Louise Gray spent a year only eating animals she’d killed herself, and in the process learned a lot about compassion and the environment.
Meat has always been in the man cave. In traditional societies men are more likely to hunt and bring meat to the table. In modern life, sparking up a barbecue, or even just eating steak, apparently makes you more macho.
But people, it’s 2016.
I spent a year only eating animals I killed myself as part of the research for my book, The Ethical Carnivore. I learned to fish, shoot and stalk. I learned to gut, butcher and barbecue meat. And I learned that as a woman I was capable of all these things. Most importantly, I learned that compassion for the animals we eat does not have to depend on your sex.
The reason I wanted to write about meat was because I was aware of its role in driving climate change. I knew that livestock pumps out more greenhouse gases (yes, that’s cow burps) than all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles put together.
Yet as a farmer’s daughter I wasn’t quite ready to give up meat. I could see in the British countryside around me cattle and sheep maintaining the landscape we know and love, providing jobs and living free range. But I didn’t want to be one of those smug, ungracious people who goes to a dinner party and demands to know the name of the farmer before I will tuck into a pork chop. Saying that I only ate animals I killed myself seemed like a much sexier line.
“When you eat an animal, you take some part of the responsibility for its death. But in the age we live in, where you can pick a pretty package off a supermarket shelf, it is easy to forget that.”
When I started out on my journey, I was determined to keep gender out of it. But very early on it became an issue. The first animal I killed was a beautiful little rabbit with a white blaze. I was traumatised.
I cried, the gamekeeper I was with cried and I doubted that I would be able to continue with my investigations. The one thing that kept me going was meeting the country men and women who do this every day. I could see they were good people in tune with nature. I was determined to learn their skills and do it properly.
But I had to ask myself, why I had not been taught before? My brothers were all taught how to shoot a gun as a matter of course – even if they showed no interest. The fact is that, even in the modern age, women are not expected to have these skills, so fewer do.
As I built up my skills, I realised there was no good reason for this. Shooting requires good physical fitness, accuracy and, most importantly, self-control – all things women can master as well as men. I cannot pretend I showed any particular talent, but I did manage to get good enough to shoot more rabbits, a squirrel, pigeons, pheasants, a wild sheep and a red deer stag – all without crying.
The question of how I felt psychologically is more complex. It sounds ridiculous to say I felt sad about it – if I felt that bad, I would not have done it – but I did, and that’s the point. I understood and accepted I was killing an animal and I had to take responsibility for that.
It is a difficult and dark fact to swallow, that for me is at the heart of the book. When you eat an animal, you take some part of the responsibility for its death. But in the age we live in, where you can pick a pretty package off a supermarket shelf, it is easy to forget that. I set out to show what it is really like. I am not saying everyone needs to kill an animal in order to eat meat, but you should understand where it came from.
Obviously it’s not realistic for everyone to eat game and so I also investigated how animals are raised and slaughtered on our behalf. This meant visiting farms and slaughterhouses. Most of the people who work there are men. It is a hard, physical job and it often runs in families from fathers to sons. But you’d be surprised at how many women also work in the industry, especially in the top tiers advising on animal behaviour as vets or as master butchers. Traditionally these jobs have been looked down upon, but I think if you want to eat meat you owe these men – and women – respect.
Meat has often been hijacked by a ridiculous macho image. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J Adams likens the farming of animals to the repression of women. She points to turkey breasts sold in ‘Double D’ size and the sexualised image of women’s bodies as ‘tasty rump’. She has a point but I think her overall theory goes too far; both men and women can enjoy eating meat and take responsibility for it. The sexualised image of meat is changing.
Today there are vegan cage fighters and vegan boxers. Mr Universe 2014 was a vegan, for heaven’s sake. Masculinity is no longer defined by eating steak. The average hipster is proud to be almost vegan, except for the occasional organic bacon and smashed avo on toast. Both men and women are cutting down on meat.
So, what do I call this new gender-neutral trend? Part-time vegetarian? Flexitarian? Meat reductionist? And then it struck me: we are the only species able to make choices about what we eat based on ethics. Choosing to only eat animals that have been raised and slaughtered humanely is neither male nor female, it is simply being a human.
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Louise Gray’s first book, The Ethical Carnivore is out now. She blogs at www.louisebgray.com, and is on Instagram as loubgray. Photo by Nancy MacDonald.