Sunday, May 10, 2009

Digging Chicks: Confessions of a meat eater 2

As a child, I occasionally visited a maternal great-grandmother in the countryside. Nani lived in a small hut, behind her son's big house and store. I stayed in the big house and visited Nani from time to time. She loved company and would immediately set about making one of my favorite dishes, roasted plantains and corn. At close to 90 years old, her eyesight was poor and the vegetables were often burned beyond recognition, but I ate them happily and listened to her stories.

Nani had few possessions and was willing to share it with everyone. I rarely took advantage of her, but when I was around eight or so, on a quick trip to the countryside with my maternal grandmother, I noticed Nani had a whole brood of yellow, new born chicks. They were so small and cute, and I fell in love with them immediately. Of course, Nani, bless her heart, gave me a bunch of baby chickens to take back to the city. I was overwhelmed that she trusted me with the lives of these fragile creatures. I never had any pets before and was overjoyed at having such priceless gifts.

I took eight beautiful creatures carefully home and surprised mom. She was not keen on the idea, but I promised to take full responsibility for the chicks' care, and to keep the yard clean. Which I did. I loved my pets. I spent all my allowance on good grain and changed their water constantly. The chicks were all fun and I loved watching them run around before and after school. I felt very grown up taking care of them, and as they grew bigger, I built larger cages for them to sleep in at night. I got to know each one as they slowly changed into teens, and became more serious and competitive. They never pecked me, and still followed me around. With loving care, over six months or so, the small yellow chicks grew in beautiful tall white hens, and became a source of pride for the family. Everyone commented on how strong and healthy the hens looked.

Of course, visitors' next comment would be, "Those chickens would be great to eat." This drove fear into my heart and caused no end of stress. I would beg mom daily to respect my wishes and not to let anything happen to my beloved chicks. Which she did to a point. She didn't kill them, as she did others, but she did allow them to be killed. After all, who kept chickens as pets? I certainly did, and must have developed some sensitivity towards animals as a result. I never once saw the chicks as food, and this may have carried over into other areas of thinking regarding animals.

At the back of my mind, I must have known what was coming. It was a shock nevertheless.

One day, I came home from school and found my father's brother had killed four of my precious chickens. He kept parts for himself and gave mom some. I'm not sure what I ate that day or the next, but it was certainly not my pets. I was devastated for weeks. I was so upset, I felt like running away. I disliked that uncle ever since, and never fully forgave mom either. Me and the remaining chickens suffered our loss. I waited for the inevitable and soon they were gone as well. I gave up raising chickens and my mom was happy to see the cages go.

This episode cause dehumanization on so many levels. I understood and felt responsible for the killings, and as an eight-year old, resolved never to be a part of this process again. I quickly realized that I was helpless to do anything about what happened, and what was happening on a daily basis all around me. I was, and remain, the only vegetarian among thousands of relatives on all sides. As a psychological survival mechanism, that child was forced to develop detachment from chickens and many other creatures. With each passing day, I became less human(e).

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I was allowed to keep my chicks. Would I have become a vegetarian sooner? I separated from my family at eighteen, in part to get away from the daily onslaught of meat. I chose to live with roomates and friends instead, who first of all, ate a whole lot less than my obese family, and who, when they did get around to eating, it was almost always at a restaurant or take-out, since cooking was a rare occurrence. Like mom, I was no fan of fish, cow, goat or sheep. I preferred chicken, well done. For six years, while not actually considering myself vegetarian, I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce, and ate Spanish rice, beans and plantains.

But after that trauma at eight, it took decades to break down the wall of indifference I had constructed to chicks. And it took a lot more than just time for me to finally be able see chicks as my friends again. Not just food. The six years of mostly being away from family was a period of vocational, philosophical and spiritual exploration, during which time I experimented with various raw fruit and nut diets, and fasted for days.

All these efforts eventually paid off, and one fine day I was able to make the leap. Thankfully, I see friends in all chicks now, as well as in all other creatures on our beautiful planet.

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