Life is filled with contradictions and ethical quagmires. Killing and eating living things is among the biggest. Today I explore this as it relates to ourselves and our cats.
I love my cat. I love animals. Yet I eat some animals. I willingly kill others, and I bet you do, too. Think of fleas on your cat. Mosquitoes on your skin. Rats and mice in your attic. Cockroaches in your kitchen. You might not do it brutally or with harmful chemicals, but it’s a fact of life. Things have to die so that others may live (or, in the case of “pest” creatures, live more comfortably).
Cats embody contradictions and quagmires. My cat, Thomas, is the cutest thing on the planet. Yet if I let him, he would kill and eat things that are just as cute as he is. Thomas makes me laugh when he plays with his toys. Yet playing with his toys is ritualistic killing. He needs ritualistic killing to be mentally and physically healthy. If the "bird" at the end of the string were real, he wouldn’t kill it quickly just to eat it. He’d play with it. He’d let it live for a while so he could get more exercise and enjoyment. To a cat, killing is fun. Yet it’s no less true that a cat is adorable. Light and dark exist in the same body. This is our universe.
This helps illustrate why I choose to eat meat as well as vegetables. I don’t argue that my choice is "right,” or that veganism or vegetarianism is "wrong." Rather, I acknowledge that our world is complex, and that a truckload of ugly comes along with the breathtaking beauty. We all have to make choices that affect other living things, I’m conscious of my choices, and I can live with them.
Cats can present a quagmire to humans. Cats are carnivores. While some cat food contains no meat, it’s questionable at best whether cats can live healthily on a meat-free diet. (Catster’s JaneA Kelley covered this in a recent post.) This could put vegan and vegetarian humans in a conflict: They don’t eat meat, but evidence suggests it’s best that they feed meat to their cats. They might be OK with that, but it’s something they have to think about. (Catster’s Angela Lutz covered this in a February post.)
Humans, meanwhile, are omnivores. We can survive without meat, but some choose to eat it. One rationale for eating animals that I find particularly abhorrent goes like this: "We’re kings of this planet. All other life forms are lower than us. We can do whatever we want! Ha!"
My rationale can be summarized thusly: We share this planet with many life forms, and we’re all part of the same system. For better or worse, living things stay alive by eating other living things, whether those things are plant or animal. We “eaters” should acknowledge and honor those things that die so that we may live.
To paraphrase the late Joseph Campbell, scholar of mythology and world religion, killing in this context is not personal, but it is natural. I saw this concept in action while spending time on a family farm in Tennessee as a youngster. My relatives raised various forms of livestock (steers, hogs, chickens, turkeys) in addition to vegetables for the family’s consumption. My grandparents and uncle would care for the animals, and they’d even give many of them names. They often remarked that our animals lived better lives than those on commercial ranches or in processing plants. (Is that worth something? I think so.) The animals’ eventual death was acknowledged as necessary. When the time came, it was done with reverence and respect, a job to be done, never with a sense of superiority or mocking.
This is a “light” version of what Campbell describes early hunters doing. These hunters established rituals and mythologies to pay tribute to the animals who died in order to give people life. These hunters gave the animal species a type of divinity status, Campbell wrote, and acknowledged that they all were participating in the cycle of life, that their spirits lived on as they returned to the Earth — indeed, as we all do. This helped assuage the guilt associated with the unpleasant necessity of killing.
Native American hunters of the great plains "didn’t think of animals the way we do, as some subspecies," Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. "Animals are our equals at least, and sometimes our superiors. The animal has powers that the human doesn’t have. The shaman, for instance, will often have an animal familiar, that is to say, the spirit of some animal species that will be his support and his teacher."
Which brings us to giant contradiction: the food industry. The food industry is about as far away as one can get from the rituals described by Campbell. (See: inhumane treatment of animals, antibiotics, unsanitary conditions, genetically modified organisms, overfishing, exploiting Third World labor.) To call this a pervasive problem is an understatement. So, short of raising my own livestock and crops, the best I can do is buy food that I believe to be exceptions to the horror stories. I also pay my own respects to what I eat. Each time I eat something, I try to pause and acknowledge the animals and plants that gave their lives so that mine might continue. Do I remember to do this every time? No, especially when eating something that doesn’t resemble plant or animal matter, such as a cracker with peanut butter. But I’m getting better.
I’ve come to see that my little pre-meal acknowledgment isn’t that much different than my relatives saying grace before each meal, a practice I once considered wrongheaded (at worst) and pointless (at best). Even though I’m not a Christian, I can see that their intention was to pay respect to whatever cycle, system, or being brought them the food they were about to eat, and to acknowledge that The Big Almighty Whatever could just as easily have left them out in the cold. So now I do my own form of this. It’s a way to live more consciously, I believe, and one way I identify and acknowledge my place in this big ethical quagmire of a universe.
How about you? Are you omnivore, carnivore, vegetarian, or vegan? What’s behind your decision? Have you ever been troubled about feeding your cat meat?
There but for the grace of The Big Almighty Whatever goes Cat Dandy:
About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is associate editor at Catster and Dogster.