Animals, Minnesota, USA, World

Confessions of a Fraudulent Vegetarian

“So, what made you want to become a vegetarian?”

Anyone who’s been a vegetarian for more than a few years has certainly encountered this question countless times.  Even though the running (and sometimes true) joke about vegetarians is their perceived eagerness to preach about their ethically superior eating habits—“How do you know if someone is a vegetarian?  They’ll tell you.”—the reality for most vegetarians that I know is quite the opposite.

Many people choose to become vegetarians for highly personal reasons, and inquiries into those reasons can lead to some pretty awkward conversations, especially considering the circumstances under which questions like the one above are almost always asked.  The question of why you became a vegetarian almost always comes from people that don’t know you all that well, otherwise they’d probably already know the answer.  What is more, the question is almost always asked in a situation in which food is being served, meat is on the menu, and everyone is eating it except you.  Mix these factors together, and it’s not exactly the ideal situation for an explosive diatribe about animal rights and ethical eating, at least if you don’t want to ruin the dinner party.

My go-to response has always been that, “I watched too many documentaries”—a halfway honest reply which usually suffices to elicit a chuckle and put the topic to bed.  But for those who pry, there is more to the story.

I was in my mid-twenties, living in Minneapolis and attending grad school at the University of Minnesota.  My studies and city life in general were forcing me to really grapple with a lot of the world’s injustices for the first time, as well as my complicity in some of those injustices.  Meat-eating was one of them.  Over a number of months, it just seemed to become more and more clear to me that the vast majority of meat that is produced and consumed in the United States is the product of animal suffering, and particularly as someone who has always considered themselves to be a lover of animals, it became more and more difficult for me to justify meat-eating as part of my lifestyle.  So, on December 31st, 2012, I made the one real New Year’s resolution of my life.  A few hours before midnight on my New Year’s Eve shift at Stella’s Fish Café in Uptown, I asked the kitchen for a steak and an order of dry-rub buffalo wings with extra sauce on the side (surprisingly among the best buffalo wings in the Twin Cities).  I savored every last bite and went back to serving drinks, and after the clock struck midnight, I never ate meat again.

For two years.  On New Year’s Day of 2015, I decided to celebrate my second anniversary of vegetarianism by treating myself to a buffalo steak from Hell’s Kitchen.  It was delicious, and it made me horribly sick.  Nevertheless, what was originally supposed to be a one-time thing ended up representing a shift in how I approached vegetarianism from there on out.  I was still vegetarian on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, but on special occasions—be it turkey on Thanksgiving or buffalo wings on my birthday—I decided to give myself some leeway.  As the months and years went by, those “occasions” slowly started to become less “special”, and instead became more random and regular.  What started as carefully planned meat-cations a few times a year turned into spontaneous carnivory a few times a month or week—rarely in the form of a full entree, but enough bites here and there to disqualify me from true vegetarian purity. 

Unlike my decision to go vegetarian, the relaxation of my self-imposed meat-eating restrictions didn’t result from any kind of philosophical shift.  Most meat consumption, to me, seemed as unethical as ever, but as much as I liked black bean burgers and Tofurky dogs, there were still some meaty dishes that couldn’t be replicated by plant-based proteins, and I wanted to occasionally be able to enjoy them.  Buffalo wings didn’t become any more moral, I just wanted to eat them more often.

A certain level of fraudulency wasn’t new to my dietary philosophy.  Even during my years of strict vegetarianism, I always felt that vegans were the true moral heroes. After all, if the goal is to reduce animal suffering, it can be hard to rationalize the consumption of eggs and dairy.  Conditions on dairy farms and in hen houses can be just as miserable as farms geared towards the production of beef and poultry.  In fact, you could make the case that some dairy is even less ethical than meat.  Chickens and cattle brought to slaughter are at least put out of their misery, whereas laying hens and dairy cows are expected to keep producing.

I’ve tried to overcome this ethical dilemma by only buying the most free-range, grass-fed, locally-produced, certified-organic eggs and dairy that the grocery store has to offer.  Still, many in the animal rights community will tell you that there is no such thing as ethical eggs or dairy considering the reality of what it takes to keep hens and cows producing, and what inevitably happens to the males of these species, as well as the females that can no longer produce.

