous claims of affecting human health and environmental damage.

      - Recycled synthetics: Still come from petrochemicals, so have all the original sins of the parent of both local and global environmental impacts. A lot of recycling and reprocessing and manufacturing occurs in Asia, which requires shipments to the recyclers and products back to the consumer -- often by container ships which are heavily polluting forms of moving goods.

      - Hemp: Good option. But due to puritanic politics, difficult to get in some areas. And still consumes arable land and water, even if less than cotton.

      - Flax: Anther good option. Not only can be used to make linen, but can also make oil and the seeds can be eaten. But grows best in deep loams, which are not available in all areas, meaning local production can be limited.

      - Ethical Wool: If you have to ship it form outer Mongolia, or Australia, then also has environmental impacts. Maybe not so ethical from the perspective if one is counting their greenhouse gas emissions. Buying local, if available, is usually better than distance buying.

      I am not saying this all to seek any singular answer. I do not know if there is one. It is too easy for anyone to counter answer what I wrote based their own selected details, self views, interests and ideology. Even myself, as I sit and look at my polar fleece jackets now hanging ready for the coming winter (disclaimer: I also have wool cloths). No easy answers. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin was correct when he observed, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

    3. You're right that I made the comment about wool in passing. It was part of a footnote explaining why others may not consider us completely "vegan." I instead wanted to focus on ethics (and a tiny part of ethics at that--causing as little pain and killing as possible). I do want to get into other comments I made in passing--like my thoughts on honey and beekeeping after keeping bees myself--in future posts.

      As for wool, it's something we've thought about before. Yulia bought herself some "ethical" wool slippers a couple of years ago. In our opinion at this point in our lives, it really depends on the specifics. How were the animals treated to get that wool? Are there actually any wool producers that let the sheep live out their lives? Or are they sent to the same slaughterhouses as animals from CAFOs?

      As you point out, there are alternatives to using wool, and those alternatives have pluses and minuses. We try to navigate those pluses and minuses as best we can (just as you seem to do). If we have no idea where the wool came from, we will ignore it and look for something else.

      I really wanted to focus on some of the more heinous aspects of animal agriculture just because of the sheer magnitude of the problem. There are some grey areas like eating oysters and slapping mosquitoes, but I consider these topics distractions from the more obvious and widespread animal abuses.

      As for the topic of recycling, I actually listened to an interview today with the author of that article. He made some good points and mainly focused on economics, but missed other really obvious things along the way. For example, he repeatedly said how reusable cloth bags can get dirty after multiple uses without considering that you can just wash them with your laundry. He also really exaggerated how much time it takes to sort recycling. He claimed that he'd rather spend his time reading a book to his child instead of sorting garbage. I don't know what he's doing, but I just throw paper into one basket, plastic into another, and compost somewhere else. It's not that difficult.

      A caller asked him what he had to say about the problem of plastic in the oceans. His answer was that he assumes the problem is not as big a deal as people make it out to be. Not very reassuring.

      Yulia and I live in a completely different world than him, so there wasn't much useful information I could take from the interview. We prefer paper packaging over plastic because we use paper to start fires in our wood stove in the winter and compost it in the summer. I like metal because I can take it and sell it to people who buy it for scrap. We reuse glass bottles and jars because we make a lot of our own food. And we compost our food scraps and use it in our garden.

  4. Good retort.

    I cherry picked one of your comments in passing. You cherry picked one of mine in exchange. :-)

    So just to clarify: I mentioned the recycling as just a thought piece. Specifically to compare my thesis of intent versus action, such as, recycling many just give the illusion one is having both a good intent and a good action.

    For example, here in Hungary where I now life, a great deal of EU money was spent promoting and providing recycling containers around the country where one can place their plastic, glass and other recyclables. But where do the contents of these bins actually end up? In a land fill. There is actually no local recycling where I live. When this issue "broke" in the news, the excuse given was that this was all meant to "condition" people to recycle so when recycling was "eventually" done there would be a sufficient product for a sustainable market. So despite the local person's intent to do what was right and "ethical" their actions ended up to exactly zero.

    I still separate my products and drop then into the recycle bins, even though I know they are going to a land fill. Why? Because I pay for garbage, but recycling is free. Despite my desire to have the correct action, it does not exist. So may current action is purely economic. I wish the world was different, but this is the real world that I currently live in.

    1. As always, thank you for your thoughtful comments!