Born in a suburban New Jersey town, I grew up eating everything from roast beef and hamburgers to cupcakes and ice cream—and lots of it! My father owned several ice cream stores, and we had a separate freezer for the tubs he would bring home. From a child’s perspective, it was a pretty fantastic way to grow up. Looking back, I realize that much of my bliss was due to my ignorance about what I was actually eating.
In fact, I was encouraged to experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when it came to how I thought about animals. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that used the images of baby animals to create feelings of peace, joy, and security. My bedroom was not unlike that of any other child. Animals were everywhere—hanging over my crib, stuffed on my bed, painted on my walls, and printed and sewn on almost every piece of fabric I wore. Even more striking is the fact that animals—in books, on television, and at school—were used to teach me my most basic skills: how to count, spell, read, and talk. Through the use of myths and fables, animals even taught me such values as respect and kindness.
On the other hand, I was fed those very animals.
Like most children, I had a natural instinct to act compassionately toward animals; I intervened when I saw they needed help — taking in strays, nursing baby birds until they could fly, avoiding hurting anyone if I could. The adults around me, as well as my parents—like all parents who seek to encourage compassion in their children—were supportive of my actions and praised my responses. Kindness toward animals is usually a good indication of a child’s ability to empathize with others. It’s a virtue we admire.
But when I asked about what I was eating—about where my hot dogs came from, for instance—the adults around me either evaded the question entirely or deceived me completely, creating specious arguments and misleading justifications for eating animals, their milk, and their eggs. The messages around me were so predicated on disguising, rationalizing, romanticizing, and ritualizing eating animals that, as a child, I was totally unaware that I was saving one bird while eating another. By the time I was four or five, my innate childhood compassion and empathy for animals was dulled, and I learned that animals were arbitrarily categorized in our society: those worthy of our compassion and those undeserving of it because they happen to be of a particular species. Puppies, good. Calves, food.