So, why haven’t I become a vegan?  Because egg whites and whey are staples in my high-protein diet.  Because almost all baked goods contain eggs and/or milk.  Because it’s hard for me to imagine my life without ice cream and pizza.  Despite my reservations about what the production of these foods entails, the pleasure and convenience that they bring me is more than I’m willing to give up.  In short, I haven’t become a vegan because I’m selfish. 

I thought I had learned to live with the discrepancy between what I believe and how I behave.  When I set out to write this blog, I didn’t anticipate these “confessions” to lead me to any kind of moral epiphany.  But choosing to confront these truths about my dietary choices has left me feeling much like I did in grad school nearly a decade ago.  I’ve found myself Googling things like “pea protein” and “almond milk” between paragraphs and seriously considering what it might look like to eliminate milk, cheese, and eggs from my refrigerator and move closer to a more purely vegan diet.

I remember listening to a Sam Harris podcast a while back in which he was speculating about how societies of the future might look back and evaluate the societies of today.  In particular, he was considering beliefs and behaviors that are widely accepted at the moment, but that future societies might retrospectively view as massive moral failures.  Factory farming looms large as a potential candidate.  The vast majority of animal food products in the United States comes from intensive animal farming, and for anyone who is concerned about the welfare of those animals, this is hardly the way to maximize it.

That’s not to say that factory farming is the modern-day equivalent of slavery or colonialism, nor even that factory farming is the greatest moral failure that we tolerate today.  I personally believe that future societies will be most abhorred by our tolerance for such immense inequality both within and between nations, and the willingness of some (myself included) to live lives of such great comfort while so many others live lives of such enormous struggle.  Nevertheless, if you believe that farm animals are sentient beings capable of feeling and suffering, then factory farming is wrong.  It’s clearly wrong.  But society at the moment makes it pretty easy to pretend that it’s not. 

I’m still not convinced that animal farming can’t be done ethically.  Whether it’s slaughter-free dairy farms or the chickens that wander my parents’ backyard, there are plenty of examples of farming practices that seem to satisfy my expectations for the humane treatment of animals.  And while I’m still uncomfortable with killing, I think a certain level of ethicality could also be extended to some meat producing farms as well, assuming they provide their animals with happy and healthy lives up until slaughter.  This also goes for hunters who only eat wild meat that they kill themselves.

The problem of course is that these methods could never meet the demand that Americans currently have for animal food products.  Nor could they produce these products at the prices we’ve become accustomed to paying.  There’s a reason that farms have been turned into “factories”.  The whole factory model is based on maximizing the efficiency of production in order generate a large amount of product at a minimal cost.  Unfortunately for the animals involved, efficient does not mean ethical.  In fact, it usually means the opposite.

The fix for this problem is the same as its source—product demand—and it’s also where I feel that I have the most power as an individual.  Every time I spend my dollars at a grocery store or restaurant, I am in a sense casting my vote for the food system I want, and the role that animals will continue to play or not play in that system’s existence.  When I opt to buy vegan sausage patties, I am also casting a vote of dissent against the continued production of pork.  When I pay higher prices for “ethical” eggs, I am sending a message to producers that animal treatment is important to me as a consumer.  Even if I were to buy the same old factory farmed meat but just buy it less often, I’d still in a way be incrementally lowering the demand for that type of product and the insane level of slaughter that comes with it.  I once had a friend who referred to a version of this practice as “meat-minimizing”—a term that I thought had a lot of potential.  Most people in the world aren’t anywhere near ready for vegetarianism, let alone veganism, but if we could somehow facilitate a paradigm shift in which meat were to become more of a once-in-awhile luxury instead of a one/two/three times a day staple, that would save a whole lot of animals, and a whole lot of ozone layer to boot. 

And as imperfect people in an imperfect world where definitions of moral virtue can be unclear and elusive, I think this is a pretty good principle to live by, not just in deciding what we eat, but in guiding how we behave in general.  If you can live your life in a way that lowers the mean of the world’s suffering for people, for animals, and for the planet, you’re probably doing at least okay.  Certainly, you could be doing worse.

