Far removed from the industrial farms that produce mass quantities of animals for consumption like so many widgets in a factory assembly line, neatly packaged meat in the supermarket reveals little about the living animal that it used to be nor the suffering that animal may have gone through prior to its arrival, in bits and pieces, in the meat aisle.
And, unlike the early days when our society was more agrarian, today many of us are fully disconnected from the meat production process, unaware of how the food without a face on our plates came to be.
For Mamaroneck resident, educator and vegan blogger JL Fields, the experience of meeting an animal and then witnessing it being killed for food was one that she would not soon forget.
“I decided to go vegetarian on the spot, after consuming a goat that had been slaughtered at a celebration I attended in Kenya,” she said, continuing, “Essentially I met a goat, shook his hand then ate him.”
Fields remained a vegetarian for several more years, until she ultimately decided to go vegan—completely abstaining from animal products—in 2010, after a lifetime of eating meat. Her entire story can be viewed on her blog here.
“I thought giving up cheese and eggs would be difficult but it was not,” she said, about the decision to cut all animal products out of her diet. “My cholesterol is excellent now that I follow a vegan diet. I sleep better. My hair, skin and nails are incredibly healthy.”
But, said Fields—who also sits on the board of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (WFAS), a non-profit organization for rescued livestock—it’s important for people not to view the animals they will eventually eat purely in economic terms, as an abstract concept unworthy of compassion.
“There's a reason a hamburger is not called a cow-burger. Or bacon isn't called pig fat. You don't have to face up to what you're eating. WFAS and other farm animal sanctuaries introduce people to the meat industry. They don't just show you the beautiful creatures that were spared slaughter or years of abuse—they tell you what their everyday lives were like,” she said.
For WFAS Founder and dedicated animal activist Jenny Brown—a former Frontline and Discovery Channel producer and author of The Lucky Ones—much of the driving force behind her advocacy was fueled by her anger toward an issue that was largely being ignored by the general public.
“Around 2000-01, I saw a pie chart with animals used and abused…97 percent of the chart was farmed animals…I was shocked by that,” she said in a phone interview. Approximately 10.2 billion land animals are killed every year for food.
Brown and her husband, Doug, co-founded WFAS in 2004 on a bucolic swath of land in Woodstock, NY that now holds hundreds of chickens, sheep, goats, cows and pigs, many of them escapees from NYC slaughterhouses. Their operation is funded entirely by donations.
But while WFAS is not seeking to necessarily convert others to vegetarianism, the mission is clear: to work to inform the public to make educated decisions about the origins of their food.
“We’re not there to proselytize…that’s the unique opportunity of WAS—to meet the animals and see them eye to eye in a loving environment, happy and socialized,” said Jenny.
Despite her efforts though, Jenny acknowledges that, “eating meat is a deeply ingrained cultural thing,” ensuring that the connection between the food on one’s plate with what was once a living, breathing animal that may have been friendly, playful or liked to be scratched behind the ears, is one that’s certain to be fraught with complications.
As she rattles off grim facts about factory farms, I’m reminded of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a book written in 1906 that detailed poor working conditions and endless brutality toward the animals being killed for meat.
“In the dairy industry, there is no economic reason to keep male offspring,” she said, continuing, “At hatcheries where birds are bred, all males are ground up alive or tossed into plastic bags to be suffocated.”
Further, she added, all male pigs, goats, sheep and calves are castrated and branded without anesthesia, something that takes place at farms big and small, organic and non-organic.
Is it ever overwhelming, I ask her?
“Yes, but if I wasn’t doing this I’d be in a padded cell,” she quipped, adding, “I took the blinders off.”
With The Lucky Ones, though, she tells the story of her unlikely ascent to animal advocate as a Southern Baptist girl growing up in Kentucky, losing her leg to cancer at a young age as her mother struggled to support the family to pay for her medication.
More than anything, though, she'd like to break down the walls that divide the us from the meat we consume.
“We need to make the invisible visible—that’s my life’s work,” she said.