Ask the Vet - Vallard C. Forsythe, DVM


When a veterinarian goes vegetarian

Dear Readers:  Now that I’ve been home two weeks after my adventure through Thailand, I’ve been able to spend some much needed time recovering from jet lag.  Coming back from the trip with the mental postcards of dog as a favorable meat choice, I was a bit unsettled. I didn’t know I would be needing a vegetarian meal on my return trip from Thailand, so when the flight attendant plunked down some kind of meaty-gravy-rice dish onto my fold-down tray, I imagined many of my favorite pooches all cubed up on that little rectangular plastic dish.  At that exact moment I remember thinking if only my window opened I could let the food be sucked away by gravity.

(Little did I know that several hours later our plane would descend at San Francisco International Airport alongside the burnt remains of Asiana flight 814 and I would regret thinking that, and ask God if I could take that thought back.)

There are many double standards in the animal world, and I’ve been tossing this around in my head for the last week like the Gorgonzola salad at the Red Grape. Most societies consider eating dog meat a cruel practice.  Dogs have been the most popular pets for decades (though cats seem to have overtaken them in recent years); we have a strong emotional connection to them. They sit on the front seat of our cars, sleep at the foot of our beds, and are fed human food. There are hotels and manicure services for dogs and some owners even buy designer clothes and jewelry for their pooches.

So when dog smuggling made the headlines, and I was made aware of the popularity of dog meat in Asia everywhere I turned, I couldn’t shake the topic. But I also had to wonder why eating dogs sickens me so much when most of us don’t feel the same way about chickens, pigs, cows and other animals. Is it only because such animals are not usually kept as pets?

Killing animals for food is inevitably a merciless process, as documentaries on the subject attest.  When pigs and cows are slaughtered, they are usually hit on the head with a huge hammer.  The sudden and severe head injury brings about convulsion.  While they are still breathing their throats are slit.

Fish are killed by a method as inhumane as that used with larger animals. Killing chickens and ducks is a little less complicated. There is no hitting on the head part. Instead, their necks are just slit, with the blood poured into bowls and kept for cooking

In my opinion, killing any animal is cruel.   I suppose then it would be absolutely honest to follow by saying that killing and eating dogs is no more cruel than killing and eating other animals.

I remember one day nearly 20 years ago, during veterinary college, when I was working at the large animal necropsy center.  One of my duties was to euthanize a Jersey cow that a farmer had brought in from his large herd.  He needed to “cull” one random animal and have it analyzed for the presence of any serious disease that could potentially affect the rest.

I was shown how to connect electrodes up to her and instructed to pull the large lever down. My hand on the lever, I looked into her huge brown eyes and realized that I simply didn’t have the ability to kill the coco brown cow that “jumped over the moon”.  Suddenly the technician in charge pushed my hand on the lever briskly down, and with a loud zap the cow dropped dead.

As the abusive technician clomped away, I realized that in only a couple of short minutes I had allowed myself to begin to develop feelings for the animal in the final stages of its thankless and undervalued life.  As a veterinary student, I was aware of the “big picture,” that killing one animal to ensure the health of the rest of a large herd make perfectly good sense. But the reality was that this beautiful cow was thought of as no more significant than any other commodity by that heartless technician who yanked my hand down and then laughed. He walked away from one very traumatized and nauseated veterinary student.

Terrible moments like that have stuck with me all these years, and many of them have begun to resurface after my trip to Thailand forced me face to face with the issue of people eating dog meat.

As a newly converted vegetarian I began thinking about the interesting relationship I have with the companion animals in my life.  While I do value all animals, I admit that I do not weigh a bug that gets squished on my windshield as heavily as a cat that gets hit by a car.  I understand that many animals gain importance, value and reverence because of religious doctrine or cultural values and belief systems.

I’m just one single man who loves people and the pets who are part of their lives. I am enchanted by the human/animal bond and the inexplicable joy that pets and people give each other. I see it every day with dogs, cats, and less often with snakes, rats, guinea pigs, bunny rabbits, and Iguanas, and birds (a very abbreviated list).  Who am I to say that an equal and abiding adoration can’t take place between a person and a chicken, a ram, a cow or even a pet carp?

So however cultures, or the people within those cultures, choose to frame and value their animals, it is clear to me that I am very relieved to personally avoid consuming animals to nourish myself.

No horse meat in France, no lamb in Australia, and no Labrador in Laos. And in addition, no radical ideas or memberships for me, either – I’m not joining PETA, not jumping on a bandwagon, or parading in front of Neiman Marcus at Christmas with blood on my face and a mink stole on my foot. I just want to acknowledge these important feelings.

I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so many years to make this decision. For somebody who did well in school, I certainly seem to be a cultural “slow learner”. Thanks for hearing about this new part of my journey.  I owe it to all the remarkable animals and their loving owners I get to know, and the ones up in heaven, too.

Dr. Vallard C. Forsythe

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