WARNING: long, portentious post to follow…

You’d think more of us would be vegetarians. My clients ask all the time, assuming that if you love animals enough to go to vet school…you might not want to eat them. It’s a reasonable assumption—from a suburban, “I-don’t-want-to-know-where-my-food-comes-from” point of view.

When I attended vet school from 1991 through 1995, my class included about 15 vegetarians out of more than a hundred students. To me, it seems like a paltry percentage, given the nuts and bolts of the idealistic veterinarian’s psyche.

We were brought up loving animals, caring for them, healing them…eating them?

As children, future vets my age were raised by meat-eating parents who typically disdained the vegetarian dining practices of the hippie class. Most of us still rebelled in some way—not often with illicit drugs and poor grades (pre-vets have no such luxuries), but in a great many cases through vegetarianism. We tried our parents` patience by cramming the freezer with soy burgers and tempeh, clogging the fast-food drive-through with requests for patty-less burgers, and staunchly refusing all meat-contaminated sides at family dinners. Subway? No way! Their gloves touch the meat AND the veggies.

A handful of us came from farming communities or immigrant households (like my Cuban-American one) where the thought of vegetarianism turned many a conservative stomach. The rest of us had been brought up in true pop-culture style: to love our meat as any red-blooded American would, but with the upper middle class freedom to choose another lifestyle if we so desired.

By the time we got to vet school, this phase had usually come and gone. It was only true die-hards (or meat-phobics—a different breed altogether) that still eschewed a hearty chunk of beef. Why? I can’t speak for other vets (any more than I already have) but here’s my personal veggie story:

I spent three years as an ovo-lacto vegetarian (the kind that eats eggs and milk but no fish—just two steps shy of a vegan). Anemia and poor fast food choices aside, I relished my ability to take this important step for the cause. Because animals should not, cannot, be treated the way they are in our stockyards and feedlots and poultry facilities.

I read the standard literature, received PETA newsletters, memorized A Diet for a Small Planet (my Bible), and thoroughly exasperated anyone who would listen. I remained steadfast to these ideals, ordering Big Macs—hold the patties—until I heard the call of the other side…

Ironically, it was my animal science education that did me in. I visited the dreaded feedlots, slaughterhouses, poultry facilities, and other such dens of iniquity. They left me cold—though not to the tune of the PETA pamphlets. Typically clean and orderly, these places struck me for their precision in handling products—not animals.

At slaughterhouses, the workers’ invisible emotional link to the animals seemed inhuman (which is perhaps the best approach to take when you’re about to aim an electrical charge-loaded, gun-like mechanism at a cow’s head and then bleed the life out of her). I certainly don’t blame them for not saying good-bye to every Bessie on the lot. I’d prefer to join the ranks of the emotionally undead, too, if I were doing that kind of work for a living. But they were not in any way cruel or rough—just mechanical.

By far the most horrible places were the small mom and pop dairies (fiercely unsanitary) and the large-scale commercial poultry facilities (chickens piled on chickens over acres of chicken feces). So much for ovo-lacto vegetarianism; the worst of the worst seemed to be places where they made eggs and milk—not the slaughterhouses where meat was cleanly, if impersonally, harvested.

On the plus side, I also had the privilege of visiting some of the tiny, artisanal farms and dairies. These were always pristine, though still suitably dirty in a bucolic, country-farm sort of a way. The animals seemed happy, well cared for, and above all, healthy. I loved the milk, cheeses, eggs, and meats that came from these farms—they tasted so much better! (Since then, it has become one of my life’s goals to own and operate a goat dairy and cheese operation. I am a serious foodie.)

Also surprising were the large (huge) scale dairy operations with thousands of cows. Who would have predicted that these factory-style places would be the cleanest, most comfortable places for cows? Economies of scale seem to work in their favor. In Florida I saw farms with misting systems to cool the cows, water beds in the stalls and acres and acres of pasture. Studies show that cows housed in more comfy places suffer less from disease and produce significantly more milk—hence, waterbeds made from recycled tires and cleaner, safer environments.

Sadly, many of the farms that boldly advertised “organic,” were not what I had envisioned. In one case, the cows looked creaky and weak and the place was a mess. We were there as vets-to-be to help them deal with a huge mastitis problem (often a disease of poor hygiene), which resulted in an astronomical bacteria count in the milk (that’s what happens when cow “boobs” get infected).

Moreover, these cows had little “creature comforts” compared to their sisters. So many of the so-called “organic” and “family farms” were a broken record of high bacteria counts and sickly cows. Still, there are some great ones I’ve been to, as well.

Beef cattle lived all their lives on the range—until the transport and feedlot stage, where I started to see serious deficiencies. I also learned that “free-range” or “cage-free” were not usually what one would expect from such establishments.

In short, I was completely disillusioned, let down by the FDA and their labeling, by the industry’s PR machine, and by the sad state of affairs in the world of animal agriculture.

Finally, I hit upon a solution, of sorts. I would patronize the “good” places and vote with my mouth, as it were. Milk from clean dairies I’d visited. Eggs from the farm stand or well-known producers with good practices. And meats only of the “free range” sort, sourced from my local farmer’s market after researching companies and convincing the market to order for me. I even eat foie gras…when it comes from a certain producer in upstate New York (it’s not as good but it’s still delicious).

Yes, eating this way is more expensive but it’s easily offset by eating less meat. That’s not such a hard way to live. It’s healthier, better for the environment and more cost-effective in the long run—and you get to save animals from cruel living, too.

Leather is another story but I do consider non-leather shoes a big plus and concentrate on purchasing less leather. I’m not quite there yet. I have a long way to go on this front—but I’m thinking about it, at least.

Sure, vets should think harder on how animals are treated—as should we all. We don’t have a monopoly on animal love. I see proof of that every day (on this blog and at work).

Vegetarianism? It’s a great thing to do (and perhaps more effective at preventing animal cruelty in the long run), but eating sustainable fish, organic vegetables, animal products from humane producers, buying local and consuming less processed foods is another reasonable approach. I promise you’ll eat better food that way—and you’ll probably live longer, too.