My dietary status and my relationship with veterinary medicine have been very closely intertwined throughout my life. I grew up in a vegetarian (I use “vegetarian” as not eating meat but eating eggs and dairy) house but meat wasn’t forbidden to me so I never saw being vegetarian as a dietary restriction — it was just my way of life when I was a child. I was too young to know anything about veterinary medicine other than the fact that I liked animals. It made sense to me that I would want to take care of them and not eat them.
When I started to have a little more autonomy over what I ate (at picnics, birthday parties, etc.), I started to eat meat. Admittedly, I was curious about how it tasted and I wanted to eat hot dogs and hamburgers with all of my friends. However, that’s also around the time I started reading James Herriot (a vet who wrote a series of books about his life practicing in the Yorkshire Dales in the mid 1900s) and I envisioned all animals living idyllic lives in rolling countrysides, so I wasn’t too concerned with the idea of eating them.
My happy omnivore existence lasted until I came to Cornell for a summer college program in the animal science department between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I had been spending some time shadowing both large and small animal vets by then, and none of them were vegetarian so it hadn’t occurred to me that eating meat could be a moral dilemma until I came to the summer college program. We went on field trips to typical working beef and dairy farms. Unfortunately, the only thing I took away from those visits was that the dairy cows were happy and friendly while the beef cattle ran to the other end of the pen “in fear” when we approached them. My fantasies of happy cows in rolling countrysides were shattered; I decided to stop eating red meat. I still ate chicken and fish mostly because I hadn’t seen any chicken or fish facilities so I could pretend to ignore the implications of factory farming in these areas.
The undergraduate animal science curriculum only intensified my cynicism against commercial farming. We learned that “organic” means that the animals are sometimes denied medical treatment and that labels like “free-range” don’t have any strict regulations. It got to the point that I realized I had to stop being naïve about eating chicken and sadly cut that out too (it made Panera and Chipotle a lot less exciting). I continued to eat was fish because I don’t think that fish are as sentient as other food animals … I don’t feel a connection when I look into the eyes of a fish, although I’m sure there are fish people out there who would disagree. I did start travelling more and would eat meat in other countries — especially because those countries were Argentina (where they take pride in their meat from the farm to the table) and around Southeast Asia (where it can be hard to find anything vegetarian).
Which brings me to vet school. After only the first month, my reason for being a pescaterian changed from “I don’t support factory farming” to “I don’t know enough about factory farming.” I learned that you move cows by entering their “flight zones” — the area around a cow that it feels safe in. So the cattle in the beef farm I had seen all those years ago were simply exhibiting their natural behavior. I also learned to think of veterinarians as having a responsibility to ensure that the food animal industry handled the welfare of the animals well both for the animals and for the people, and it seemed counterintuitive not to support an industry you work for — it would be like being a human doctor who wouldn’t take the medicine he or she prescribed. Also, several of my classmates come from food animal backgrounds and are in complete support of it; they clearly know more about the issue than I ever have. So I started to find my staunch pescatarianism slipping from “oops there was chicken in that dish,” to “hmm maybe Superbowl Sunday can be the one day a year I eat chicken,” to “hey that meaty stew looks delicious I’m going to have some.”
I’ve very recently come to a handful of conclusions about the whole issue. The first is that, like almost everything else in life, there’s no clear-cut answer. The commercialization of the meat industry in the United States still makes me a little uncomfortable, especially when I compare it to places like Argentina. That being said, it seems to be a field that is trying to move in a more sustainable direction and I admit to being significantly more ignorant about it than I should be. Which brings me to my second conclusion, one that I’m coming to realize more and more often about a host of topics — education makes a world of difference. My views have changed over time because of new things (whether right or wrong) that I’ve learned, and perhaps if it was mandatory for us to learn about where our food comes from in grade school, a lot of the misconceptions people have would be cleared up.
So where do I stand now? The popular term is “flexitarian” — someone who eats a plant-based diet with meat, poultry and fish in moderation, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. I’m going to try to only eat it from sources I trust, which is still a little arbitrary at this point — so probably not McDonald’s or other big chains unless they have a convincing message, but local restaurants and smaller operations are fine. I’ll be interested to see if the rest of vet school makes me change my mind, and my guess is that if anything it’ll make me even more convinced that there is nothing wrong with eating meat.
Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.