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On Becoming a Gorilla Vegetarian

by Cheryl Levinson

I'm a herbivore!
Wanna fight?

This book is dedicated to a glossy black calf
on his way to the slaughterhouse many years ago,
whose eyes met those of someone
who could understand their appeal,
and inspire us, and thousands of others like us,
to give the gift of life.
- Laurel’s Kitchen: 
A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition

            Gorillas are not only gentle, they are strict herbivores as well. Strange, isn’t it? These six hundred pound, scary-looking apes wouldn’t think of killing an impala or wildebeest and eating their bloodied flesh.

            I quit eating red meat in 1976. My initial decision had nothing to do with the kindness of gorillas. It had everything to do with an article I read linking colon cancer to the consumption of meat.

            I was still eating chicken and fish, however, when I met my husband to be. Ellis was definitely on the path to gorilla vegetarianism.  He espoused compassion for animals as the single most reason why he hadn’t eaten a steak in years. Even poultry was off his list.  He spoke often of the horrific conditions suffered by chickens living on factory farms. Because chickens live in such crowded, stressful conditions, they go berserk and peck each other unmercifully. To eliminate the pecking frenzy, workers, in a severely painful procedure, cut off about two thirds of the fowls’ beaks with a hot knife. Some chickens can’t eat after this ordeal, and they starve to death. “The life of a chicken is no different than that of an innocent person forced to serve a life sentence in prison,” Ellis said, referring to the fact that these birds live every day of their lives in cages. “The wingspan of an average hen is twenty six inches, yet egg factories allow her only six inches of space.”

            “And the plight of cows is every bit as gruesome,” he continued, his face contorted with a mixture of anger, worry and compassion. The slaughter of cows for beef is a murderous affair consisting of throat slitting by machetes or brain bashing by sledgehammer.

            Despite these graphic descriptions, compassion wasn’t the motivation for my slow trek toward vegetarianism. I managed to bite the bullet and quit eating chicken only after reading about the antibiotics used by poultry producers to increase the birds’ weight. I didn’t want potentially cancer-causing substances to pass through my body, No way!

            Undaunted, Ellis went on about veal – how the calves are never allowed to take a single step out of their narrow pens; how they are fed a diet that keeps them anemic, thus leading to their whitish-pink color when served in restaurants. I wouldn’t let myself imagine the horrors he described.

Even so, we lived in harmony as budding vegetarians though our underlying reasons for dietary change were different.  We both continued blithely eating fish until one day, Ellis had an epiphany as he peered into my cousin’s indoor pond. When he walked to the edge, a goldfish swam over and looked at him. As he walked alongside the pond, all the fish followed him, clearly expecting that he would grace them with food. “Aha! Fish are conscious creatures,” he said to himself, and quit eating them, cold turkey. In fact, fish have complicated nervous systems and they suffer tremendous pain if their body is traumatized.  What they must go through when caught by fishermen, a gaff stuck in their tender mouths! The smaller fish flop around in huge nets unable to breathe until merciful death steps in.

My gradual awakening to compassionate food choices (and I’m not completely there yet), began when I learned that swordfish were near extinction. I loved the taste of them, so akin were they to the juicy thick steaks I had given up years before. But the knowledge that yet another living creature was quickly vanishing from the planet due to over-consumption by humans, got to me. I never bought or ordered swordfish again.

Our dog, Harriet, took me a hundred steps forward in my evolution toward merciful eating. She had been a neglected mutt, and came to us in a depressed state. The speed with which she responded to love had a profound effect on me. She went from a dog who cowered in submissive position when we’d look at her sideways, to a dog who became proud mistress of the household. Until joining with her, I, like most others in the world, viewed animals as cute and interesting, but inferior. As Harriet became an active member of our family, I could see how loving, forgiving and smart she was. Clearly, Harriet was superior to most people I knew, including myself. Through my relationship with her, I gradually opened my third eye. Awareness of the aliveness, of the spirit of animals, as well as their capacity for emotional pain and physical suffering, washed over me.

Lately I feel an urgency to reach my goal of becoming a full-fledged gorilla vegetarian, i.e., a gentle human who subsists solely on vegetables, grains, soy and beans.  Unfortunately, I still relish grilled salmon once in awhile. I tell myself it’s for the omega-3 fatty acids, but I know better. Flaxseed oil contains enough of that stuff to provide me with whatever daily requirement I need. I also eat eggs, albeit from free-range chickens. Occasionally, though, in the throws of temptation, I’ll order an asparagus and red pepper restaurant omelet. You can bet the average cafe couldn’t give a whistle about the source of the eggs it serves, or the anxiety of the hens that lay them.  I also take milk in my daily coffee, and scarf up my share of blue cheese when dining at the local salad bar. At the same time, I think about the dairy cow’s plight. She is treated with Bovine Growth Hormone, which forces her to produce more milk. This in turn results in udder ligament damage, lameness, and metabolic disorders. After her milk production declines, a cow that would normally live twenty-five years is slaughtered at five or six years of age. It’s an indisputable fact – the cow has been our friend, put out for thousands of years so that we humans can build strong teeth and bones. What does she get for her trouble?  Not much, I’m here to point out. Not much at all.

After a trip to Maine last year, Ellis and I swore off lobster. We discovered that the population of this sea crustacean is quickly diminishing from over-culling, But that’s not the whole of it. Everywhere we went in the harbor towns of Maine, signs blared Live Lobster Dinner, $9.99! Think of it – a living, red, squirming creature is thrown into boiling water where it dies in agony and is then served as a luscious delicacy! Is this not barbaric?

In the process of stretching my understanding to encompass the suffering of animals, a couple of weird doors have opened in my heart. For instance, killing a daddy long legs is a problem for me now. There was a time when I never thought an instant about it. I just took my shoe and crushed the critter until it became a faded tattoo on a white wall. I’m also obsessed with setting seed out for the birds, no matter what season it is, and carefully sidestepping snails when I take a walk on a rain-wet night. Once, in elementary school, the teacher mentioned that studies were being done to determine if tomatoes had reactions to being sliced and eaten.  For the duration of my childhood,  I couldn’t eat a tomato without hearing its high-pitched, squeaky voice screaming “save me, save me.” I guess a gorilla vegetarian hears such pleas from the animals of the world, and responds gently to the call.

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