Showing Some Backbone by Avoiding Meat

Gradually, in response to appeals from save-the-animals groups and in obeisance to my own conscience, I am eliminating meat from my diet. That is, I have given up scallops, oysters, snails and all the other invertebrates, which I never liked anyway.

I don't mean to be cynical. I am horrified by stories of how young cows are raised for veal, and I don't even like to think of what life must be like for chickens. In fact, I have given up veal. The problem is, I still eat chicken.

My excuse, of course, is that it is not ordained that we refrain from eating meat. Random Chance made us omnivorous. We are at the top of the food chain, and we may eat whatever appeals to us, without sin. In the Bible, did they not barbecue the fatted calf? Was Jesus not a fisherman?

It is also true that the people who champion animals are more inclined to favor vertebrates than non-vertebrates. It is much easier to love a panda than a jellyfish.

However, as Sy Montgomery noted on The Times' science page some time ago, people are beginning to realize that invertebrates are worthy creatures too. In Plainfield, N.H., he pointed out, the people have adopted the Cobblestone Tiger Beetle as their town insect, and sales of T-shirts displaying the beetle on them pay for the protection of its habitat.

That being the way the wind is blowing, I am happy to receive a letter from Mario E. Baur, a professor of chemistry at UCLA, commending me for my recent column on the banana slug, a species that, as he points out, "does not usually receive favorable publicity."

Introducing me to a new word, he observes that "unfortunately, most humans, even those who relate positively to animals, tend to be rather chordocentric (from Phylum Chordata, the vertebrates, broadly speaking) and may be willing to grant a certain right to exist to a lamb or squirrel while wishing to deny it to a termite, mosquito or slug."

As Montgomery pointed out, people used to think that "invertebrates were there to swat, spray or step on."

I myself have trouble identifying with flies, ants and back-yard snails. I realize that flies are marvelous flying machines, that ants exist in highly organized societies and that snails--frankly, I can't think of anything good to say about snails.

"Surely," however, Prof. Baur argues, "all creatures are equal in the eyes of Uncle Random. . . . Even spineless individuals have feelings."

Baur recalls that some years ago a certain garden snail in their yard came to recognize his wife, and would crawl toward her whenever she put out birdseed. This snail (they recognized it by its markings) would not come out to anyone else.

"It continued to appear in this fashion for most of the summer and fall, and then, I presume, someone--perhaps one of the skunks or opossums to whom we try to show hospitality--got him or her. Severe but necessary is the way of the food chain."

Baur confesses that he can not bear the sight of live lobsters in holding tanks at supermarkets. (I have also seen them in some restaurants, waiting for some hungry patron to pick them out.)

"I used to love to eat lobsters," Baur admits, "until one day, while keeping one alive until dinner time in my bathtub, I had occasion to watch it and realized that it was watching me , with emotions which I could (I hope not entirely fancifully) imagine."

I am reminded of the remark made by Dahlia Gomez when her husband, Romulo, dropped a live lobster into a pot of boiling water. She turned to me and said, "They don't like it, you know."

Oddly, Baur no longer eats lobsters or any other wild creatures, though he thinks it quite all right to kill and eat domestic animals. "I cheerfully eat steak, hamburgers, chicken and yes, Dodger Dogs."

As I say, I'm gradually eliminating certain kinds of animal flesh from my diet, but, like Prof. Baur, I tend to rationalize. I may give up steak, but not hamburger; I may give up oysters, but not orange roughie; I may give up shrimp, but not bacon; I may give up veal but not little pig sausages.

And I'll never give up Dodger Dogs.

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