As for me, I think I’m going to become a “weekday vegan”—a term I thought I invented until I Googled it (not only that, but literally the first search result that appeared also revealed the unoriginality of what I thought was a pretty clever title…). What this means is that I will try to fill my grocery store shopping cart exclusively with foods that are animal-free, and limit my consumption of cheese, eggs, and ice cream (and occasionally meat) to restaurants and takeout on the weekends.  It’s a far cry from pure, and still flies in the face of some of my professed moral philosophies, but it is one step closer to where I’ve always thought I should be, and where I may someday summon the moral fortitude to go.  In the meantime, when I order pizza this Friday, and maybe help myself to a drumette or two from my wife’s order of buffalo wings, at least I’ll feel a little bit less like the fraud that I still undoubtedly am.     

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Animals, Travel, World

When being a tourist feels good: The Phang Nga Elephant Park

I have a love-hate relationship with being a tourist. On the one hand, I absolutely love to travel the world. Travelling drives me. Travelling is me. My international experiences have made me a better person than I would be otherwise—enlightening me, humbling me, motivating me to be better. My desire to travel is a big part of the reason that I went into teaching. There are not many other professions where you get the opportunity to spend nine months out of the year teaching kids about the world and the other three traveling and learning about it yourself.

But there are a lot of negative aspects to international travel too, especially when you’re a white dude from the United States of America. The tourism industry that was built to serve people like me is oftentimes reminiscent of the old colonial relationships between the “developed” and “developing” world where the privileged and powerful exploit the weaker and less fortunate for their own benefit. Even though I try my best to be a responsible tourist abroad, my masochistic desire to overthink things still sometimes leaves me wondering if our collective impact as tourists actually does more harm than good.

I thought about this a lot during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. There’s no doubt that the tourism industry over there has created a lot of jobs and generated a lot of dollars, but I still question how far reaching and inclusive those benefits are. For instance, do the jobs created by the imitation Western restaurants that we patronized and the mass-produced manufactured goods that we purchased outweigh the loss of the more traditional establishments and occupations that they most certainly replaced? It was great to have English menus and cheap goods, but pizza and bro-tanks are probably not the most authentic way to experience Southeast Asia. Does the commercialization of ancient landmarks and temples help to preserve indigenous cultures by educating us tourists about their history, or does it instead work to erode those cultures by transferring access and ownership of venerated sites to Westerners with deep pockets? I learned a lot about Eastern culture at Angkor Wat and Wat Pho, but I received this education amongst a sea of other white people. Also, depending on the venue, there can be something a little unsettling about converting somebody else’s sacred place of worship into a venue for my entertainment. And who ultimately ends up with the majority of the dollars that the tourism industry generates? Public revenue can build hospitals and schools and employees of the industry hopefully earn high enough wages to make a comfortable living, but something tells me that the corporate fat cats out there are still ending up with an oversized slice of the tourism pie, while the locals living in urban ghettos and impoverished rural areas are stuck with the crumbs.


Temple Tour in Siem Reap


Wat Pho–home of the famous Reclining Buddha


The Bangkok red light district serves Cornflakes

But to dwell on such negativity does not do justice to all the tremendously transformative experiences that our adventure provided—experiences where tourism was done right and where tourism felt good. Nothing fits that bill better than the day we spent at the Elephant Park in Phang Nga, Thailand.

It’s not hard to find an elephant camp in Thailand. They’re all over the place. But if you care in the slightest about the well-being of the world’s largest land mammals, most of these camps should make you feel pretty sad. They are packed full of elephants—sometimes caged, sometimes chained, sometimes both—awaiting the next group of visitors to parade around town in carriage-like saddles alongside busy highways and tourist attractions. While the saddle and chains usually don’t physically harm these enormous beasts, the psychological effects do. Elephants are smart and have a tremendously elevated level of consciousness. This means that, unlike an idiotic gold fish oblivious to its own bowl-shaped imprisonment, elephants are quite aware of the fact that they are imprisoned, and quite aware of the less than stimulating environment that their imprisonment provides. If you have ever seen a captive elephant in a zoo or a circus doing something like this, then you have seen an elephant displaying documented symptoms of zoochosis—a medical condition that describes the strange behavior exhibited by captive animals who are clinically bored out of their freaking minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not like this. Although the upfront costs made this experience one of the more expensive things that we did on our trip, it was pretty clear upon our arrival that this park was not trying to make a few extra bucks by cutting a couple of corners. Their mission was an admirable one—providing elephants with a healthy, caring, elephant-first environment in which they can safely interact with human beings. During our day at the park, we were able to ride, feed, and bathe our elephants, all the while receiving a thorough education in what it means to care for nature’s gentlest giants.

