Ever been inside a dairy? I was once, and it was enough to practically put me off dairy products altogether.
What I saw was a concrete-floored shed the size of football field to house the cows, and those cows, all in a line, were inching to and from the milking barn. The shed itself was clean enough thanks to the giant squeegee that wiped the empty pens of manure and loose feed. The milking barn too was clean, as dictated by law. The cows, though, looked absolutely out of it.
The dairy's owner was proud of the fact that his cows got to wander free in a nearby field, but I didn't have it in me to ask how often they set foot on solid ground to feed on what nature intended. Pen to milking barn and back: It was all in a day's work, and it struck me as weird and wrong: weird to see such creatures so zonked; wrong to see them so separated from their natural habitat. Wrong too to think that the calves had been separated from their mothers immediately upon birth and for us to be the ones feeding on the milk meant for those calves — the female calves, that is. What happens to the male offspring you don't want to know. Or maybe you do know.
The males, if they're not kept for breeding, are trucked to a slaughterhouse, some of them before they can even walk. It beats becoming veal, because veal is what you get when a borderline-anemic male calf is fed an all-liquid ("milk-fed") diet composed of antibiotics and hormones. The tender flesh? That comes from housing the calf in a crate so small that movement is practically impossible. You want extra-tender, order "bob" veal off the menu. It means the animal on your plate lived maybe a few days, maybe no more than a few hours.
These are a few of the many stomach-turning facts I learned from reading The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food (W.W. Norton) by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a prolific author who went from being a Sanskrit scholar in the 1970s (you remember The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta?), to psychiatrist (The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory), to popular historian (The Wild Child: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser), to animal behaviorist (the bestseller When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals).
Is Masson a vegetarian? That goes without asking. He grew up a vegetarian. But he's more "veganish" than vegan, because the author can't quite go whole-hog, though it's not for lack of trying and not for lack of grim insight. He knows what it takes to produce a gallon of milk, and he knows what goes into producing a good egg. But do you know about the practice of debeaking chicks or the living hell that is the short and unhappy life of a "battery" hen? Or what goes on inside a salmon "farm" — salmon, a fish rich in fatty acids but a fish often raised in an aquatic environment of proven carcinogens and neuro-poisons?
Why aren't you too vegetarian, veganish, or full-fledged vegan? Masson asks the question. And good psychiatrist that he was, he explores the psychoanalytical possibilites — chief among them: unconscious denial of the animal suffering a meaty diet entails. He points too to our willed ignorance, to our unmindfullness, and to our sheer laziness. He examines the archaeological record as well: the features of the human skeleton that argue against Homo sapiens as anatomically equipped meat-eaters. What he doesn't explore is the role of culture, the long arm of tradition, and the matter of taste — the satisfying taste, say, of a grilled steak.
Leave it to Masson to question maple syrup (even organic syrup, which leaves a gash in a tree that can take years to heal, a fact that makes Masson "uncomfortable"). But there's no questioning Masson's commitment to ahimsa. It's a word — borrowed from Jainism — that means nonviolence. Buddhism and Hinduism adopted it. Mahatma Gandhi lived by it. It refers to the attempt to live without causing any harm to other sentient beings, and for that reason, it's a word rich in moral implications — implications that extend to our treatment of animals.
Empathy's the end point. A good starting point: The Face on Your Plate.