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.