Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Reverence, veganism and the violence of life

Father Tom Cullinan, a Benedictine monk, lives in a wood on the edge of Liverpool. He follows a path of wise simplicity, grows vegetables and keeps sheep. 

The first time I met him they had just, that day, slaughtered one of their sheep. The young man who had killed the sheep was sitting quietly and thoughtfully, drinking a cup of tea, sobered and somewhat shaken by this taking of a life. He had raised and loved this animal, caring for it every day. He and the sheep knew each other as friends. He had kept faith with the sheep by slaughtering it in this manner — quietly, gently, without trauma, in its home.

I read somewhere that Islamic recommendations for slaughtering sheep say you should hold the animal peaceably, so that it is calm and relaxed, then slit its throat with a sharp knife and hold it as it dies.

It sounds horrible, doesn't it — shocking? But if we stay with the idea and look more deeply into it, it holds up well in comparison with the alternatives.

We kept sheep when I was a child. Every year we had orphaned lambs and raised them for meat. My mother bottle-fed them, and they lived in our five-acre garden. We cared for them with watchful diligence. Any sign of blowfly or footrot (the two diseases that plague sheep) and we were onto it at once. We dipped and dosed them, keeping them free of ticks and other parasites. 

When the time came to slaughter them, my mother personally loaded them on to the lorry taking them the short journey to the local slaughterhouse. Once she took her sheep to market, but when she dropped by during the day to check all was well with them, they heard her voice and called to her. She felt terrible to leave them there, and never did that again.

A few miles away from my home there's a farm shop where they sell the meat of their own sheep. You can see the sheep — with new lambs just now — outside in the field in the sunshine. They are well-cared for and content.

When I came across the work of Will Tuttle, I read his book arguing the case for veganism. There are several reasons why a person might be vegan. According to the findings of Max Gerson, whose clinic has good results, cancer is stimulated by eating meat; so one might wish to be vegan for health reasons. Where livestock animals are kept in feedlots or indoors, it takes a phenomenal amount (pound for pound) of grain and water to raise them for meat; so one might want to be vegan as an act of responsibility against world hunger and water shortage. I have read that livestock, through a number of causes (eg methods of animal food production, cutting down rain forest to raise animal feed, methane from animal digestive processes, etc) contribute significantly to climate change; so one might want to be vegan for ecological reasons. I believe it was with this in mind that Thich Nhat Hanh decreed his community should be vegan rather than vegetarian, in his Blue Cliff letter a few years ago.

But even when someone has accepted that pasture-raised animals, grazing on traditionally open grasslands or hilly areas, may actually be carbon-neutral and not injurious to our health if eaten in moderation, they might still choose to be vegan for reasons of compassion.

Will Tuttle wrote in his book about an occasion when, as a boy, he witnessed a cow being taken for slaughter. It went deep into his heart. He saw her reluctance at being pulled by her rope along the track, sensing (as animals do) the intention and destination. He said he just wanted them to let her go free, but they did not.

Most of us, I think, have a similar immediate response. It is intensely sad when an animal is slaughtered. On the day my aunt's family slaughtered a pig on the farm, in the morning their dog would go and hide in the bedroom. It is a deep and grave action that we take, when we put a living being to death in this way.

But what are the alternatives? There are two practical ones that I can think of. 

One is for these livestock animals never to be born. No more pigs. No more sheep or cows or chickens. Only wild animals living free and unmolested by human beings. Then we have to ask ourselves, is it better for a creature to live, to give birth and suckle her young; for an animal to graze in the fields or rootle in the woods and by the stream, even for a short time, or never live at all?

If we do eat any animal products, I believe we have an absolute responsibility to make as sure as we can that the creatures who provided our food were well and kindly cared for.

The second alternative is that animals should live free. Does this make their lives better?

There is a picture — it's here, but I warn you, it's sad; I read that the photographer became depressed as a result of taking this photograph — of a mother deer in the moment of being surrounded by three cheetahs moving in for the kill. She had stopped, and given herself to them so that her fawns might escape them. In the photo she stands steadfast and full of courage as the predators' teeth meet her throat and hind quarters.

Obviously farming livestock doesn't stop this happening, but when one considers that a sheep or goat or cow is protected by the farmer against the suffering of the wild hunt, it doesn't seem as bad as it at first might appear.

I think the option of grazing protected and in peace, with parasites and diseases and obstructed births all tended to, might well, for a sheep or a goat, a deer or a cow, be one of the better available options.

