Vegetarians and Cannibals

Can we absolve the collective debt that humans owe to animals just by eating tofu?


What’s for dinner? Would you like to try the blackened macaque?

Twenty-two years into vegetarianism, I had an epiphany that I was being hypocritical. I lived thru the winter with the benefit of modern grains and imported vegetables while self-righteously eschewing the consumption of the flesh of grazing animals raised five miles from my home.

Twenty-two years into vegetarianism, I had an epiphany that I was being hypocritical.

My organic shiru miso was direct from Japan, broccoli from the Imperial Valley and alar-free apples from New Zealand. Even my stone-ground whole wheat was hybridized beyond recognition by Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution confederates.

We, humans, couldn’t live in the temperate climates like the US Midwest, let alone the Arctic, without the benefit of animals to store the sun’s energy for us through the winter. Yet, here I was, trying to get in touch with my primal inner-self yet flouting the most basic survival tenets of our species.

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and only started to rely heavily on cereal grains about a minute ago in evolutionary terms (~10,000 years ago give or take a millennia or two.) Even chimpanzees eat some meat and they never settled much farther north than Memphis.

Farmers are engineers; hunters are poets.

Farmers are in touch with the earth, right? Therefore, eating grains must be more holistic than eating meat, right? Farmers spend countless hours atop tinnitus-inducing behemoth tractors, GPS’ing the land into measurable rectangles that can be more easily controlled … controlled as in changed, tamed, made less natural. My corn and beans farming Indiana neighbors marveled at the abundance of earthworms I had unearthed while plowing. They admitted they hadn’t seen a worm in their fields in many years.

I learned this hard life lesson that farmers are engineers mostly on a bone rattling, tinnitus inducing tractor (minus the GPS) myself while trying unsuccessfully to earn an income growing organic Echinacea purpurea root.

Hunters are the romantics. Not hunters as in the Bambi-exploding weekend technology buffs; they might as well be piloting a drone with a bomb. But the hunters who recognize that their lives and those of their families depend on taking the life of another creature and they do it to that end, not for the fun. They do it with humility and passion. I have been unwilling to take this step except for killing and cleaning live fish that I have caught, which is difficult enough.

My own vegetarianism was, at best, “vegan lite” … ovo-lacto, for those who know the jargon. Included on my menu were milk products, like cheese, and chicken eggs. The eggs were exclusively from chickens for convenience and not, to my conscious knowledge, due to any philosophical belief that, say, duck eggs were not suitable fare.

We all have a cannibalism taboo. Even cannibals typically draw the line at their children and spouses, I am told. Everyone just chooses their own point of demarcation at a different place on the evolutionary developmental or social kinship scale. Mine was drawn at vertebrates. If you had an enclosed backbone, you were enough like me to be safe from my predation. My conspicuous exception from that otherwise totally logical rationale was the octopus. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat anything smarter than my boyhood neighbor Ronnie, regardless of its leg count or lack of vertebrae.

If you are a confirmed meat eater and don’t agree that you have a cannibalism taboo, then imagine your choices for dinner were these: 1) a bowl of nuts and grains and vegetables; or 2) a monkey steak. Here’s the rub … the monkey is still alive. No, you don’t even have to kill it. The chef will lure it down from its perch on the hurdy-gurdy. You only need to take away the little tin cup and point out which body part you want him to lop off with his cleaver and grill for you. Cajun seasoning or just salt and pepper?

Cannibalism and Menu Choices

Naked chicken

If it looks like it were ever a living creature, it can trigger the cannibalism taboo.

Admittedly, the taboo tends to manifest itself in quirky fashion. Some cultures eat dogs, cats, horses and monkeys but we don’t here in the USA. We have developed the practice of granting honorary kinship to our pets … as I did to octopi.

… the animal … comes willingly to be killed. But … with the understanding that it will be killed with gratitude. – Joseph Campbell

In his comprehensive study of humans and the origins of our philosophies, Transformations of Myth through Time,  Joseph Campbell reveals on page nine, “The basic mythic theme of hunting cultures is that the animal is a willing sacrifice. It comes willingly to be killed. You can find this in the myths all over the place. But the animal comes with the understanding that it will be killed with gratitude, that a ceremonial will be conducted to return its life to the mother source for rebirth, so that it comes again next year.”

While it may be disrespectful to not show gratitude to the slain creature, it is downright insulting to deny that it ever was an animal, to deny that it had a life to give.

You’ve heard it many times as the trout is offered at the table, “I don’t want the eyes looking at me.” An extension of this hypocrisy is the notion that meat must be trimmed of all fat, sinew and cartilage, anything that might betray its relationship to a living animal. The closer it looks to tofu or flavored wheat gluten, the more acceptable it becomes … and the less guilt it bestows upon the diner.

Turkey in Yard Cropped

Wild Turkey in my yard in Northwest Indiana

My own intention to mark my departure from the ranks of vegetarianism was to personally slaughter and cook a turkey on Thanksgiving. However, in spite of the fact that I was riding high on my newly redirected self-righteousness, the turkey got a reprieve because I “chickened out.” In the end my passage was via a “store bought” (albeit free range) turkey. My consumption of its heart and liver was performed with great solemnity … and gratitude.

The admonition to “walk softly upon the earth” is valuable counsel. Equally valuable is the ownership of the consequence of our existence on this planet. It might be useful to remember that even the Dalai Lama’s house was once virgin prairie.

Humans owe a collective debt to the other creatures that we have displaced and killed for our survival. The least we can do is say, “Thank you”.

Please answer the question below as though it is lunchtime and there are only two choices: vegetarian chili or grilled monkey.

Would you choose the grilled monkey or go for the vegetarian chili?

