Veganism, Animals, Privilege, and Suffering

Since I moved back to Florida in March 2018, I’ve revisited the topic of animal agriculture and its implication on animal welfare, the environment, health, and ethics. My main question is, “What do our food production practices say about us as a so-called ‘civilized’ society?” I’ve examined my own participation in eating animals and animal products–over the years I’ve been an omnivore, a vegetarian, vegan, and what I’d call veganish (about 90% vegan). These topics have preceded a personal reckoning many times before, like after reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (and hearing the author speak at the University of North Carolina), The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and after viewing the films What the Health and Cowspiracy.

I can’t say precisely why veganism seems to have “stuck” this time, but I theorize that it’s the result of a convergence of my unwillingness to participate in or contribute to more cruelty in the world, the increasingly urgent need to address the climate crisis, and my inability to tolerate or contribute to any more hate of any kind.

Donald Trump’s presidency has emboldened all manner of hateful, inhumane, and mean-spirited behavior, rhetoric, and policies in a way I’d never witnessed in my Gen X life prior to his election. White supremacists have scurried out of the woodwork like cockroaches. Our government is caging immigrant (brown) children at our southern border. Trump has branded journalists “the enemy of the American people“. He’s been impeached, admitted guilt, and been acquitted by Moscow Mitch‘s Senate. It’s a dark time in America–are we even a constitutional republic anymore (we never were a democracy, contrary to popular belief)? I digress.


My hounds, Penelope and Parker, constantly remind me how smart animals are, how deeply they feel things, and how fully they are able to live in the moment. I spend more time with the two of them than with any human, especially in this era of social distancing, and I can’t help but acknowledge that other types of animals are intelligent, feeling, perceptive living beings, too. I think most people would agree with that, but animal agriculture is so far removed from our activities of daily living and meat consumption is so ingrained in our food culture, that we choose to ignore the atrocities committed by modern animal farming. These atrocities are bestowed not only upon cows, pigs, chickens, and our environment, but on those (again, mostly brown) people who have no better employment opportunities than to work at one of these facilities.

Workers in the meat industry make an average of $23,000 a year, work 10+ hours a day, are pushed so hard they often defecate in their pants to avoid slowing down and suffer a repetitive motion injury rate 30 times the national average.

As if torturing animals for food weren’t cruel enough, there are all the animals we exploit for entertainment. Last year, I saw the film Sled Dogs and the unspeakable cruelty of the Iditarod sled dog race broke my heart. (This year’s race just ended on March 22. All other sports were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but not the Iditarod!) I became a card-carrying member of PETA the day I saw Sled Dogs, literally. Joe “Exotic” (Joseph Maldonado-Passage) of Oklahoma and Carole Baskin of Tampa, Florida made their livings displaying captive lions, lemurs, and tigers and even parading cubs around at shopping malls. (Ms. Baskin claims her operation is an animal sanctuary, but after listening to Wondery’s podcast on the subject, I’m skeptical.) Mr. Maldonado-Passage was finally sentenced to 22 years in prison for killing five tigers and hiring a hitman to kill the aforementioned Ms. Baskin, but at least he has a Netflix docuseries, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, dedicated to his story while it masks the way the tigers themselves are being treated.

Then there’s white privilege and wealth inequality. “What does that have to do with veganism?” you may wonder. Money and time. I’m fortunate enough to have a good-paying job, some spare time, and enough “disposable” income to contemplate my food choices and make better, more informed decisions. In the richest country in the world, 15 million households are food insecure, live in food deserts, or live in food swamps. The USDA defines food insecurity as “the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members.” If you can’t put food on the table, you really don’t have the luxury of philosophizing about agriculture, animal welfare, and the environment. The USDA defines a food desert as “a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Many lower-income urban dwellers without access to a car live in a food swamp, a place where the majority of food available within walking distance is junk. It comes from fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and liquor stores. My Tampa neighborhood, Ybor Heights, closely resembles a food swamp. (There is a Winn Dixie grocery store within walking distance of some residents’ homes.) The corner store is the main source of food for a number of neighbors I have talked to. It’s no secret that being poor in America is expensive. Getting your groceries from the corner store is an example. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which costs $0.99 at Winn Dixie, costs $2.29 at the corner store a block from my house. (Preachy, holier-than-thou vegans who give us all a bad name, before you berate someone for their food choices, consider that they may not have many real choices at all. They may be struggling to keep themselves and their families alive. )

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Now, we’re faced with a global pandemic, the likes of which humanity has not encountered since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. The origin story of the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (COVID-19) that emerged in the city of Wuhan, China, in late 2019 is not completely clear, but the two main theories are that it either originated at an unsanitary “wet” market or a lab that was experimenting on bats. Either way, human exploitation of animals is involved somehow, it seems. Human exploitation of humans is occurring, too, naturally. American prison and jail inmates cannot observe social distancing guidelines. Hand-washing proves a struggle, too, when you don’t have soap. The Atlantic’s stellar coverage of the pandemic includes a piece that ponders why we don’t give prisoners free soap: “Dayquan Salaman, a prisoner in the Manhattan Detention Complex, “doesn’t have hand sanitizer. He doesn’t have regular access to soap. He was only allowed to shower once last week, and he’s been wearing the same stinking clothes the entire time.””

“Inaction is action,” said Daryl Atkinson, co-director at Forward Justice, a law, policy, and strategy center dedicated to advancing racial, social and economic justice. “You’re saying these folks are fit to die; that’s what you’re saying by your inaction, and that’s what the governor is going to have on his hands if he doesn’t take action.”

This is life in the richest country in the world. So civilized.

I hope, at the conclusion–or more likely, the containment–of this coronavirus crisis, we humans will have had time to reflect on our interdependence not just with other humans and animals, but with plants and the planet. Evidence suggests that the pandemic has already benefited the environment.

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