Most of the elephants at this camp were rescued from Thailand’s waning logging industry where elephants have been traditionally used as beasts of burden. Due to this physically demanding occupation, these elephants are often in need of major care, and because of their domestication, have also become dependent upon human beings for their survival. The park attempts to provide the elephants that care minus the exploitative treatment so ubiquitous in other camps. You could perhaps say that while visitors in other camps are often unknowingly participating in the exploitation of their elephants, Phang Nga visitors are instead actively learning how not to exploit theirs.

The park is not perfect. Still in the nascent stages of its development, Phang Nga is temporarily dependent on contracts with private companies who bus in their tourists for brief ventures into the park. These for-profit companies continue to require saddles for the elephants rather than the more natural, bareback riding preferred by the park owners. Chains are still used as well. Limited space, human presence, and surrounding private lands create situations in which elephants cannot always roam freely. This is less than desirable, but also represents a necessary concession that the park needs to make as it continues to search for additional lands and funding in hopes of creating the most ethical elephant experience possible. Despite these shortcomings, the passion that park owner Jake and his several employees have for their elephants is undeniable. Their words reassure that they are doing the absolute best that they can with the resources they have, and that the well-being of their elephants is first and foremost in their hearts and minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not the only feel good tourism that we experienced in Southeast Asia. Public projects like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh provided powerful educational experiences that provide all kinds of eye-opening knowledge and life-altering lessons, particularly for people who grew up in parts of the world where war and poverty are problems seen on TV. The most southern point of the island of Phuket prohibited certain vendors from its premises, allowing foreigners and locals alike to enjoy an unintrusive visit to one of Thailand’s most beautiful viewpoints. Many of the hostels and restaurants that we chose to patronize were not owned by Western chains that swipe away Eastern tourism dollars, but local small business owners who are able to earn an honest and respectable living by catering to their country’s visitors.


Sunrise at Angkor Wat


Lunch at Phuket’s most southern point

Still, being a responsible tourist is difficult. It’s hard to know where your dollars ultimately end up and who or what those dollars are ultimately supporting. We tried to be responsible and respectful tourists during our time in Southeast Asia, and at times we almost certainly failed. But at a place like the Phang Nga Elephant Park, that task became easy, at least for a day. Phang Nga shows what the tourism industry could be—not an adversarial showdown between two parties trying to make or save a buck, but a partnership in which both parties work together to achieve common goals and do something cool.

These are the kind of feel good experiences that should be sought by all travelers who carry with them a certain sense of responsibility as they move through the world. They help us to transcend our role as tourists and become contributors to the countries that contribute so much to us through the enlightening experiences that they provide. They allow us to work in cooperation with the people and wildlife in a particular corner of the planet in hopes of making that corner a better place. In turn, these experiences also follow us home and motivate us to do better in our own country in the ways that we treat our own people and wildlife in our part of the world. Phang Nga Elephant Park certainly provided this motivation for me and my crew, and if any of us ever find ourselves back in Phuket, we will almost certainly take advantage of their open invitation to return to the park free of charge and help to care for some of the most awesome creatures that walk the planet today. If you’re looking for a similar experience, perhaps for an extended period of time, keep reading below.


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Plug: Love animals and looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad??? Phang Nga Elephant Park might be exactly what you’re looking for. Click here to email owner Jake about a potentially cost-free volunteer opportunity at their eco-friendly elephant sanctuary and provide some care to creatures that need it. The elephants will appreciate you for it.


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