I never thought I'd see the day when chickens were en vogue. And yet a devoted subset of urban poultry enthusiasts has successfully lobbied for changes in zoning that allow for household chicken ownership, and I've watched dozens of people I know put on their coveralls and build a coop. In my work as a freight forwarder, I've listened to the peeping of a whole lot of baby chicks crammed in cardboard boxes and shipped through the postal system to their new, unlikely homes.
In Vermont, my friend Andrea got eggs donated from a local composting company. They took up residence at her childrens' school where they hatched and grew. Recently though, like a Christmas puppy, the question of what to do when the fun is over cropped up. She's been trying to find a home for two roosters, without success. When she contacted a local chicken rescue (I know...who knew such a thing existed) they scolded her, saying that hatching chickens in a school was irresponsible. Frustrated that her attempt to provide a rare hands-on learning experience and then deal responsibly with the outcome was met with disdain she said, "I hate to be a right-winger, but I am not making a hefty donation so 3 roosters can be free from 'opression'"
The solution then, was slaughter. Andrea's a vegetarian. I'm a vegan. Enter awkward times.
I've been on the wrong end of misconstrued written communication enough times that I hesitated before answering, then finally decided to just straight up say that I wasn't trying to be flippant, that I very seriously believe that there's an important lesson in there about where we draw the line between pets and dinner. Andrea's not the sort to gloss over uncomfortable details, and I know that she's made a study of vegetarianism and veganism. One of the reasons she's a vegetarian is that she's uncomfortable with the reality of slaughter. If she isn't vegan, nothing I say is going to suddenly change the conclusions she's drawn. And food is, I would say, one of the most personal choices we make, at least of the ones that are public. You might like kinky sex, but there's rarely going to be a gathering where you have to explain yourself. If you have unusual food preferences, people expect you to answer for them at every meal, whether in public or private.
But for her kids, who are probably vegetarian by proxy, this is the moment where the rubber meets the road. Last week, they had roosters with names and played with them and fed them. This week when they sit down at the dinner table, Smoky and Goober or whatever they're called will be the main course. I met my very first vegetarian friend in first grade. She lived in a rural area and kept chickens and ducks. She couldn't reconcile her love for the living animals with eating them, so she became vegetarian. It was, in retrospect, a pretty remarkable line of reasoning for a kid that age.
As vegans go, I'm a pretty light touch. I'd prefer to seduce you with amazing food than PETA videos. I make a distinction between industrial egg and dairy production (well, not so much dairy, since the cow almost always ends up slaughtered) and domestic by-product. The fact is that these animals are domesticated, so the option is to treat them as a commodity or as companions. I'd argue that since we're the ones who domesticated them, we have an obligation to care for their helpless selves. I still wear leather shoes purchased before I became vegan because I think the environmental cost of purchasing new (vegan products are also often synthetic) is higher than the already incurred cost of the shoes I own. I'm an advocate of considering your choices even once you've become vegan, making responsible decisions to the best of your ability rather than the making choices consistent with inherited political purity.
In general, my friends are supportive, if slightly bewildered by my veganism, but sometimes it somes out in ways that are excrutiating. I have a friend who's a cook who insists on telling me about progressive CSAs where you can contribute toward humanely raised beef and pork. I appreciate his attempt to connect with me, but I finally had to tell him that if, at the end of the day (or years, as the case may be) the animal is suddenly killed, it's not actually all that nice. If I were held hostage and my captors gave me nice living quarters and three squares a day, then killed me anyway, I'd still be dead. You can argue that animals don't have expectations about longevity or what they'll accomplish in this life, but I'd counter that the plans of people aren't necessarily so compelling that they're much better. It's a slippery slope to start weighing which lives are worthwhile and which aren't.
Americans don't eat dogs or guinea pigs. Other cultures do. It would be way out of line for me to say I have enough information to make those decisions for anyone but myself, but in my sometimes deeply judgmental mind I resent the fact that most people do the things they do without ever considering the consequences or alternatives. Whether it's going to church every week, dieting to achieve a cultural standard, or eating animals, these are choices that deserve more thought.