I love animals and always have, but I am also a meat eater. In my early 20s, I tried a short stint as a vegetarian, but jumped off the meat-free wagon after a happy encounter with bacon. At the time I felt a twinge of guilt, but the truth is I never gave vegetarianism a second thought.
When I became a mother of two boys while trying to maintain a full-time job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, food was often an afterthought for my family. Then something happened: I lost my job. My predictable world was shattered. The unexpected changes in my life meant that lots of things had to change in the way I lived, and the biggest change was that I cooked a lot more at home.
The silver lining was I had more time to spend with my boys as we started eating meals togetherat the table, every day. Eventually, I found a local part-time job that affected me in ways I'd never anticipated. The job was with Friends of Family Farmers, an organization whose mission is "to promote and protect socially responsible agriculture in Oregon." While that sounded admirable, I started working there because I really just needed some extra cash.
Then one day in the office, I picked up a coffee table book, CAFOThe Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, and began to thumb through it. As I flipped through the pages, learning that CAFO was short for "confined animal feeding operation," I remember pausing and looking up to ask the ladies in the office, "This isn't real, right?" Yes, it turns out it is. That specific moment, looking at those images of miserable-looking animals, changed everything for me.
This was the "food" I was so proud to be feeding my family? I couldn't bring myself to keep doing that, so I stopped buying meat altogether. Of course, vegetarian substitutes couldn't satisfy my male-dominated household for long and soon I was on a mission to find socially responsible meat. But was there even such a thing? Yes.
My desire to understand the life cycle of an animal and be a part of that process is how I came to know the sweet little black pig named Eddie. It all began when my neighbor and I purchased a pair of heritage pigs and decided to raise them together. Once the piglets settled in, they quickly learned that we liked treating them with belly scratches and food. They were extremely intelligent and once they saw us coming would run to get their daily affection and treats.
When Eddie had grown to an impressive 250 pounds, his job on earth was nearly complete. It wasn't easy, but I decided to be present at his slaughter. I felt that I needed to. How could I have spent so long with him, doing my best to nurture this sweet animal, and then leave him to die with strangers?
On the day the truck rolled up, my stomach was in knots. I scratched Eddie as he lay on his side with an expression of bliss. I thanked both him and Elton, my neighbor's pig, for doing their jobs well, for being good pigs, and for the food they would give to my family. I cried and felt a deep sadness that they would die but also much appreciation for these two creatures. Eddie waddled over to check out his new visitors for treats. He sat down and got a scratch under his chinthen bang. Done.
I stayed with the carcasses while they were broken down. I noticed the beauty of the pigs' skin, the depth of their fat as it stretched over the bodies, how bright and healthy their organs looked, and the vibrant color of the meat. The slaughterer noticed too, telling us that our pigs were some of the best he had seen in 20 years in the business, attributing their quality directly to the quality of their life and their breed. "This is a nice pig," he kept saying. So, of course, I thought of Wilbur and Charlotte from Charlotte's Web, when the spider wrote "SOME PIG" in her web to honor her friend. Eddie, too, was one terrific pig. Even the men who slaughtered him gave him the respect he deserved.
It sounds silly to say that a pig changed my life, but as I look back, that's exactly what happened. That sweet pig helped me in my journey as both a meat eater and an animal lover. I learned to take responsibility for the meat brought to my dinner table. And I don't think Eddie ever suffered.
Lori Bell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Colton, Ore.