Thursday, May 6, 2010

Would you eat Wilbur?

The May/June issue of Horn Book has a refreshing, thought-provoking, and long-overdue article by Jennifer Armstrong called Reading Animals.

My older daughter, at the age of about 7, became a vegetarian after seeing the movie Babe. Her dad and I had eaten almost no red meat since our college years, but we still ate fish and fowl, and we didn't restrict our daughters' diets when they were away from home - both daughters enjoyed bacon, hot dogs, and other meaty foods.

But Babe was the turning point for Viv. She loved the animals in that movie - in fact, she has always loved ALL animals - and decided that it was therefore wrong to eat them. If it was wrong to kill and eat a cat, wasn't it just as wrong to kill and eat a pig? Pigs are at least as intelligent as cats, and twice as cute.

Viv made the connection early on between adoring animals and not eating them. Her young animal-loving cousin made the same connection recently as well, and has become a partial vegetarian. It's not surprising to me in the least.

What is surprising is how that so many Thanksgiving picture books are about saving the life of the turkey - and yet it's a sure thing that most of the authors who write them, the librarians and parents who read them aloud, and the kids who enjoy them happily devour a turkey every Thanksgiving. And any children's book featuring a cute pig is just tragic when you consider that pigs are raised purely to be some human's food and for no other reason. At least you could argue that Minerva Louise is happily laying eggs for us to eat or that the cows of Click Clack Moo are producing milk.

Here is what Armstrong says:
There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion. How does a child’s developing moral/ethical self resolve the jarring disconnect between the animal books she is given to read in the library and the animal meat she is given for lunch in the cafeteria? What is she to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?
"Disconnect" is right! Now, most folks eat meat and that is absolutely their choice. But tell kids where meat comes from and don't sugarcoat it, and then let kids decide if they want to eat meat or not. Most will decide, as most adults do, that they want to eat meat regardless of how horrific the meat industry is. But some will follow their hearts and consciences, and that is something to be encouraged.


  1. Eva, I'm so glad you posted about this even though I don't agree exactly. Strikes me that there are all sorts of horrors in the world, but I think kids have to be developmentally ready to take them in in all their complexity. The issue of eating animals is enormously complex as is the Holocaust and many other topics. I think kids need to be old enough to begin to start to grapple with them. Certainly I point out to my 4th graders that there is a disconnect between their feelings about animals and eating meat (just did so yesterday when they were watching the reality show, Colonial House, and pigs were being born), but I also think it is a very, very, very complicated issue that we all need to look at from a myriad of sides. I also have a blog post about this and the comments are worth reading, I think.

  2. Have you read Living Among Meat-Eaters by Carol J. Adams?

    I've been a vegetarian for 23 years, and I found it very insightful. I've never been a proselytizer, and generally don't make much of a fuss about my vegetarianism. Even so, I still get a lot of negative reactions about it. In her book, Adams talks about how many meat-eaters feel quite a bit of cognitive dissonance in regards to their dietary choices: hence their defensive, or even angry reactions when they cross paths with vegetarians.

    Basically, they are told a lie. "It's awful to have to kill these cute animals, but if we don't do it, we will die. So, we do what we must!" And there you are, the vegetarian, who is living proof that it isn't true. In fact, the angrier/more unpleasant the behavior, the greater the chance that it's being driven by their own unacknowledged feelings of guilt and shame.

    Once I started thinking of it in that way, it helped me be a lot more compassionate to meat-eaters.

  3. I think it's true that vegetarians are much more likely to get flak for their eating habits than meat-eaters! I never bring up the subject ever (unless asked), but some of my own family members seem to think that the very fact that I don't eat meat is a judgment on their eating habits. Which it is NOT - it's a personal choice. And yes, I think our country, if not the world, would be a better place without mass-produced meat factories...!
    Monica, the conversation going on at your blog is fascinating and complex. This is a topic to which we should all devote a bit of time and attention.

  4. And bringing in a fictional example of this, there's the scene in Meet the Austins, by Madeline L'Engle, where the young sister refuses to eat "Wilber."

  5. I'd totally forgotten about Meet the Austins!

  6. I, too, became a vegetarian at a young age, and I really think part of it has to do with being a reader. You can only read so many books where the animals are anthropomorphised (sp?) until you start empathizing with them-- "Watership Down" is really what did it for me. I was really into that magazine "Cricket" when I was little, and I can't kill bugs to this day!

  7. Just to point out that White wasn't espousing vegetarianism at all. Far from it, in fact. Do you know his amazing essay, "Death of a Pig"? Often read parts of it to my students.

  8. I'll have to check out Death of a Pig. Oh, I know White wasn't a vegetarian! But I bet he was mindful and didn't willfully turn off his brain while eating bacon...