Likewise with poultry and egg production. It must surely be better for male birds to be raised for meat, giving them a chance at life, albeit short (and properly free range, please), than to be gassed en masse at a day old so only the egg-producing females are allowed to live.

For some people, the whole thing is too heartbreaking to bear. They — like the Jains in India — forswear all violence, all hurt to any living being. 

But . . . every time I tread on a snail by accident when I go for a night walk, or see the multitudinous corpses of tiny flies on the summer windscreen after driving on the motorway, or consider the disposal of slugs and blackfly and greenfly in raising vegetables, or remember the flea treatment for our rescue cats and the worm medicine given to little children, I know a truly vegan path is not going to happen. Are we really going to let the guinea worm and the mosquito breed and thrive?

Violence, it seems, is an integral part of life. Veganism, I believe, can never be fully realised. But what I do advocate, with all my heart, is reverence. 

Like the reverence with which Father Tom's friend took the life of the sheep, gently and without trauma, accepting and absorbing the sorrow. 

I loathe and abhor the "funny" photos posted of turkeys at US Thanksgiving and UK Christmas, dressing them up and making them dance or move, in a shameful comedy.

I believe all livestock should be farmed compassionately and with kindness, respecting the animals' needs and nature, giving them shelter and freedom to roam. Not cooped into featureless fields with no variety and no byre offering shelter from wind and snow. They should be known and loved, ideally kept in herds small enough to be watched over and the individual animals known. They are not human, but they are people, with relationships and personalities, yes and souls.

Let them live in contentment and fulfilment. Let them die with compassion and dignity — a swift and calm end. Let us know them, give thanks for them, and receive their sacrifice soberly and with gratitude.

Death is not a bad thing. Everything that lives must one day die. I too will die, and I have no wish to live as long as I possibly can. An earlier, less protracted end is what I have prayed for. A quiet, dignified, private, unexceptional death.

Death is not life's opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal, and death is a part of it.


Mairin said...

Am in agreement with all you say here. Compassion with respect is the thing.

A very elderly friend of mine once described how her mother would dispatch a hen for eating; she would gently stroke said bird until, had it been a cat it would be purring, and then bring her sharpened axe down in one fell swoop.

Pen Wilcock said...

It seems so mean, but it's responsible, it's kind. A good life and a merciful death.

greta said...

you've said exactly what i think as well. while i've been a vegetarian for decades now, i've recently gone more and more toward being a complete vegan. the only exception to that is having an egg or two in the week before i do a blood donation. that helps keep the hemoglobin up where it needs to be! our eggs come from an amish farm where they are allowed to roam free and they get no antibiotics or growth hormone. that somewhat reassures me that i'm being as responsible as i can :)

Pen Wilcock said...



Bean said...

I have been vegan for a long time, I do not miss meat, dairy, fish, in fact I find it rather repulsive. I am the only vegan in my household, my husband is a meat and potatoes guy, my youngest daughter and her young son live with us, they like meat and cheese, and my other children, their spouses, and children like meat. I prepare meat based meals for everyone, and do my vegan meal alongside. I would love to be able to rid my home of all animal based food, but I love my family, they love me, and as a wife, mother, grandmother, I take care of all of them and one way I do that is to feed them :)
We have raised chickens to eat, and kept laying hens for eggs in the past, we have raised steer for the beef. I found it distressing to send the steers to slaughter. Once we sent two to slaughter and Jersey (he was so sweet) was left alone, it was heartbreaking, he bellowed for his friends for nearly two weeks, it was so, so very sad. My laying hens were such fun, they had a nice life, spent lots of time outside, ate all kinds of scraps from the house, they loved left over pancakes and waffles (who knew chickens had a sweet tooth, or would that be sweet beak).
I stay healthy, I am active, I have no health issues, I maintain my weight well, my diet is low impact on the environment, and it is very affordable, I don't spend (waste) my money on the latest hyped up super foods. There is no need for all the suffering that goes on in the world, perhaps if all people were more compassionate towards animals, and more mindful of what is involved in getting that meat to their plate they would eat a lot less. And, perhaps that gentleness towards sentient beings would extend to their fellow human beings too.
We can all strive daily to be more mindful of the suffering of all living things and do our best to live in harmony.


Pen Wilcock said...



Anonymous said...

