How do you talk to kids about where meat comes from?
I'VE WRITTEN a children’s book about a pig who barely escapes ending up as bacon. Sprig the Rescue Pig was inspired by the true story of a pig who leaps from a farm truck, forever changing the course of his life. But it’s also something of a fairy tale given the many millions of pigs living in abysmal conditions on factory farms. Having discovered the many incredible qualities of pigs, including learning they’re about as smart as a three-year-old child and highly emotional, I will never eat bacon again.
I’d be a bitter old soul, however, if I were to condemn all the bacon and other meat-eaters out there. After all, I’d be standing in judgement of just about everyone I know. As hard as it can be at times, I have to accept that passing up spare ribs or fried chicken is not something many people are willing to do.
But I’m less sanguine when it comes to my own two children, ages 12 and 20. The rest of the world will do what it will do. But the more passionate I become about the ethical and environmental reasons for cutting back on meat and dairy, the harder it is for me to accept that my sensitive, lovely kids are omnivores. I wish they understood how intensely these animals suffer and how much environmental damage factory farming inflicts on the planet. I want them to eat more plants, less bacon. Or maybe no bacon at all.
I’ve tried from their earliest ages to teach my son and daughter compassion for animals. I read them Blueberries for Sal, Charlotte’s Web, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They felt for the bear, pig, and rat. I touched on how badly pigs and other industrial farm animals are treated. They listened, or seemed to.
Still, they asked for bacon, meat’s gateway drug, along with other meaty, industrial farm goodies, and for years I gave it to them. For a long time I, too, was an omnivore and had blinders on about the plight of most animals on this planet.
So why do animal-lovers eat meat? Since it wasn't so long ago that I was one of them, I've got a theory: We rationalize that not all animals are created equal. There are cute animated animals. There are animals who are pets. And then there is meat. Meat, after all, is not an animal. Even if it was an animal once. Both of my children have essentially countered my concerns the same way: “Mom, what does it matter if I eat bacon? The pig is already dead.”
Well, yes, of course. But what I’m trying to suggest in my book about a pig who escapes this particular fate, is that a pig is worthy of our respect. Pigs are affectionate, curious, and playful. They can be taught to play video games, perform all kinds of tricks, and come when called. They are, in fact, very much like dogs.
With apologies to the dog lovers out there, pigs are, by many measures, smarter than dogs. Despite their reputation as slobs, they are quite clean. They use mud to cover their skin against sunburn. Pigs are naturally gentle and form close-knit groups to raise their babies.
I'm reading The Good Good Pig right now, which was written by Sy Montgomery about her experience raising a pig who becomes a beloved figure in her small New Hampshire town. "If you spend any time at all, one-on-one, in the company of a pig," says Montgomery, who's also a naturalist, "you will soon learn what smart, sensitive and emotional creatures they are. And their smarts, senses and emotions closely match our own."
IT HAS TAKEN ME DECADES to open my eyes to all this. So I need to accept that it may take time for my children, and for the other meat-eaters I know, to shift the way they think of the pig, the cow, the chicken. Some parents successfully raise their children as vegetarians or vegans, but I wasn’t that parent. I got to them too late.
It could be because of my recent conversion, but I see my children’s level of compassion for all animals increasing. Slowly yes, but it’s having an effect. My son, eight years older than his sister, was raised in a household in which we had an elderly cat and rarely mused about the origins of a BLT sandwich. But he now wants to adopt a dog, and that's a start. My daughter has had a very different childhood, and it shows.
For the past five years, I have been a vegetarian. I built a coop, and brought in chickens. A few years after the chickens arrived, we adopted rescue pigeons. Not the rock pigeons you see on the street but homing and King pigeons that are used for meat or to release at ceremonies. People think those are doves that fly away to freedom at the end of weddings and funerals. But the truth is those “doves” are domesticated pigeons with no ability to take care of themselves in the wild. They tend to quickly die after they flap away, or end up sick in a shelter.
Molly would no more eat squab than let me sing and dance in front of her tween friends. She is a fierce protector of pigeons. She wants me to write a rescue story about them, too.
She is still an omnivore and yet she is seeing the world, closely, through these animals’ eyes. She lectures the local store owner on not selling choke collars and brings her pigeons into the house where she plays the piano and reads to them. Having observed her Mom labor over Sprig, Molly can now rattle off facts about how remarkable pigs are.
I’m not going to build a pen in the backyard and invite a pig into our lives the way I did with chickens. After all, domesticated pigs can grow to be really big! But we are visiting an animal sanctuary soon. I can’t predict what will happen, but I think it’s quite possible she’ll start thinking about pigs the way she does her beloved pigeons.
We know that the more plants we eat and the less meat and dairy, we can help reverse global warming, save precious water, and, yes, create a greener, kinder world. Even a little bit helps, say committing to meatless Mondays or Tuesdays. My hope is that if Sprig the Rescue Pig can help a parent and child consider, for a moment, that a pig is a very fine animal with his own language and his own intelligence and his own motivation for living a good life, then maybe they’ll eat less bacon.
So this is what I have decided, as a parent and as a writer: The very best I can do to keep the compassion bubble afloat is to spotlight how to be more respectful of people, and animals.
It really is a process. It took me so long to get here. But I can tell you that somewhere along the way I simply stopped buying or cooking bacon. No one at home has said a word or, it seems, even noticed.