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  11 comments for “Vegetarians and Cannibals

  1. Wendy
    January 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Ha ha! Yeah, Dave, you and your pesky facts! Just to weigh in on the thread, I eat meat, although I try to limit it for health reasons. I love when my vegetarian friends or friends with other dietary restrictions come over for a meal because 1) they are my friends 2) they are giving me an opportunity to cook something that I might not ordinarily think of.

    • Liam Carroll
      January 31, 2015 at 6:56 am

      Wendy, that makes perfect sense.

  2. January 23, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    My only problem with eating monkey is the possibility of acquiring disease from something a bit too close to my branch on the evolutionary tree. Pigs, Dogs, Lambs, and Monkeys are occasionally anthropomorphised to an extent that makes them morally unappetising, but I haven’t had a problem with eating them if the end results were properly cooked, prepared and presented.

  3. Cheryl Hurst
    January 23, 2015 at 8:26 am

    You don’t hear the carrot scream but it still requires taking life in order to live!

    Nevertheless, I’m eating veg to help conserve our most fragile natural resource: Fresh Water.

    It takes MAGNITUDES less water to produce and ship plant-based foods compared with meat.

  4. January 21, 2015 at 3:11 am

    It’s like a college education, in that – it will be some time before i get it all collated – but I like it.

  5. Liam Carroll
    January 19, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Vegetarians. No offense, but they’re kind of a pain in the ass. They usually announce the fact shortly upon making their acquaintance, almost like they were announcing they were gay, waiting for a reaction. Then they proceed to make a distinction…the vegan thing. “I don’t eat meat but I do eat fish.” I don’t eat meat or fish, but I do eat eggs and butter.” “I don’t eat anything with a face…or a backbone.”
    It’s almost like the Catholic religion, making up rules as you go along.
    And having them for dinner is a major production. “We’re having baby back ribs but for you we have this tasty dish of rice and cilantro with a little squeezed lemon.” Or the other extreme—“We’re all eating this concoction of stuff from our garden that’s been simmering in a pot since noon.” Yummy.
    Why vegetarian? You can’t convince me that it tastes better. Is it healthier? I don’t think so. They often are lacking in nutrients that they can get from a well-balanced diet. A guy I worked with spent two months drinking green shit he mixed in a blender every day. He claimed he had no desire any longer for a cheeseburger or a steak. He lost a few pounds but ended up in the hospital for a week. Dumb f – – k.
    He also believed that Methuselah lived for 800 years — literally!
    Maybe he was a vegetarian.

    • January 21, 2015 at 3:09 am

      I like your style

    • David Hurst
      January 26, 2015 at 2:20 pm

      Carnivores. No offense, but they’re kind of a pain in the ass. They usually assume that everyone wants to consume a hunk of dead animal flesh and get confused when you mention that you’re vegetarian. “Do you eat chicken? What about fish?” And then they go and put bacon in the vegetables. What part of “I eat plants” do they not understand?

      And going out to eat with them can be so annoying. They turn their noses up at any vegetarian selection and order their hunk of dead animal because they “have to have red meat to get their protein.” And then when my vegetarian plate arrives they’re all over it, squealing “Oh, that looks so good! Can I have some?” No! Go eat your f___king meat! Why is it that when we order a meat pizza and a veggie pizza for a group of people, the veggie pizza is entirely consumed and there’s left over meat pizza? You’d almost think they were conflicted about eating their meat.

      Why carnivore? Is it healthier? I don’t think so. Studies have shown that consuming animal protein is linked with a whole host of diseases ranging from hypertension and cardiovascular disease, to colorectal cancer, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes. These health conditions wouldn’t be an issue if they would eat a well balanced diet of greens, grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. And it certainly isn’t helping the environment. Livestock production continues to be a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly when cattle are fed corn in confined animal feeding operations, rather than free-range grass. The methane gas produced by the livestock industry worldwide traps up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Producing one pound of beef requires up to 17 times more water than producing a pound of corn. Not to mention the all the petroleum consumed in producing the grains that go to feed the cattle rather than people.

      • Liam Carroll
        January 29, 2015 at 12:31 pm

        Dear David the Bean-eater,
        I must say that you have countered with a well-crafted reply. Thank you for making your points in three separate paragraphs—it makes it easier to respond to them individually. Second paragraph first: I have never noticed my friends fighting over the veggie pizza, leaving the sausage/pepperoni to grow cold. Of course, maybe I just hang with meat-eaters and conversely, you pal around mostly with other vegetarians. And perhaps the novelty of a vegetarian dish prompts some of your other friends to ask for a sample of something they would never order. But then, your reply would halt any bold requests like that, wouldn’t it?. Are all vegetarians so cranky?

        On to the third paragraph—your scientific argument sounds impressive but I have neither the background nor the desire to question your facts. “…17 times more water than producing a pound of corn?” “100 times more heat in the atmosphere?” We all know that statements strewn with numbers and statistics make effective arguments for both sides of an argument. Politicians and leaders do it every day. The audience begins to swoon in a dizzying onslaught of “factual” information.

        And finally, the first paragraph—this is where the tone of superiority begins and continues throughout the commentary. And I guess that, for me, is the crux of the matter with vegetarians. They seem to feel that they are a member of a privileged class, deserving special treatment and respect…and of course, a separate menu. If they would just quietly eat their veggies, we could all talk about something else over a cocktail.

        With all due respect,
        Liam Carroll

  6. Anonymous
    January 13, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    If push came to shove, I’d eat whatever to stay alive, including larvae, okra, or humans.

    Like on An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington said if he was forced to eat human, he’d like to know where the foot had been, did it have a good life, athlete’s foot, what kind of food did the person eat?

    If I named every single creature, would it make it harder for me to eat, or would I become more grateful?… As in Johnny the larvae… Peter the broccoli…

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