I was raised in a country setting to have reverence for the meat we ate. As I grew older and met more people, I was always surprised by how casually and carelessly and even greedily the "town people" would eat meat, because to them it was just something you bought in plastic wrap at the grocery store.

But too there are different kinds of country people: we were sensitive, and sensitive towards animals from early childhood. It was just our way, naturally. Then there are others who laugh and clown around as they are butchering their chickens or turkeys, and to see their young children witnessing this and hardening themselves towards the animals' fear and chasing them down, and the blood everywhere. It can be a very vulgar production.

I have often been confused trying to understand the differences between people - why some of us go one way and others another.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hiya — I like what Eckhart Tolle says about consciousness. He takes the thought in part from the Buddhist idea of enlightenment. The word "buddha" means "one who is awake". To raise one's consciousness, become conscious, is to wake up. And Eckhart Tolle says you can't really blame people for being asleep, or expect them to be aware when they are unconscious. You just have to keep doing what should be done and hope they wake up one day. God bless you in the consciousness of your reverence towards the living beings who share this earth with you.

greta said...

i just read an article that said that veganism is up by 700% in the past two years in the UK. wow. guess more people are becoming buddhas :)

Pen Wilcock said...

It's definitely trending. Some people get ill on a vegan diet over time, so I guess there'll be a pendulum swing; but increasing awareness and compassion overall has to be a good thing.

BLD in MT said...

While I still am basically a vegan I realized veganism wasn't fully viable when grasshoppers were swarming my tomatoes many years back. What was I to do? Let them have at it? Ask them leave? Relocate them? No. I just caught them and killed them in the most humane way I could. And it was like a lightning bolt. Non-violence is a good guiding principle, but death is a part of life and cannot be avoided.

I am with you on the reverence for life though. That is the most important part.

That photo gave me actual chills. I'd never seen it before.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ah — one of those image, I think, that once you've seen it, it never quite leaves you. Sinks into the soul. x

Sher from Idaho said...

Beautiful and thoughtful commentary. This subject has been on my mind as I've undertaken to raise meat chicken this month.

I recently helped a friend cull her flock of laying hens. As she killed each bird, there was solemnity in the air, a recognition of taking a life. I could see she felt it keenly - taking the life of a hen she had known. I felt it, too. She held each bird gently until it passed then we worked together to finish dressing each one.

The experience left me with some thoughts and goals:

1) Eat less meat and not be wasteful. Use it all and make broths with the bones and inedible parts.
2) The chickens my friend butchered had a nice, pastured life - they lived full lives as chickens cared for by their master, protected from predators and disease before they became chicken dinners.
3) Grow my own meat chickens. Give them a pastured life, free of disease with plenty of space. This meat is more wholesome for my family and allows me to avoid meat from the inhumane CAFO practices here in the US.

-Former city girl in Idaho

Pen Wilcock said...

I like your conclusions. It is indeed a serious thing to preside over the death of a living being. I believe it's helpful to us to have this awareness, and to be in touch with our own mortality. Death is an integral part of life, and for the shalom of our souls it's important we learn to be at peace with this.

Suzy Kopliku said...

I have struggled with this subject on and off for years. Thank you for this reflective and well thought out piece. I wish that life did not thrive on death. The cyclical nature of our physical reality is so difficult to reconcile. We are born with canine teeth and ineffective appendixes. It seems that we are made to be omnivorous. I don't think it was the original design. Did God say in genesis that he gave people the fruit and seed bearing plants to eat? Yet then followed all the animal sacrifice. It confuses me but perhaps it was the result of sin that death was made a part of life. I have been vegetarian on and off over the years and now eat meat for health reasons. I am strict about how the animals that provide my families meat and dairy are raised, treated and slaughtered. It still feels like I'm burying my head in the sand sometimes but I also completely agree with your arguments about how we treat parasites such as ticks and lice and whether a well lived if brief life is better than know life at all or a life of constant struggle as a prey animal in the wild.

Pen Wilcock said...

Curious and intriguing, isn't it? Because of course the sparrow hawk and the Ebola virus were God's bright idea too. If I can make any sense of it at all (which I'm not sure I can), then it is in the direction of wondering if we need to change our expectations of life, learning both compassion, and acceptance of the suffering and death that are integral to it.
I have never read Terry Pratchett's book "Mort", but the snippets of it I have come across suggest to me that there are some very worthwhile reflections on death in that book.

rebecca said...

I have prayed for the same sort of death you described..

Pen Wilcock said...

Then may it be so. x